Race plays an enormous but sometimes subtle role in Zadie Smith’s “The Waiter’s Wife.” It divides characters and it brings them together. Race is what distinguishes Whitechapel from Willesden, the two neighborhoods in which the Iqbals live once arriving in London. According to footnotes on pages 1238-1239, Whitechapel is a “poor district where people of Bangladeshi descent are the largest demographic group” and Whitechapel has “a more heterogeneous population.” While living in Whitechapel, Samad and Alsana were vulnerable to racist attacks from the National Front, a white supremacist group. Yet, once they move to a less racially-defined neighborhood, the attacks stop. Racial differences also play a role in Samad’s interactions with customers, who mispronounce the dish names and don’t care about what he has to say. Alsana also demonstrates racism against Clara in certain instances, such as her first impression of her on page 1238 and the way she talks about her while fighting with Samad on page 1242 (Smith). This reinforces the fact that people within a minority group can hold prejudices against other minority groups.
Class is also a driving force in the story. Smith outlines the Iqbals’ year-long struggle to move into a better neighborhood on page 1239, describing how Alsana had to sew clothing she didn’t recognize and Samad’s experiences as a waiter. Page 1239 mentions that Samad was unable to find a job as a food inspector, which forced him to become a waiter. While making fun of him, Shiva also reveals that Samad attended Delhi University, so it’s likely that Samad was qualified for the job but was turned down for other reasons—perhaps for being an immigrant (1240). This suggests that race and class are intertwined, each affecting the other.
Though not quite as prominent as the others, war is an underlying theme within the story. Samad and Archie met while fighting in World War II and, despite their differences, became extremely close friends. Alsana also notes the husbands’ war experiences by describing them as having “One leg in the present, one in the past…Their roots will always be tangled” (Smith, 1248). Toward the end of the story, when the three women are talking to Sol Jozefowicz, there’s a subtle nod to the character’s personal experience during World War II. As the footnote on page 1247 explains, Sol Jozefowicz is Jewish and Eastern European. According to Namespedia, Jozefowicz appears to be a surname mainly found in Poland. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, states, “On the eve of the German occupation…3.3 million Jews lived [in Poland]. At the end of the war, approximately 380,000 Polish Jews remained alive, the rest having been murdered…” (2019). When Alsana asks Sol on page 1247, “The murder of innocents—is this funny?”, it’s clear that the question reminds him of the atrocities he and his family faced during the war.
Gender has one of the most profound impacts on the story. It dictates the expected roles and duties for the characters and creates conflict when they are not carried out as they “should” be. Samad criticizes Alsana for not cooking homemade meals like his mother did, while Alsana tells Neena and Clara that each new thing she learns about Samad makes her like him less. Alsana refers to Neena as “Niece-Of-Shame,” and though it’s never stated what Neena did to bring shame, my guess would be that she did something to break traditional gender roles. Neena also discusses her aversion to the idea of having boys because of the destruction they have caused throughout history, especially with the World Wars. The division between men and women has a strong presence within the story.
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