The Antithesis of Fate: Self-determination in White Teeth

In her novel, White Teeth, Zadie Smith argues against fate and the appearance of randomness that the concept of predestination brings along with it. Her counter-argument is the idea of self-determination and its consequences. Interweaving the ideas together one can see that she ultimately shows that fate has nothing to do with what transpires in life. Life is not random; it is the consequences of the ethical decisions people make. Smith illustrates how life is not random at all through such devices as Archie’s decision-making process, Marcus’s FutureMouse, and two identical twins that are nothing alike. The outcome of life’s seemingly random things is and will always come from self-determination. She takes a stand against fatalism by showing that the appearance of randomness is only the results of human beings themselves.

Archie’s decision-making process is the antithesis of self-determination. He cannot decide for himself. He is the true fatalist of the story, because he decides to let fate make his decisions for him. What he does not understand is that fate isn’t determining his moral decisions for him. Fate (if there is such a thing, which the novel argues against) is standing back and letting him live with the consequences of his own indecisiveness. The results of his indecisions show, throughout the story, that life is about the choices people make and how those decisions directly and indirectly affect the world around them.

Archie’s first flip of a coin, with the uncertainty he gains when faced with a choice, in the novel came when Magid needed help in his own ethical decision-making dilemma. Flipping the coin and letting it turn over “flashing its light and then revealing its dark enough times to mesmerize a man,” just the same as he did all those years ago, Archie was letting fate decide. (377) Still unaware that fate is not sitting at the table with him, “Archibald realized that it was not coming back to him at all but going behind him” because the coin’s “arc went wrong.” (377) Self-determination is all about fate stepping aside and letting things be, letting people make their own decisions. Archie was too bewildered by the odd turn of the coin to realize the life-altering development that fate was not determining things for him. The coin, landing “straight into the slot” never had a chance to give him his result, and still left Magid in a position to make a decision himself, without the help of Archie and without the help of fate. (377)

The first moment in Archie’s life when he had to use his unique decision-making method, Archie’s fate took a step back and said, “You can decide on this one. I’m not doing it.” This is what Smith wants to illustrate in her novel; life is about choices. There is no divine entity turning the coin one way or the other. The only thing at work here was Archie and Dr. Sick, and Archie and his decision. Dr. Sick spoke to Archie’s conscience by putting forward the predicament of the young French student, his sick mother, and the National Socialists, to which Archie replied, “At the end of the day, he’ll do the one he cares about more. Either he loves his country or his old mum.” (445) But, Archie did not take his own advice and “just do one and get on with it.” (445) He instead, made his very first ethical-decision-making-coin-flip. He took the route of the fatalist. Once again, the “coin rose and flipped as a coin would rise and flip every time in a perfect world…and the arc went wrong.” (447) Dr. Sick then decided to make the decision, the moral decision that would save his life and turn the events of Archie’s future into turmoil.

The future events that happened in Archie’s life could have been very different. If he had only done his duty to Samad and to England by making a decision to kill Dr. Sick then Marcus’s FutureMouse may not have ever come into existence, his second life-saving bullet wound would have been avoided, and Millat may have never been angry with Magid for helping with the FutureMouse project, which led to the second wound. Here, Smith states clearly, through the solitary event of Archie’s first coin flip, that the appearance of randomness is only the results of the decisions people make in life. Dr. Sick had figured out the definitive reality of this, “Man makes himself, after all. And he is responsible for what he makes.” (445) He told Archie how to be a man and how the universe operates. Moreover, Archie made that decision, a decision to not decide and let fate flip its decision into light, and the consequences changed his life and the lives of those around him.

Marcus’s FutureMouse project is a mechanism in the novel to show just how much that the random things in life cannot be controlled, because life is not random. No matter what genes are controlled or how long a person can live does not make them the person they will become. It is the choices they make or do not make that shape how reality turns out. The main argument against Marcus’s theory is Millat and Magid. Magid, the twin who spent the better part of his life in Bengal is “more English than the English,” and Millat, the twin who began with the Raggastani and moved on to the bow-tied KEVIN, are complete opposites. Magid had already converted to Chalfenism before he arrived in England through letters with Marcus in which he saw that Marcus spoke “my thoughts better than I ever could.” (304) KEVIN was influencing the alienated mind one of the second-generation of Bengali immigrants, Millat, by giving him leaflets that “were making things clearer.” (309) Millat was becoming the enraged Muslim and Magid was becoming the Englishman. Although both twins were born with the same genes, they were each other’s opposite. It is almost ironic that Magid joined in on the FutureMouse project, living first-hand the result of the project years before the theory could possibly be disproved. He was the counter-argument of the project himself, because he and Millat were the same genetically, yet they completely contrasted each other in their way of life.

Life seems random because it cannot be predicted, but the results are always influenced by the decisions people make. Mickey’s family “might not have kids wiv skin like the surface of the fucking moon,” but it won’t change the kind of people they become. (434) It won’t change any other outcome in their life, because, ultimately, when you get down to it, life isn’t fated to be one way or the other, it is all determined through the actions of people. Magid and Millat, living the idea of the perfect race (the race of the same people, the same genetic code), shaped very different futures. Their environment shaped their futures. It was through the choice of Samad, sending one son away and keeping the other, that the twins took different paths. Then the rest of it was up to them, to shape for themselves into the men they would become. Genetic code will not mold the future, but the environment and personal choices of that group of genes will.

Zadie Smith puts forth clear evidence that fate does not step in and change the outcome of existence. She protests the idea of fatalism by displaying the decisions (or non-decisions of Archie) of her characters and their outcomes. To say that life is random is to say that its inhabitants do not control the consequences of life to any degree. Smith evidently demonstrates through Archie’s indecisiveness, Marcus’s FutureMouse, and Magid and Millat’s genetic makeup that self-determination decides the outcome of life.  

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