35 pages 1 hour read

Zadie Smith

The Waiter’s Wife

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1999

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Modernity Versus Tradition

The Iqbals’ immigration to Britain forces them to grapple with their differing views on modernity and tradition. They meet in a traditional way: through an arranged marriage. Neena—arguably the most modern character in the story—questions how Alsana “could […] bear to marry someone [she] didn’t know from Adam” (Paragraph 94). To Alsana, arranged marriage was “by far the easier option” (Paragraph 95). While Neena believes that a marriage should be a partnership of equals and that husbands and wives should share their most intimate thoughts, Alsana dismisses this philosophy as faddish nonsense. She liked her husband best when she met him, hours before the wedding. Now, she says, the more she learns about him, the less she likes him.

Immigrating to Britain forces the Iqbals to confront the tensions between modernity and tradition—opposing forces that must work together to make cultural assimilation possible. This tension works in both directions: While the prevailing values of late-20th-century London sometimes strike Alsana as distressingly modern, her very presence in England strikes the members of the racist National Front gang as a modern affront to their idea of traditional British identity.

Alsana supports the family (a modern thing for a woman to do) by sewing (a traditional thing for a woman to do).