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On Beauty

On Beauty is a 2005 novel by British author Zadie Smith, loosely based on Howards End by E.M. Forster. The story follows the lives of a mixed-race British/American family living in the United States, addresses ethnic and cultural differences in both the USA and the UK, as well as the nature of beauty, and the clash between liberal and conservative academic values. It takes its title from an essay by Elaine Scarry—"On Beauty and Being Just". The Observer described the novel as a "transatlantic comic saga".

The novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize on 8 September 2005. Smith won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction and Orange Prize for Fiction in June 2006.

Plot summary

On Beauty centres on the story of two families and their different yet increasingly intertwined lives. The Belsey family consists of university professor Howard, a white Englishman; his African-American wife Kiki; and their children, Jerome, Zora and Levi. They live in the fictional university town of Wellington, outside Boston. Howard's professional nemesis is Monty Kipps, a Trinidadian living in Britain with his wife Carlene and children Victoria and Michael.

The Belsey family has always defined itself as liberal and atheist, and Howard in particular is furious when his son Jerome, lately a born-again Christian, goes to work as an intern with the ultra-conservative Christian Kipps family over his summer holidays. After a failed affair with Victoria Kipps, Jerome returns home. However, the families are again brought closer nine months later when the Kippses move to Wellington, and Monty begins work at the university.

Carlene and Kiki become friends despite the tensions between their families. The rivalry between Monty and Howard increases as Monty challenges the liberal attitudes of the university on issues such as affirmative action. His academic success also highlights Howard's inadequacies and failure to publish a long-awaited book. Meanwhile, the Belsey family is facing problems of its own as they deal with the fallout of Howard's affair with his colleague and family friend Claire.

Zora and Levi become friends with Carl, an African-American man of a poorer background than their own middle-class standing. Zora uses him as a poster-child for her campaign to allow talented non-students to attend university classes. For Levi, Carl is a source of identity, as a member of a more "authentic" black culture than Levi considers his own background to be.

Inspiration

The book is loosely based on Howards End by E. M. Forster; Smith has called it an "homage". Among the parallels are the opening sections (Howards End begins with letters from Helen to her sister, On Beauty with emails from Jerome to his father); the bequeathing of a valuable item to a member of the other family (the Wilcox house Howards End is left by Ruth Wilcox to Margaret Schlegel; Carlene leaves Kiki a painting); and, more broadly, the idea of two families with very different ideas and values gradually becoming linked.

The setting of much of the novel, the fictitious Wellington College and surrounding community, contains many close parallels to the real Harvard University and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Smith wrote part of the novel as a fellow at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute.

Smith gives herself a very brief Hitchcock-style cameo in the novel: the narrator (or, indirectly, Howard) describes her as a "feckless novelist", a visiting fellow of the fictional Wellington faculty (as Smith was of Harvard's) who is quick to abandon a tedious meeting.

The failed final lecture that concludes the novel is loosely based on an infamous job talk given by former Harvard professor Leland de la Durantaye for the Harvard English Department on Lolita.

Themes and Motifs

Black Identity

The novel deals with many facets and expressions of black identity through a number of characters. The novel takes place in an upper-class, predominantly white college town. This causes conflicts for many characters. Kiki, for example, feels very isolated as the wife of a white professor. She tells Howard that in Wellington, "[Her] whole life is white. [She doesn't] see any black folk unless they be cleaning" (p. 206). Kiki feels pressure to conform, but her visible blackness prevents her from truly doing so. Similarly, Kiki and Howard's son Levi doesn't see blackness present in the academically elite society of Wellington. "To Levi, black folk were city folk," and his admiration and identification with the idea of inner city blackness leads him to change the way he speaks, and foster an interest in rap music (p. 81). By contrast, the character of Monty rejects the notion that blackness cannot exist unchanged in the context of an elite university. He believes that the policy of Affirmative Action patronizes the black community. While Levi understands his black identity through the struggle with systematic oppression and resistance to assimilation, Howard's identity is seen more through the lens of his class loyalties.

We also see Kiki's complex understanding of her blackness through her interactions with others. When Kiki speaks with the Haitian vendor she feels over-sexualized because of her voluptuous figure, but she also feels distance from him because he is Haitian and because of their class difference. In previous scenes Kiki's only interactions with Haitians have been in a boss-employee context. When Kiki talks with Warren she feels like a comedic Aunt Jemima-like character, where her size becomes unattractive and she embodies a caretaker role when speaking with Warren.

Appearance

As the novel's title would suggest, On Beauty deals with issues of physical appearance, particularly through its black female characters. Victoria and Kiki are foils in this regard. Kiki is a large, black woman, whose size and skin color make her feel out of place in Wellington. After Kiki discovers Howard's affair with Claire, she tells him that he humiliated her by sleeping with someone significantly smaller than her, to which Howard replies, "I married a slim black woman" (pg 207). This thinly veiled accusation demonstrates that Howard believes to an extent that Kiki's weight gain was the real reason for his infidelity. Howard also sleeps with Victoria Kipps, who unlike Claire, is black. However, Victoria is very different than Kiki. She is slender and yet still very curvy, and is incredibly beautiful. Many male characters are enraptured by her, including Howard's own son, Jerome. This difference in appearance between Kiki and Victoria demonstrates the consequences black women face when they are not deemed beautiful enough or do not conform closely enough to Eurocentric beauty standards. The title of Zadie Smith's work is called "On Beauty" and throughout the work many of the characters look at beauty in different ways or some, like Monty and Howard, fail to look at the beauty in anything. Even in the materials that they teach in their art history classes. Instead choosing to focus on politics.

Smith discusses performativity and the appearance of knowledge as a mask for patriarchy and racism. The patriarchal power structure manifests itself in numerous ways throughout the Zadie Smith's novel. Not only in the explicit examples of characters Howard, Monty, Levi, and others but in the institutions and systems that serve as a backdrop to the novel itself. Specifically, Smith explores how academia and private universities serve as another cog in the machine of whiteness and how it can do more silencing or diverting than educating. In many instances that can be seen throughout the Howard's (as well as Monty's) hyperintellectualization actually serve to end or redirect uncomfortable conversations or avoid topics altogether. Howard is keenly aware that beginning an intellectual rant with his wife, Kiki, will shut her up. Especially when it comes to Howard, at times his language is so flowery that it becomes totally disconnected from the message or rather there is no message to begin with. For both Howard and Monty, letting go of the need to explain or intellectualize every topic forces their humanity to be contended with. Further, wboth characters are forced to confront their repressed/internalized racism and the ways in which they inhabit whiteness or strive towards it. And altough they both outwardly believe in equity, justice, and freedom from oppressive systems, they are (perhaps subconsciously) contributing to success of the very systems they so fervently despise through their intellectualization all of which is undoubtedly linked with their masculinity.

Beauty

Beauty is a central theme within Zadie Smith's novel. Beauty is expressed both non-physically and physically throughout the main characters and it also holds the most weight for how the characters assess their values. Many women like Kiki, Victoria, and Carlene struggle to understand what beauty is to them due to the perception that other people have on them. This is common seen through black women in society as well. Kiki, for example, was known to be once very physically attractive during her younger days when she is smaller and less aged, but due to her physical maturity, her husband Howard has a continuous affair with another woman. Howard’s infidelity is driven through his perception of beauty, which is only through physical attraction. This forces Kiki to further question her beauty. Eventually, Kiki is able to realize that her definition of beauty comes from an internal sense, and although she may not look the same as she did before, she realizes that she is beautiful and no one can define what that looks like for her. On the contrary, other female characters are seen in different light, such as Victoria who is sexualized due to her physical appearance. She allows herself to only interpret beauty through her sexuality. This is much different than Kiki’s experience. The conflicts between physical and non-physical beauty plays throughout the entire novel, but in the end non-physical beauty is given worth and Furth more, the idea remains that beauty comes in different forms. 

Not only does Zadie Smith's work focus on physical beauty but it also looks at the concept of beauty itself and its value. Throughout the work many of the characters look at beauty in different ways or some, like Monty and Howard, fail to look at the beauty in anything. Even in the materials that they teach in their art history classes. Instead choosing to focus on politics. One character that only shows up once in the book is Katie Armstrong. It is through her view that the reader can see what Howard is missing in his classes. The material that he presents has such a high impact on her, is so beautiful to her, that she breaks down into tears (pg 250–253).

Monty's wife, Carlene, sees beauty better than her husband, as seen when she and Kiki discuss the painting of the 'Maitresse Erzulie,' "Black Virgin" (pg 174–175). Carlene does not love the painting because of the price but instead because of what it means to her and what it symbolizes, "She represents love, beauty, purity, the ideal female and the moon.." as well as the contradiction of representing "jealousy, vengeance and discord" (pg 175). Giving insight into what Carlene herself sees as beautiful in what makes the people she loves. The painting later becomes a controversial matter between the families when it is left to Kiki by Carlene while Monty and the Kipps only see the price of the painting for its value and not how much it mattered to their loved one (pg 277–280).

Class

Smith intersects issues of class and race throughout the novel in order to bring to light the relationship between the two. For example, Kiki's race becomes an obstacle against her ability to fit in with the community and world surrounding her, one that is white, affluent, and educated. The eliteness of the academic world is directly tied to its whiteness, creating a clash between Kiki's racial identity and class identity. Class directly ties into education and race, and this is reflected in the way that the characters of color interact with the predominantly white world that surrounds them. Levi struggles with his mixed race identity and blackness because of the primarily white world of academics that he lives in. Howard and Kiki's family is a combination of stereotypically "white" attributes and those that are stereotypically "black," including physical traits, creating complexities within the family that reflect the complexities within academia and the relationship it has with race and class.

Issues of class are particularly salient towards the end of the novel when looking at the tension surrounding a piece of art. Carlene Kipps before her death secretly leaves a painting the Kipps’ own to Kiki. Levi, spurred on by his new found Haitian friends, steals the painting from Monty Kipps’ office with the intention of returning it to Haitian people from which Kipps’ took it from in the first place. This incident brings about issues of ownership and appropriation. Monty uses his money and influence to take art from poorer black people in the Caribbean and resells it, repurposes it in the whiter, richer world of academia for his own gain.

Religion

In Zadie Smith’s novel, religion is important because of who claims it and who doesn’t: Howard shuns religion and gets castigated for not believing in anything, and the Kipps family, by claiming to be religious, can use religion as a cover-up for less-than-moral behavior. When Jerome claims religion in the beginning of the novel, it appears to be an intentional move to isolate himself from his family. Because the rest of his family is adamantly not religious, Jerome stands out more as the black sheep of the family. In fact, part of what draws Jerome closer to the Kipps family is their religiousness. Monty Kipps, however, uses his position in the church and his status as a man of faith to take advantage of a much younger woman. Monty Kipps’s socially conservative views combine with his Christianity to make him appear generally intolerant.

See also

  • Hysterical realism
  • Historiographical metafiction

References

External links

  • Frank Rich, "Zadie Smith's Culture Warriors" (review), The New York Times, 18 September 2005.
  • "A Thing of Beauty?", a review of On Beauty in The Oxonian Review of Books
  • Michiko Kakutani, "A Modern, Multicultural Makeover for Forster's Bourgeois Edwardians", The New York Times, 13 September 2005.
  • "Dear Booker Committee", a discussion of On Beauty by Stephen Metcalf of Slate.com.
  • Tew, Philip. "Zadie Smith's On Beauty: Art and transatlantic antagonisms in the Anglo-American academy." Symbiosis 15 (2), 2011: 219- 236


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