The Use Of Irony To Discuss Cultural Determinism In White Teeth

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In the 20th century, the World Wars led to the collapse of the imperial system, leaving behind massive global inequality, as well as the interconnected “global modern world system” (Carmack) that still exists today. This process lead to large-scale immigration from former colonies to Europe, a trend that gave rise to fears that immigrants from “foreign cultures” may not integrate and could change the national identities of these countries in some unwanted way. The philosophical concept this belief builds on is “cultural determinism”, the belief that “culture rather than nature or biology determines who we are at emotional and behavioral levels” (Young). While some leading scientists believe this notion lacks “scientific validity” (Barber), it appears to be widely held, as it forms the basis of the “increasing success” (Duyvendack) of anti-immigration populism in Europe and elsewhere.

Cultural determinism is arguably the main theme of Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel White Teeth. Although it predates the most recent wave of xenophobia in the West, its exploration of the phenomenon of cultural determinism has become more relevant than ever. Spanning most of the 20th century, this postcolonial family drama portrays the life stories of three generations of immigrants in London, interweaving them with those of non-immigrants. Throughout the novel, the protagonists must navigate the prejudices and identity conflicts that result from the cultural determinist mindset of their environment. They eventually realize that their struggles define their identity and not their culture; the struggle between assimilation and staying true to their roots creates a new, hybrid identity. Notably, Smith employs the literary device of irony to make entertaining, yet meaningful commentary on this issue. Specifically, Zadie Smith uses irony to show the falseness and nefariousness of cultural determinism, suggesting that rather than being predetermined by culture, identity undergoes a constant transformation, and numerous factors influence it.

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Analyzing the use of irony in the novel requires a precise definition of irony. When defining irony, it is important to recognize that “literary critics have come up with scores of names describing different types of ironies, and different ways in which irony is used. The uses of irony change throughout time” (Keller). The analysis will primarily examine three types of irony: verbal, situational, and cosmic. Scholars define verbal irony as “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect” (Hart-Davidson 1), while situational irony refers to “the actions of someone based on an expectation that lead directly to the outcome they wish to avoid” (1), and cosmic irony “blames god or fate for having a hand in our struggles” (1).

Arguably, the most bitter situational irony lies in the fact that immigrating to Britain, which Hortense Bowden and the Iqbals saw as a chance for a better life, comes at a great cost: the loss of their children’s cultural roots. Hortense Bowden tries to raise her daughter, Clara, deeply religiously, which leads to her becoming the target of bullying at school. Possibly in an effort to fit in, she resists her mother’s intentions for her to become a Jehovah’s Witness by marrying a secular, English war veteran named Archie Smith. Samad Iqbal has a similar experience, lamenting that “these days it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.” (Smith 215). This irony draws attention to a conundrum many immigrant families face. Avoiding ostracization by non-immigrant peers requires a certain degree of assimilation of immigrant children, but it sometimes forces them to alter, and therefore sacrifice part of their identity. While they become increasingly alienated from their country of origin, their host societies still view them as “enmeshed with their parents’ immigrant identity as the Other” (Turkson). A poignant example of this occurs when the British Chalfens ask Millat (Samad’s son) and Irie (Clara’s daughter), who have virtually assimilated into British society, where they are “originally” (325) from. The ironic image of hopeful immigrants who belong nowhere illustrates how defining immigrants through their often visible migrant background frequently causes exclusion, identity crises, and mental anguish.

Furthermore, Smith employs situational irony to expose the way some people justify cultural determinism with falsified historical narratives. As part of the Harvest Festival, Millat, Magid, and Irie visit the home of an elderly war veteran named Mr. J.P. Hamilton, who at first welcomes them politely. However, the situation sours when he scares the children with racist, brutal war stories from the Congo, recounting that the only way he “could identify a nigger was by the whiteness of their teeth. And they died because of it … stomachs open, guts across my feet” (Smith 172). Most importantly though, he accuses them of lying about Samad’s military service. When Millat proudly declares his father fought in the British Army, too, the former replies that he “must be mistaken. There were certainly no wogs as I remember… what would we have fed them?” (Smith 173). Clearly, Mr. Hamilton is revising history to manufacture historical evidence to support his racist, colonial-era attitudes. For his narrative to be sound, he needs to deny any facts that undermine it, which means denying the children’s connection to England and accusing them of rewriting history. This irony lampoons the (possibly deliberate) logical error of inferring “facts” from a preconceived narrative, rather than constructing a story based on facts. Smith implies that many people who argue for cultural determinism make it.

Similarly, the ironic circumstances of Samad’s decision to send one of his children back to Bangladesh suggest Smith parodies the notion of cultural determinism. Samad understandably resents the course life his life took, having gone from an overachieving, young man from a respected Pakistani family to a crippled immigrant in an unhappy, violent relationship. As a result, he takes refuge in pleasurable sins, violating the Islamic religious laws he holds dear. Initially, Samad only starts drinking, but eventually, he begins an adulterous affair with his sons’ attractive music teacher, which even many secular people would consider immoral. Interestingly, while Samad “grows more and more immoral, he wants his children to be traditional” (Meewisse). He concludes that his recent sins are “symptomatic of what the West is doing to his character, and this is what he wishes to save his children from” (Graaf). He reasons that “roots were what saved, the ropes one throws out to rescue drowning men, to Save Their Souls. And the further Samad himself floated out to sea, … the more determined he became to create for his boys roots on shore, deep roots that no storm or gale could displace” (198). As a result, he resolves to send one of his sons back. Cultural determinism clearly fails when applied to Samad, who was raised in Bengal, yet hardly respects his culture. Ironically, Samad subconsciously trusts that raising a son in Bengal will automatically imbue him with lasting traditional values.

Furthermore, the situational and cosmic irony of the contrast between Samad’s intentions for his sons and the actual outcomes has the effect of ridiculing Samad’s cultural determinism. When Samad sends Magid back to Bangladesh, he hopes he will develop a comfortable, traditional identity, convinced that he is acting in his best interests. Unexpectedly, though, Samad’s decision jeopardizes Magid’s safety. The 1985 ethnic violence in Bangladesh, where “body parts were taken from Muslim by Sikh, from Sikh by Hindu” and “a thousand people died” (325) in a few days, as well as a cyclone that destroys the town Magid lives in, leaving “bodies floating in the Bay of Bengal … ten thousand” (326) mean that he lives in constant danger. There lies a poignant situational irony in the fact that Samad’s good, but unrealistic intentions place his son in harm’s way. Concomitantly, Samad idealizes him, saying he is “capable of anything, a natural leader, a natural Muslim, a natural chief” (Smith 336). His opinion of Millat is equally clear:

He is the second son, late like a bus, late like cheap postage, the slowcoach, the catch up-kid, losing that first race down the birth canal, and now simply a follower by genetic predisposition, by the intricate design of Allah, the loser of two vital minutes that he would never make up, not in those all-seeing parabolic mirrors, not in those glassy globes of the godhead, not in his father’s eyes. (Smith 296)

However, contrary to Samad’s initial assessment, and to his horror, Magid grows into an atheist intellectual who strives to be as English as possible. He becomes so English that others view him as a “white-trousered Englishman” (Smith 375), a stereotype of Englishness. While both twins are successful in their own way, ironically, Millat fulfills his father’s expectations of Magid by doing something traditional and religious. He becomes a natural “chief”, much-respected by his fellow young men, takes an interest in Islamic scripture, and assumes leadership of KEVIN, an Islamic fundamentalist group (Samad disapproves of this, but it nevertheless shows that Millat feels some form of obligation to reclaim what he perceives to be his roots). Therefore, Samad’s attempt to influence the lives of his sons by immersing them in different cultures backfires. They develop the way they do because they take different routes through life, not because one has been raised to have clearer roots. This cosmic irony shows how viewing people’s identity primarily through the lens of cultural determinism, as Samad consistently does, is too reductive.

The allegory of the so-called FutureMouse, which dominates much of the ending section of the novel, reduces the anti-cultural-determinist essence of the novel to one ironic image. Marcus Chalfen, an eminent geneticist that “came within an inch of the Nobel” (318), genetically engineers a lab mouse so that it will develop a brain tumor and die after a certain amount of time has passed. This experiment is the epitome of determinism, inspired by the vision that one can predetermine “every step in the development of an organism: reproduction, food habits, life expectancy” (350), and that if “you eliminate the random, you rule the world” (351). At the end of the novel, all major characters gather in the room where Chalfen presents the project, either to watch or protest (notably, Millat stages a protest with some of his KEVIN colleagues). Understanding the complicated events that follow requires some context. When Samad and Archie are soldiers in World War Two, they become stranded in a Bulgarian village with a group of Russian soldiers. Determined to prove their heroism after effectively deserting, they participate in capturing a doctor named Ferret who had conducted medical experiments for the Nazis, “choosing who shall be born and who shall not, breeding people as if they were so many chickens, destroying them if the specifications are not correct” (121). After some argument, they decide to kill him, and Archie reluctantly agrees to do so himself. He takes him out of sight, but due to his hesitation and distracting himself by throwing a coin, the doctor grabs his gun, injures him, and escapes. Samad, who heard the shot, believes Archie’s lie that he killed the doctor. More than fifty years later, he recognizes the same man on stage with a panel of geneticists involved in the FutureMouse project, and it dawns on him that his lifelong friendship with Archie was built on a lie. He proceeds to curse Archie, while Millat, who brought a concealed gun into the building, takes aim at the doctor. Archie throws himself into the path of the bullet, is injured in the thigh a second time, and falls onto the glass case holding the FutureMouse, shattering it. In the following general chaos, the mouse escapes. The situational irony lies in the fact that the mouse was bred to prove life can be predetermined, yet in the end, circumstances free it, changing the course of its life in a way not intended by its creators. Another interesting level of situational irony appears in the fact that Archie saves the life of Ferret, whose life’s work consists of predetermining life, by randomly changing the experiment whose purpose was to eliminate randomness. Thus, total predetermination appears impossible. By extension, with this grand analogy, Smith portrays the belief that cultural upbringing predetermines human social behavior as fallacious.

Moreover, the ironic, unlikely inspiration for Millat’s attempted killing of the doctor highlights the complexity of his environment’s effect on his identity formation. One of the Iqbal’s ancestors was Mangal Pande, a leader of the 1857 Indian Rebellion against the British (a persona that remains little-known in Britain, despite Samad’s consistent effort to spread his story). As Millat prepares to shoot the doctor at the presentation of the FutureMouse, the narrator explains that “Millat is not following instructions, at least not the kind that is passed from mouth to mouth and written on pieces of paper. His is an imperative secreted in his genes and the cold steel in his inside pocket is the answer to a claim made on him long ago. He’s a Pandy deep down. And there’s mutiny in his blood” (Smith 526). Therefore, the scene marks the end of Millat’s long self-search. He discovers or decides on, depending on one’s philosophy, a rebellious identity, a return to his roots. Ironically, however, his inspiration is Al Pacino from the Godfather. He remembers that “no matter how long you pause the split second of Pacino reflecting, no matter how often you replay the doubt that crosses his face, he never does anything else than what he was always going to do” (Smith 527). Something with no relation to his roots inspires his vow to live them out. While Millat’s identity formation was influenced by the largely Western cultural conditions he was raised in, his interpretation of his environment, which reinforces his desire to reclaim his seemingly glorious, ancient roots, matters far more. Perhaps, this interpretation of the movie itself results from some environmental influence, however, a cultural determinist stereotype could hardly explain this complex effect.

Ergo, while acknowledging that one’s environment invariably affects one’s identity, Smith warns of the temptation to characterize that impact from an often oversimplified cultural determinist angle. Many people assume, as Samad does, that the culture one grows up in determines one’s general values, that a Bangladeshi youth in Bangladesh will develop a more traditional identity, and one in London a more assimilated one. However, the events of White Teeth demonstrate that the connection is not always so linear. Some people, like the Iqbal twins, rebel against their environments and develop in the opposite direction from most people in their culture entirely by their own choice. However, as touched upon above, one must note that the feelings behind their choices were shaped by their environments, too. Magid’s rejection of everything Eastern and subsequent development into a culturally Western person, for example, was rooted in his ambition to excel academically, and deep hurt he felt at the prejudice he experienced while still living in London. Millat, on the other hand, turned to religion because it gave him a source of identification and sense of purpose he lacked because of his environment. Smith implies the effect of the environment on identity is nearly impossible to predict accurately, a notion best illustrated by the FutureMouse irony. The experiment theoretically predetermines the mouse’s life but does not account for all variables like Archie breaking the glass case. Therefore, it appears nothing humans do definitively predetermines anything, because of the impossibility of accounting for all variables in one’s environment. Assuming fate exists and predetermines all events, as humans have no proven way of predicting fate, predicting the future perfectly would remain impossible.

The best conclusion from this philosophical excurse is the realization that life is complicated and that judging people according to oversimplified models like cultural determinism can have nefarious consequences. Millat turns into a terrorist, primarily because of his rejection by majority society, which in turn occurs due to the cultural determinist attitudes widely held there. David Cameron’s declaration that “state multiculturalism has failed” (Meewisse), and critics encouraging Britain “to abandon the dogma of multiculturalism” (Chittenden), identify a real problem. Societies that do not strive to create “a union out of diversity” (Young), in other words, multicultural ones, are demonstrably less effective than those that do. According to a major study by Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, “ethnically diverse societies have lower levels of social solidarity and social capital” (Young). Cultural determinism, which causes each culture within a multicultural society to judge others as a unit, contributes crucially to this division. In White Teeth, Smith’s ironies, from the Iqbal twins to Archie’s survival, show how coincidence changes people’s lives in strange and wonderful ways, which narrow cultural determinism seems inadequate to predict. Thus, the novel calls on people to regard others as individuals, and be cognizant of the dangers of a cultural determinist mindset. 

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