Contemporary Lit Discussion Prompt: As we conclude White Teeth, it is a good idea to practice our skills at close reading. Close reading is a technique of literary criticism practiced originally by the New Critics in the early part of the 20th Century. The basic principle of the technique is the use the text (and as they saw it only the text) to come to some conclusion(s) about the possible meaning of the text. Later critical trends will adopt the idea of close reading but begin to include outside information in their analysis of the text. For this post, choose a paragraph (or two) from the final section of the novel to close read (you will see this post repeat for most of the texts we read in this class). In the typical 1-2 page response, explore how the novel creates meaning through the paragraphs you’ve chosen to explore. This is best accomplished by relying on first impressions and seeking patterns in the text. Look for moments of repetition, for contradictions, similarities, figurative language, sound, genre, allusion, ambiguity, difficulty, diction (what words stand out? Why?). Use what you discover to tie in with the rest of the novel (and what we’ve talked about “outside” the novel–contemporary trends, etc. Make a concise argument about how the techniques above create a specific meaning.
Here are some helpful websites if you’re not familiar with the technique:
Katelyn Lucas’s Response: So while reading this section of White Teeth, I came across a lot of quotes that reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This could just be because I have an obsession with that novel, but nonetheless, it is part of my reader’s response, and it will be chronicled below.
There’s this recurring theme in White Teeth about questioning the idea of progress. One place that we see it is when Marcus is talking to the girl reading his book at the airport, and she says, “They talk about progress…they talk about leaps and bounds in the field of medicine yada yada yada, but bottom line, if somebody knows how to eliminate ‘undesirable’ qualities in people, do you think some government’s not going to do it? I mean, what’s undesirable?…I mean, if you’re an Indian like me you’ve got something to worry about, yeah?” (Smith 346). Here, she hits on the idea of this modern concept of “progress” and science for the sake of science, suggesting that it should perhaps not necessarily be considered inherently positive. She seems wary of these advancements in science and the implications they can have on society, worried at how influential the ability to alter the genetic qualities of people is, and what that will mean for humanity. All of which, are also crucial questions raised by the dystopia in Huxley’s Brave New World. But what is perhaps more pertinent in terms of White Teeth is how the girl frames this conversation within her own world view, relating these ideas directly back to their implications on her reality, our reality (in a way, though I know this is fiction so though it is still not our reality it is closer to reality than BNW) as opposed to discussing them in a fictional dystopia. And she does this by asserting the fact that Indians specifically should be worried about this type of progress and asking what does undesirable mean. This statement demonstrates that she has an awareness that there are power structures in place affecting what the majority of society perceives is acceptable, what is deemed desirable, and those power structures are the same that are oppressing her culture as an Indian, thereby making her worried about what this sort of progress would mean for her as she does not fit into the ideal enforced by the oppressors, who will inevitably be the ones who are going to be controlling this technology. And this is a theme that recurs in the novel suggesting that Smith is perhaps trying to use these moments to make a critique about progress in our actual reality, and the issues with how things like desire and standards are defined in our society.
We can see the problematic mindset of the oppressive culture in Marcus and his response to science and progress as it is said that “he was no student of history (and science had taught him that the past was where we did things through a glass, darkly, whereas the future was always brighter, a place where we did things right or at least right-er), he had no stories to scare him concerning a dark man meeting a white man, both with heavy expectations, but only one with the power” (Smith 349). This shows how ignorant Marcus is to the discrimination that other cultures face in his society, an ignorance he can only have because his culture is not the target but rather the oppressive force imposing these restrictions on the immigrating cultures. Thus, he is the one with the power to influence Magid in their relationship that is mentioned in the quote, he is the privileged one living in ignorance, his ignorance making his belief that the future is always becoming “right-er” even more problematic because he is blinded to the issues right in front of him.
Furthermore, continuing with this idea, the plight of the animals that Marcus is conducting his experiments on is repeatedly referenced. For example, the girl from the airport says “And then they’re planting cancers in poor creatures; like, who are you to mess with the make-up of a mouse? Actually creating an animal just so it can die—it’s like being God!” (Smith 346). In this way, the animals’ struggle for agency seems to be used as a symbol in the novel to parallel the struggles that many of the immigrants are facing upon coming to England. They are unjustly stereotyped and oppressed by the dominant culture upon their arrival affecting their success in this new country not unlike a scientist trying to play god and unjustly destroying the lives of a bunch of mice as if they’re insignificant. Again, this reminded me of BNW because the dominant power in that novel created an entire subordinate race to do their dirty work, acting as if their lives were insignificant just because they programed them to be so, as if they have the right to do whatever they want with human beings because they can.
And lastly, we have this quote:
“’You belong nowhere…you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie…and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?’ As Samad described this dystopia with a look of horror, Irie was ashamed to find that the land of accidents sounded like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom.” (Smith 337).
I’m not really sure how I feel about this quote yet, but I think it sort of relates to everything else I’ve been talking about and it reminded me of BNW again because it mentioned dystopias. When I read BNW in high school, my class had a debate about whether or not the world described in the novel was a good place or not, whether we would want to live in it or not. And I was appalled to find that the majority of my class actually thought BNW was great, that they wanted to live in it. I think this conversation from White Teeth is somewhat similar. Irie seems to prefer the anti-BNW, a place where roles are not defined at birth, and accidents are still possible. She’s okay with the unknown, and I resonate with that. And beyond that, I think this symbolizes how she’s coming to terms with the reality of the fluidity of identity, and that this recognition of the multiple facets of existence in the world is actually freedom. And I think this is because she is of a more modern generation than Samad, who looks at this as a dystopian world with horror. I don’t really think that this means Samad is at the complete other end of the spectrum though, like asking for a BNW or anything. I’m not actually sure what it means at all. I thought I had a point there, and it may have been lost. It’s getting late. Does anyone else have any thoughts?
My response to her response: I agree that the way Marcus is playing God with the animals can be compared to the way the society in which Samad is living is playing God in he way that their progress is hurtful, suppressing, and controlling to the Indians of their country. Societies progress is causing a dystopia for the Indians, where they will never be happy, or truly actually be the paradise that they imagine themselves to be in, the progress of society is in a way playing god and trying to control the way the Indians live. In this same way that Marcus is injecting and hurting the animals, trying to control them and live the way he wants to be living rather then letting them do what and live the way they want. They have been forced into a society that no longer wants them, where they no longer matter. They have to find a new identity as outsiders in the progress of society and come to terms with the fact that they are now becoming outsider. They are starting to be seen as not belonging on this world. They are truly living in a dystopia that does not welcome them and forces them to be outsiders who don’t belong there. The fact that they were living where they were welcome in society and belonged where they were was all a lie that they made up themselves and believed so hard that they soon thought it was actually the truth. The paradise that they were living in was all a lie that they believed in so hard that they started thinking that what they had made was the truth and was actually there in front of them in a tangible way. They were being oppressed and controlled in their society as if their lives were insignificant just because they were Indians, the same way Marcus was oppressing and controlling the animals as if their lives were insignificant just because they were animals. They are finding that the way that they think society was treating them and welcoming them was a complete lie that they believed was true therefore they suddenly not become insignificant and outsiders and need to come to terms with the way society actually views them as meaningless.