‘He Wished to Defend a Country That Wasn’t His’: British Subjects/British Servicemen in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Andrea Levy’s Small Island

Citation metadata

Author: Michael Perfect
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,807 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date 2016) In the following essay, Perfect discusses Levy’s Small Island alongside Smith’s White Teeth (2000), observing their portrayals of colonial subjects who served Britain in World War II. Perfect concludes that these novels suggest that understanding the war is key to understanding “contemporary, multicultural British society.”]

In a section of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth1 (2000) that takes place in 1984, three nonwhite, British-born children who are not yet ten years old—black British Irie Jones and British Asian twins Millat and Magid Iqbal—are, as part of their school’s celebration of Harvest Festival, enlisted in a project of helping their local community. The three are “assigned” (161) to a Mr. J. P. Hamilton of Kensal Rise, an elderly man to whom they are to deliver charitable donations of various, largely canned foodstuffs. When they arrive at Hamilton’s house, their arms full of their offerings, Hamilton appears and is alarmed to be “confronted on his doorstep by three dark-skinned children clutching a myriad of projectiles” (168). It is immediately made clear that Hamilton is a war veteran, and a proud one at that; he has “four argent medals perched just above his heart,” and even his choice of cigarette brand seems to have been determined by his dedication to the British armed forces: he has the “silver rim of a Senior Service packet peeping over [his] breast pocket” (169).

Initially anxious that the children might attempt to rob him, Hamilton eventually invites them into the “town house gloom of his hall” with its “battered and chipped Victoriana” (170) and leads them to his living room, offering them tea. Disappointedly professing that he is unable to eat the vast majority of the items that the children have brought him because of his false teeth, Hamilton begins—in a passage to which the novel’s title refers directly—to talk about teeth more generally and about his experiences serving in the army during the war:

“Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery, it was. And they died because of it, you see? Poor bastards. Or rather I survived, to look at it in another way, do you see?” … “Those are the split decisions you make in war. See a flash of white and bang! as it were … Dark as buggery. Terrible times. All these beautiful boys lying dead there, right in front of me, right at my feet. Stomachs open, you know, with their guts on my shoes. Like the end of the bloody world. Beautiful men, enlisted by the Krauts, black as the ace of spades; poor fools didn’t even know why they were there, what people they were fighting for, who they were shooting at. The decision of the gun. So quick, children. So brutal. Biscuit?”(171-72)While Hamilton’s racism and his graphic description of the horrors...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123952