79 pages 2 hours read

Zadie Smith

White Teeth

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

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Symbols & Motifs


Teeth, which appear in both the novel’s title and the titles of several chapters, are perhaps the work’s most significant symbol. Broadly speaking, teeth represent people and the ways people relate to those around them and to their own pasts. Smith uses the image of teeth’s roots to evoke a connection to one’s personal, familial, and cultural history.

The clearest example of this is Smith’s use of the term “root canal” to refer to chapters that delve into her characters’ backstories. Similar symbolism appears throughout White Teeth. When Samad first grows concerned about the effects of Western society on his sons and resolves to instill a sense of tradition in them, he envisions this as a process of “[creating] for his boys roots on shore, deep roots that no storm or gale could displace” (161–62). Likewise, the narrator warns readers that Samad fails to consider that “the first sign of loose teeth is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums” (161), hinting at the ways Samad’s own anxieties and hypocrisies surrounding his ethnic and religious identity have already begun to spill over into the next generation.

It is significant, then, that Irie ultimately decides to be a dentist.