White Teeth Essays

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"Oh fuck me, another leaflet? You can't fucking move-pardon my French-but you can't move for leaflets in Norf London these days" (373). Leaflets, brochures, letters, and other forms of publication and circulation are recurrent motifs in White Teeth (much to the annoyance of people like Abdul-Mickey) and Zadie Smith explores the humorous and poignant results of her characters' struggles to communicate. Smith characters have causes, and throughout her narrative they fruitlessly and comically attempt to press their own beliefs on others, refute others' beliefs, and convert others to the correct way of thinking. Leaflets and other forms of publication are the tools they use to proliferate their ideologies and-as Ryan Topps declares to Marcus Chalfen, "Myself and yourself are at war. There can only be one winner"-there is only room for one correct interpretation (421). Not surprisingly, these attempts to proselytize backfire and are ultimately unsuccessful. In Smith's world, ideology is the culprit responsible for the most divisive differences between her characters and their most unyielding Manichean prejudices. Smith is not implying that ideology is a negative thing, but rather, that the attempt to exhort one's individual beliefs on others is a waste of energy, because everyone has a different interpretation of truth that varies according to their own experiences, histories, and ideals. In White Teeth, ideological circulation is literally circular, because the vast majority of people are too obdurate to even listen to others' views, much less alter their own belief systems. The inflexible and almost fanatic nature of belief, as well as the relentless need of different factions to publicize their opinions regardless of the result, reveals that something about ideology resists reality, that common sense does not carry over to the world of credo. Even letters sound like they are composed more for the addressor than to the addressee. Horst Ibelgaufts frequently sends letters to Archie Jones detailing mundane and random occurrences in his life (which Archie doubtlessly does not care to hear), from "I am building a crude velodrome" (13) to "I am taking up the harp" (14) to "each of my children has a vase of peonies on their windowsill" (163). Ibelgaufts also repeatedly offers Archie unasked-for advice and anecdotes from his own life that only he understands, and consequently, his letters sound as if written to a brick wall. Moreover, when Marcus and Magid write, it sounds as if they are addressing mirror images of themselves, vainly reflecting their shared ideas. Marcus: "You think like me. You're precise. I like that." Magid: "You put it so well and speak my thoughts better than I ever could." Clearly, if Marcus and Magid did not think so much alike, there could never be "such a successful merging of two people from ink and paper despite the distance between them" (304). Smith's characters have insatiable drives to communicate, but more often than not, communication fails because there is no mutual or reciprocal response. Communication is most successful, as in the case of Marcus and Magid, when it challenges nothing, when it merely confirms previously held believes. Why, then, do people feel the need to publicize even when no one will listen? Smith writes, "[Samad] had instead the urge, the need, to speak to every man, and like the Ancient Mariner, explain constantly, constantly wanting to reassert something, anything. Wasn't that important" (49)? Perhaps, as Smith seems to suggest, people have a heightened sense of their own importance. Because Hortense believes her daughter Clara is "the Lord's child, Hortense's miracle baby" (28) she forces Clara to "help her with doorstepping, administration, writing speeches, and all the varied business of the church of Jehovah's Witnesses...This child's work was just beginning" (29). For Hortense, "those neighbors, those who failed to listen to your warnings...shall die that day that their...
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