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Biculturalism in NW

clarsen's picture

Zadie Smith’s novel NW is very much a story of struggle that explores dilemmas between several couples and friends.  Two marriages Smith focuses on are Leah and Michel’s and Natalie and Frank’s.  One of the most influential aspects between the couples is their biculturalism.  Nearly all characters face an identity crisis but none so much as Frank and Leah which has a great deal to do with the barriers in each relationship put up by communication problems.   Both Frank and Michel are described in the novel as being “very European” and having a drastically different upbringing.  Due to this large difference, they often have difficulty expressing themselves and understanding others.

            “They were married before they were friends, which is another way of saying: Their marriage was the occasion of their friendship” (Smith 27).  Leah and Michel initially married due to mutual attraction, which eventually developed into a more agreeable and intellectual relationship.  Leah goes on to say that she was slightly disappointed that their differences didn’t “cause a real conflict between them” (Smith 27).  Although it didn’t directly lead to arguments or disagreements, Michel’s background often served as an annoyance to Leah and created a boundary between the couple.  Several times in the novel Michel complains about the croissants or bread made saying that they would have been so much better in France.  His complaints not only serve as an annoyance to Leah but they’re very insulting.  It’s almost as though Michel is saying his life in France was better than his new life with Leah.

            When spending time among her friends with Michel, Leah often finds herself annoyed and embarrassed for him.  Michel questions Frank and Natalie about work, which in turn makes Leah uncomfortable.  “Michel nods seriously, taking this advice to heart.  He can’t see it, as Leah does.  The way Natalie taps her finger on the garden table and looks at the sky as she speaks.  He can’t see that we’re boring them, and they wish they were free of us, of this old obligation.  He won’t shut up, he says…” (Smith 69).  His different background prevents him from picking up certain social implications.  I’ve noticed that my father, who was born and raised in Haiti, faces similar challenges when speaking to American friends.  Often it is difficult for him to pick up on sarcasm, jokes, or other social clues.  Along with social imperfections, Leah is additionally very concerned with Michel’s poor English, which makes her cringe over dinner with Michel and Leah.  Michel’s obliviousness greatly agitates Leah and makes her feel inferior to Natalie’s “perfect” family.

            When Natalie first noticed Frank in college, she was drawn to the way he was dressed and spoke.  Nearly the polar opposite of her high school boyfriend, Frank wore very adventurous attire that made him stand out.  Natalie labeled him as complex, interesting, and even stated that she could see herself spending the rest of her life with him.  “Where she had once seen only obnoxious entitlement Natalie now saw anxiety running straight and true beneath everything” (Smith 257).  Frank’s nerves and severely different upbringing combine to “make a fool of himself” (Smith 258) in Natalie’s eyes.

            Frank was raised in a very privileged family, which often makes Natalie feel inferior and self-conscious.  When explaining her family’s financial problems and situation he has little sympathy and does not understand how difficult it is to escape the life you are born into.   His lack of understanding leads her to keep secrets from him.