I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Teeth” by Lee Gutkind, from the book The People of Penn’s Woods West. “Teeth” is about a woman whose husband makes her remove her perfectly healthy teeth in a barter exchange with a dentist. This may sound strange, but once you realise this essay, set in the early 1980s, refers to the people from western, rural Pennsylvania, it doesn’t sound incredible anymore.
I like how the story begins: the husband announces to his wife that he wants to take her to town to have her teeth pulled which immediately arouses the reader’s curiosity. Reading on further, you’ll discover a heart-rending story of a woman who spent more than thirty years of her life married to a man who barely shows any personal interest in her other than needing her to fulfil her functional duties around the house. It’s a marriage of convenience set up by her dying father when she was fifteen. She is lonely, but puts up with it because her father once told her that life is all about living and nothing else. His mantra for it is, “You work to eat, you eat to live, you live to work”. But when her husband announces she has to give up her teeth because of his deal with the dentist, we see her fighting spirit. She leaves home for Davenport. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go beyond Chicago. By then, she is tired, hungry and confused. She is found later and brought back home. Although her actions spur her husband to pay more attention to her, it’s also because he is afraid she will leave him again.
You may wonder what the purpose of this story is. I believe “Teeth” explores the power relationship between the genders as seen in the woman’s fight to keep her teeth, as well as her need to be respected and treated fairly by her domineering husband. It reminds you of the modern woman’s desire to be independent and be given equal rights. The context, whether in the 1980s or today, may be different but the issue is all-prevalent and universal. The woman in “Teeth” appears to gain her ‘freedom’ at the end of the story (she is able to order a “fancy-smelling powder” from a magazine) but it’s done at the expense of losing her teeth. Personally, I don’t think she gains complete independence as her husband continues to keep an eye on her.
“Teeth” also explores the dichotomy between rural and urban life. The woman and her husband live all their lives in the mountains and show no interest in exploring the city. They have little need for cash; instead they barter for everything they need. They trade their home-grown vegetables and fruits for other products. Her husband chops wood and repairs cars in exchange for clothes. There is no mention of any form of technology. It seems they can do without it. People in the rural life seem to live a simple life with no desire for material needs other than the basic necessities. This, of course, contrasts with city life where people often feel stressed over their pursuit in material gains and keeping up with the Joneses.
A pleasant element to reading “Teeth” is the way it is narrated. Unlike other essays which usually involve the writers’ personal experiences, including their thoughts and reflections in a more intimate way, “Teeth” is narrated like a story. The author’s presence is kept to a bare minimum with the occasional “I” interjecting now and then. Instead, the central character, an elderly woman, takes centre stage. We are only given a hint about the writer’s feelings towards the character at the end of the story when he appears anxious to leave the scene after spending two hours with her.
“Teeth” also displays Gutkind’s talent as a skilful creative non-fiction writer. His ability to use literary devices, normally found in fiction writing, made “Teeth” gripping right until the end. Scenes, dialogue, descriptions and a first person perspective dominate the entire story. His keen observation skills, plus a sense of humour, add colour to the story. The character’s husband is described as “a chicken hawk, with a hooked nose and arms that bowed out like furled wings…” and he looks ready “to take off flying”. The woman is “a river of fat…body bulged and rippled…” with eyes like “raisins pressed into cookie dough”. They are like caricatures of comic characters, which I think adds a light touch to an otherwise sad story.
If I must fault anything with “Teeth”, then it would have to be the conclusion. As the story is narrated from the first person perspective, it’s hard to figure out how the author knows what happens after he has left the female character alone in the last scene. How does he know she scrubs the dirt off her fingers till the “half-moons of her nails were white” or put on some “fancy-smelling powder” which she got from the mail? Unless, of course, one must presume he returns later to listen to her story again. Whatever the case, Gutkind’s presence would have made the conclusion more satisfying. Despite this minor hitch, you should give “Teeth” a go if you want to experience something different from fiction or the usual personal essays.