The Literal and Figurative Meanings of Teeth in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One and Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan’s Washington Post Article

In Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, teeth are frequently discussed. In a literal sense, teeth serve as the weapon of the undead, known as skels, and thus act as the greatest source of fear among survivors. The living also possess teeth, yet the bony structures in their jaws have a more symbolic value that those of the skels. While Whitehead describes undead teeth in a literal manner to convey the physical danger that they pose to survivors, the teeth of living humans represent their socioeconomic status both in memories of pre-apocalyptic American society and even to an extent during the catastrophe. The socially constructed American hierarchy that ranks people according to the quality of their teeth is not limited to Zone One. Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan’s Washington Post article “The Painful Truth about Teeth” indicates that it is a pervasive phenomenon in the present-day United States. Teeth themselves are not incredibly significant, but they are commonly used as visible measures of socioeconomic status. This is due to the expensiveness of dental care that working-class people can rarely afford. Nevertheless, similar to Zone One’s division of the meaning of teeth into literal and figurative levels, the Washington Post article does not suggest that teeth only have symbolic importance. Rather, there are also severe health consequences associated with lacking access to dental care. Therefore, there is an analogous divide between the literal and figurative depictions of teeth in the Washington Post article and Zone One. Although teeth are denoted differently in the two works, their role as a symbol of socioeconomic status is similar in both texts.

            The teeth of the skels in Zone One are their means of mutilating and infecting living humans and thus are a central focus of survivors’ fear and disgust. For instance, while the protagonist Mark Spitz was fending of a group of undead during a sweep of an office building, in reference to the skels Mark Spitz described, “They were a legion of teeth and fingers.” After he and his comrades eliminated the skels, Mark Spitz continued to notice the wretched state of their teeth. For example, Whitehead relates Mark Spitz’s observations, “He looked into her black teeth…The Marge’s broken teeth tilted hideously from its gums.” Thus, the teeth of the undead are an immediate threat to the survival of humans and are therefore portrayed in a very real and literal sense.

On the contrary, when the teeth of living people are mentioned in Zone One, their literal interpretation is surpassed by their metaphorical significance. Rather than being an indicator of socioeconomic status in the apocalyptic world, following the catastrophe, teeth are a sign of a person’s pre-apocalypse level of wealth. This is due to the plague’s equalizing effect on survivors by producing almost universal poverty. Therefore, with the decline of many prior members of the upper and middle classes to a level of economic impoverishment, ordinary survivors rely on prior socioeconomic identities which were partially signified by teeth condition. For instance, Mark Spitz’s comrade Gary is characterized as being working-class prior to the plague, and consequently his lower socioeconomic status is preserved during the disaster in Mark Spitz’s thoughts. These thoughts characterize aspects of Gary as being symbolic of a working-class individual including the poor quality of his nails and teeth. Mark Spitz described Gary as, “…baring his gray teeth in a line.” The appraisal of teeth as an expression of one’s former socioeconomic group was not only conducted by ordinary survivors. Instead, American hegemonic culture that correlated perfect, white teeth with high socioeconomic standing was preserved by corporations and the nascent government based in Buffalo, the American Phoenix. For example, one of the government’s commercial sponsors exhibited the white teeth ideal that emblematizes the upper-class and its corresponding dominance. Whitehead reported Mark Spitz’s observations, “He picked up one of the items inside: a combat helmet, the back of which had been branded with a butched-up drawing of the famous kid-show armadillo. The varmint made a muscle, bicep curving formidably, as he chomped a cigar butt between square white teeth.” Hence, in Zone One both the American Phoenix government and common survivors preserve the pre-apocalyptic American societal use of teeth as a representation of socioeconomic status.

Jordan and Sullivan’s Washington Post article suggests that the dichotomy between the literal and figurative meanings of teeth is not confined to Zone One, yet instead is present in modern-day American society. Unlike Zone One’s emphasis on the danger of skels’ literal teeth, the Washington Post article indicates the importance of literal teeth to living humans due to the negative health effects of being denied dental care. For example, Jordan and Sullivan explain, “Poor oral health can lead to heart disease and other serious medical problems, and tooth loss can lead to depression and difficulty eating and speaking.” However, Zone One and the Washington Post article comparably exemplify the role of teeth in mainstream American culture as a symbol of socioeconomic status. For instance, Jordan and Sullivan elucidate, “Straight, white teeth are associated with social success — just about everyone on TV or with a big job has them. People drop $2,000 per tooth on porcelain veneers to hide the smallest imperfections.” Thus, in the Washington Post article teeth have a different literal significance than they do in Zone One, but the idea of a person’s teeth as being representative of their socioeconomic level is similar in the two works.

Jordan and Sullivan’s Washington Post article and Whitehead’s Zone One illustrate that teeth are a highly visible and thus frequently noticed feature of people. The importance of teeth is amplified in Zone One due to their function as the weapon of the undead. Yet while the literal significance of teeth changed during the zombie apocalypse, its figurative meaning as a sign of socioeconomic status is maintained. Therefore, Whitehead’s Zone One indicates the tenacity of socially constructed aspects of American society even in the face of a momentous crisis.

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