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NW Revisited

tflurry's picture

Although at first glance the chapter naming system in NW, by Zadie Smith, seems almost arbitrary, there is an underlying intent behind the chapter-nomenclature. This paper intends to examine how the Natalie and Leah’s reactions towards their pasts are revealed through the chapter titles within their sections of the book: Visitation and Host.


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. She does not necessarily desire objectivity; she does not necessarily even consider the past that much better than the present, although it is clear that in many ways she does. She wants to stay in a fixed point in time, because she more or less likes her life, and she does not want it to change. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines visitation as “an official or formal visit, in particular 1. (in church use) an official visit of inspection. 2. The appearance of a divine or supernatural being. 3. A gathering with the family of a deceased person before the funeral.” The title of this section is fitting, then: Leah is constantly examining and re-examining her past, visiting it, and sometimes visited by it, as if it could offer some form of divine protection or favor. In doing so, she has in many ways refused to go on living, preferring to try and stay stationary 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 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, and that it will keep showing up throughout life. In the chapter, the scene shifts to contemporary Leah, frozen with indecision or fear, as she considers approaching the people squatting in Number 37 Ridley Avenue. Leah can not convince herself to confront these new intruders, to admit that squatters had moved in, that something had changed; much safer, much simpler, to go on as if it had never been, and to absorb her self with the past. If she approaches these intruders, then she will be forced to admit that they did not used to be there. If she approaches the intruders, she will force them to respond, and they might not respond well; that is another reason she hesitates, out of fear of that response and what it might do, what it might change. “What would she do with 37 lives!”. (46) If she had assurance that things would not change if she confronted the men, this comment implies that she might approach them. This sort of promise is not actually uncommon for Leah, either: throughout the book, she finds herself thinking about how she would act if only something or another were different. Were something to change, however, she would not actually act differently than she did before the change: this is part of Leah’s unwillingness to inspire change, her desire to live in the past.


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 fondly remembers the before and the after of her first abortion. Again, the chapter 37 is as she attempts to forestall the future; Leah reasons that if she does not have a child, then it will always be Leah-and-Michel, just the two of them. “She doesn’t want to ‘go forward.’ For Leah, that way is not forward. She wants just him and her forever.” (103) Even before Olive’s death, she does not come into the conversation when Leah imagines her future joyful static life with Michael. That is her idea of paradise: the two of them, enjoying each other, with no one else to intrude or disrupt their happiness.


The third 37 is a mere page, a rant 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 presents it as if the same is true of the Black Madonna, but the her ‘stable place in time’ is centuries ago. This Black Madonna 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 Visitation, is notable for several reasons. To begin with, all the other chapter headings of the chapter 37s in this book were formatted differently. While most chapter headings were formatted bold with a period following, the chapter 37s were formatted italicized and free-floating, with the exception of this last chapter 37. In this last chapter, the heading is formatted to match the other numbered chapters thus far; this effectively foreshadows that while all the previous chapter 37s discussed Leah’s obsession with events prior to the book, the last chapter 37 covers her preoccupation with the events that occurred within the book; specifically, with Shar. This is reflected by chapter title’s formatting; while the chapter number is 37, indicating Leah’s chokehold on past events, the formatting is in the same format as the rest of the story’s chapters, as thus the other contemporary events, are.


By contrast, consider Keisha and Natalie’s section, Host. Host is the third section in the book: its “chapters” are of varying length, numbered and labeled in chronological order with a brief title to describe the contents or importance of the story covered in the chapters. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines host as “1. A person who receives or entertains other people as guests. 2. An animal or plant on which a parasite or commensal organism lives”. This is fitting for Natalie’s section. On the one hand, she ‘hosts’ the past through the various stories in her chapters, the stories flashing by like faces of people in a party, Natalie giving them just enough attention to greet them as they come in the door. On the other hand, Natalie is preyed on by her past, and has a mutually productive relationship with Keisha, Natalie’s other personality: she is, in effect, both types of host. Natalie’s chapters are in the expected order, with one exception: there is no chapter 37. Considering that most of the chapters in Host are connected to each other at least tangentially, and that chapter 36 was about Keisha not wanting to date a certain boy, and 38 was titled “On the other hand”, with merely the line “Beggars can’t be choosers”, this would suggest that perhaps the missing chapter 37 told the story of how Keisha and Rodney started dating. More to the point, Natalie, who tries so hard to ignore the past and forget where her roots come from, has thus lost chapter 37 as well. The closest thing to a chapter 37 is chapter 24, “The number 37”. This is fitting, for within this chapter Natalie remembers when Leah first took a train to Camden Lock Lot and the friends from Caldwell, who seem to be part of the reason Leah and Natalie grew to have such different personalities, and grew apart. Clearly, Natalie’s chapters, sometimes titled with a sentence, sometimes with a single word or a line of URL, focus on tales and memories. They follow one train of thought into another, never staying on one story for long. This mutability is similarly reflective of her desire to forget the past; she shows these traits within her stories, but also in how easily and quickly she throws away a story idea before moving onto the next one. 37 is important in Visitation due to its presence, but its importance in Host is due to its absence.


Only one idea repeats within the chapter titles: chapters 73 and 96 were both titled “The sole author”, and both reflect on some aspect Natalie as a person who made herself who she is through conscious decisions. This further emphasizes the desire to forget her past, because she deliberately seeks to separate herself from it, mold her self apart from it. Contrast this to Leah, who heard the line “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me” (3) almost before readers met her. Leah was drawn to that line, even tried to write it out to keep: all her pencil could write out was “I am the sole author”, refusing to adequately mark the magazine page with more. Leah was drawn to this aspect of the past, just as Natalie was repelled by it.


Although the chapter titles within Smith’s NW appear random at first, it quickly becomes clear that there is a code at work. In Visitation, all the chapter titles are numbers, and a chapter is only titled “37” when Leah clings to the past; in Host, there is no chapter number 37 at all, and the title “The sole author” is when Natalie steers her ship away from the past. In Visitation, Leah hears the quote “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me”, while in Host, “The number 37” is the train that introduced Leah to the people who would help her drift away from Natalie. On close examination, it seems obvious that the chapter titles in Zadie Smith’s NW help declare the attitude the character in question has towards their past.




Works Cited:

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

The New Oxford American Dictionary