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37: An Anchor to the Past

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Although at first glance the chapter numbers of Visitation, the first section of NW by Zadie Smith, seems almost arbitrary, there is an underlying intent behind the chapter-nomenclature intended to draw specific focus to how Leah thinks, and her desire to stay firmly planted in a position in the past.

The first section, Visitation, focuses on Leah, who desires very much to appear ordinary, and would like nothing so much as to stay still, living in a certain point in time. Of the 27 chapters within the section, they are organized in the very typical, traditional Arabic number system, with only four exceptions; there are four separate occasions where the numbering system skips a chapter; instead of the chapters lining up 17 – 18 – 19, they instead read 17 – 37 – 18. These chapters 37 seem to correspond with chapters wherein Leah attempts to forestall the future. The first chapter 37 is between chapters 11 and 12, and is only a page long. Therein Leah remembers a former true-love telling her that humans are naturally drawn to the number 37, that it will keep showing up. The second half of the page describes Leah, frozen with indecision or even fear, as she considers approaching the people squatting in Number 37 Ridley Avenue, while on her way to pick up a new couch. Leah can not convince herself to confront these new intruders, to admit that something has changed; much safer, much simpler, to go on as if it had never been. More to the point, she finds herself wrapped up in, absorbed by, this old idea from a previous love, to the point that it affects her life. “Watch for 37, the girl said, in our lotteries, our game-shows, our dreams and jokes, and Leah did, and Leah still does. Remember to me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine” (46). Leah has not moved on from this girl, or from the ideas she preached, and finds herself circling around them even now.

The next chapter 37 occurs between chapters 15 and 16, wherein Leah, unable to find any ‘discrete home remedy’, finds herself at a suspect clinic as she remembers her first abortion; rather, she remembers the before and the after, and she remembers it fondly. An ex lover, another female, accompanied her to the clinic- sat with her as she went under the anesthetic, and kissed her forehead as she came up. It was comforting to Leah, calming to have that “painless death rehearsal” (65); the events of this chapter describe her memory of her first abortion, and the entrance into this, her third. Again, the chapter 37 is as she attempts to forestall the future; for perhaps, Leah reasons, if she does not have a child, then it will always be Leah-and-Michel, just the two of them. That is what she would like most.

The third 37 is a mere page, a rant Leah imagined spoken by the Black Madonna, chastising her for her attempts to escape and avoid the past. The irony of this rant is that Leah has been actively seeking out the past, a stable place in time, for the entirety of the book up to this point; the diatribe almost makes it sound as if the same is true of the Madonna, but the Madonna’s ‘stable place in time’ is centuries ago. The rant recalls the majesty of the Madonna, the power and timelessness; “Unruly England of the real life, the animal life! Of the old church, of the new, of a time before churches” (83). This Madonna in many ways embodies the timelessness quality that Leah desires for herself, the feeling of a world stood still. Again, chapter 37 is where Leah finds herself drawn into the past and anchored there.

The last chapter 37, also the last chapter in the section is interesting among the chapter 37s in this section. To begin with, all the other chapter headings of the chapter 37s in this book were formatted differently. While most chapter headings were formatted as ( 1. ), the chapter 37s were formatted ( 37 ); all apart from this most recent chapter. In this last chapter, the heading formatted ( 37. ), matching the other numbered chapters thus far; in this way, Smith foreshadows how the purpose of this chapter 37 differs from the other 37s. While all the previous chapter 37s discussed Leah’s obsession with events prior to the book, the last 37 covers her preoccupation with the events that occurred within the book; specifically, with Shar. In the chapter, Leah goes to pick up some pictures from a party she attended, and is accidentally handed Shar’s photos instead. She is enraged when Michel does not believe her retelling of the past; mad to the point of insane yelling, insanity. Even as her life goes on, she clings to what has already happened. This is reflected in the formatting of the chapter title; while the number is 37, indicating her chokehold on past events, the formatting is in the same format as the rest of the story’s chapters, as the contemporary events, are.

Throughout the section, the chapters numbered in the regular way are periodically interrupted by chapters numbered 37; a close reading of the text reveals that these chapters 37 are key moment in protagonist Leah’s everyday life, when she clings so strongly to the past that she almost lives it again.




Works Cited:

Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin Group, 2012. Print.