Zadie Smith On Beauty

On Beauty (2005) is a novel by British author Zadie Smith. It explores the complications between two families with fathers in academia. The men are professional enemies, but the two families continually become more intertwined. To better understand the novel, read on for a summary and analysis of it, including a character list and key quotes.

Zadie Smith On Beauty Zadie Smith On Beauty

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Contents
Table of contents

    On Beauty by Zadie Smith: summary

    On Beauty follows two intertwined families with fathers in academia. First is the Belsey family, consisting of Howard, a white English Rembrandt scholar, his African American wife, Kiki, and their children, Jerome, Zora, and Kiki. They live in the fictional town of Wellington, near Boston. Howard is a liberal professor at Wellington University, which Zora also attends. Jerome is a student at Brown University, and Levi is still in high school. The other central family in On Beauty is the Kipps family, made up of Monty, a conservative university professor, his wife Carlene, and their two children, Victoria and Michael. Both Monty and Carlene are of British-Caribbean descent and cherish their heritage.

    Zadie Smith On Beauty, a self portrait by Rembrandt, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A self-portrait by the artist Rembrandt.

    Howard and Monty are professional enemies. Howard is infuriated when Jerome goes abroad during the summer to study under Monty in London. Monty has highly conservative views that Howard strongly disagrees with. Jerome becomes engaged to Victoria for a time while in England, but they break the engagement off, and he returns home. At the same time, Howard and Kiki's relationship is in difficulty as Howard has recently had an affair.

    Smith's narrative then moves forward by nine months. The Kipps family have moved to Wellington, where Monty has taken a position at the university. This development frustrates Howard. The Belsey family are informed of Monty's arrival by Claire Malcolm, a colleague and close friend of Howard's. This is who Howard had an affair with for three weeks. It was not a once-off, as he initially told Kiki. Kiki discovers the truth, and this drives an even bigger wedge between the couple. Around this time, the family also attends a concert where Zora meets a young black slam poet named Carl. Carl is very different to anyone Zora has met before and she finds herself drawn to him.

    Slam poetry is a type of dramatic poetry, usually performed in front of an audience and often for a competition. It is loud and lively and frequently focuses on social or political themes.

    Despite the animosity between the two families, Kiki and Carlene become close friends. They bond over a painting entitled 'Maitresse Erzulie' by the Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite which hangs in Carlene's library. The new school year has also begun in Wellington, and Zora joins Claire's poetry class. The class takes a trip to a local poetry café, where Zora once again runs into Carl. After he performs slam poetry, Claire realises Carl's talent and allows him to join her class as an unenrolled student. This causes significant controversy. Monty campaigns against unenrolled students, like Carl, joining the university. Claire asks Zora if she will make a speech to support her in having unenrolled students during an upcoming faculty meeting. For many of the middle-class characters in On Beauty, Carl represents a more authentic link to black America than they feel they have. This is particularly true in the case of Zora.

    Zadie Smith On Beauty, a painting of a naked black woman surrounded by birds and plants, StudySmarterFig. 2 - 'Maitresse Erzulie' by Hector Hyppolite.

    Levi, still in high school, is grappling with his own identity. He strikes up a friendship with a group of Haitian men who sell counterfeit merchandise on the streets. Gradually, Levi becomes something of a Haitian nationalist, despite not being from the country. Christmas arrives, and the Belseys spend it in London with friends of Howard's. However, while they are gone, they receive news that Carlene has passed away. She had cancer but kept it secret from her friends and family. Kiki is devastated. The Belseys are invited to the funeral. Afterwards, in the Kipps' home, Howard bumps into Victoria, and the two end up having sex. While she was a student in his class, Howard had previously found himself attracted to Victoria.

    In the wake of Carlene's death, it is discovered by her family that she left the Hyppolite painting to Kiki in her will. Monty believes she was not of sound mind when she wrote this will and keeps the painting for himself. The Humanities Faculty meeting comes around in January. Howard uses it to protest against the most conservative aspects of Monty's lectures but fails in this. It seems both Howard's professional and marital lives are in very precarious positions. Not long after this, he and Kiki split up for good. Zora, on the other hand, successfully argues in favour of having unenrolled students at the university and Carl is given a position working at the Wellington University library.

    On Beauty by Zadie Smith: ending

    At this stage of On Beauty, things come to a head. Zora discovers that Carl and Victoria have begun a relationship which upsets her greatly. She confronts Carl, and they argue. Carl accuses Zora of seeing him as a representative of black America instead of a real person. Numerous affairs are then also revealed. Zora and Jerome discover their father's infidelity with Victoria, as well as the fact that Monty has been having an affair with an unenrolled student, Chantelle Williams. Zora confronts Howard about his affair with Victoria, and he admits to it. The Hyppolite painting, which has been in Monty's possession, is discovered to have been stolen. Monty suspects Carl, but in reality, it is Levi and his group of Haitian nationalists who have taken it. Kiki discovers the painting under Levi's bed and finds a note with it that Carlene had written, giving the painting to Kiki.

    Zadie Smith is quoted as saying that On Beauty is partly based on E.M. Forster's novel Howard's End (1910). Both texts centre around two very different families who become linked. Smith includes subtle references to Howard's End throughout her novel. For example, On Beauty opens with emails from Jerome to Howard, whereas Howard's End opens with letters between one of the central characters and her sister.

    On Beauty ends in the summer. Howard is about to make a speech that may redeem his academic reputation. However, he fails in making the speech and therefore, fails in saving his academic career. Instead, Howard notices Kiki in the audience, and they share a smile. Smith ends On Beauty on a positive note for Howard's personal life.

    Zadie Smith, On Beauty: characters

    Zadie Smith includes a host of characters in On Beauty. The Belsey and Kipps families become increasingly linked throughout the novel. Jerome and Howard even share an interest in the same woman, Victoria. Read on for an exploration of the characters in On Beauty.

    Howard Belsey

    Howard is an English university professor who specialises in the study of Rembrandt. He is socially liberal and an atheist, often looking down on those who don't share his views. For example, he judges Jerome harshly when he becomes a Christian. Howard is from a working-class background and struggles to reconcile this with his now privileged life as an academic. He is also consistently unfaithful to his wife, Kiki, which eventually causes the breakdown of their marriage. Howard works hard to be professionally successful, but in this, too, he struggles greatly.

    Kiki Belsey

    Kiki is an African American woman originally from Florida. She works in a hospital and is a devoted wife and mother. Kiki initially stays with Howard despite his affair. She also provides a great deal of emotional support to her children as they grow up. Kiki's close friendship with Carlene is also something that she holds very dear. She, in many ways, is a stabilising force in the novel.

    Monty Kipps

    Monty Kipps is a British Caribbean university professor. He has conservative views and clashes with Howard over these. Monty can also be quite a domineering husband to Carlene. Monty gives conservative and controversial lectures while working at Wellington University. He also attempts to stop Carl from being accepted into classes at the university. It is revealed late in On Beauty that Monty has been having an affair with a student.

    What similarities and differences can you identify between the two married couples in On Beauty?

    Carlene Kipps

    Carlene is also of British-Caribbean background. She is a wise and noble woman. Like her friend Kiki, Carlene is another stabilising force in Smith's novel. She proves herself to be highly selfless, hiding her terminal cancer from her family and friends in order to protect them. While alive, Carlene suffers at the hands of Monty's controlling nature.

    Jerome Belsey

    Jerome is the eldest Belsey child. He is currently attending Brown University. Jerome is a relatively sensitive and introverted young man. He interns with Monty, which deeply upsets his father. Jerome also becomes gradually more religious throughout On Beauty. He has an ill-fated relationship with Victoria that breaks his heart for a time.

    Zora Belsey

    Zora is the middle child of the Belsey family, attending Wellington University. She is a passionate and outspoken person. Zora is a student activist, which is why Claire enlists her help in arguing in favour of keeping Carl as a student. Zora is also very close to her father and finds herself disappointed when she discovers his affair with Victoria.

    Levi Belsey

    Levi is the youngest Belsey, still in high school. He struggles greatly with his identity as a black American, fearing he has become too disconnected from his culture due to his privileged upbringing. Because of this, Levi befriends a group of Haitian nationalists. He works with them to steal a painting from Monty. This painting is by a Haitian artist and so the group feel that Monty, who has no links to Haiti, has no right to own the work.

    Michael Kipps

    Michael is the eldest Kipps child. He is engaged and has moved away from home, working for an equities firm. Michael can be cold and callous. He is shown to be very similar to his father.

    Victoria Kipps

    Victoria is the younger Kipps child. She also attends Wellington University. Victoria is clearly a highly intelligent person. However, it is further noted that she is extremely beautiful. Victoria is aware of this and uses it to her advantage, having relationships with Jerome, Howard, and Carl.

    On Beauty, Zadie Smith: analysis

    The theme of family is key in On Beauty. Smith's novel focuses on two families, particularly the Belsey family. Howard is proud that his family defines itself by its liberal views and atheism. This seems to be what keeps them together to a degree. However, this is disrupted when Jerome takes an internship with Monty Kipps and becomes religious. Howard himself also disrupts the Belsey family by having affairs. He sleeps with both Claire and Victoria at different times. Kiki is the glue that keeps the family together with her kindness and calmness, but even she must eventually leave because of Howard's infidelity. On Beauty shows a family in turmoil.

    Beauty is also central in Smith's novel, as evidenced by the title. Physical appearance is shown to be a currency in On Beauty. Howard tries to explain his adultery by the fact that Kiki has apparently lost the beauty she once had and gained substantial weight.

    It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies-- it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it. (Chp. 6)

    Howard's affair is with Claire, a conventionally beautiful woman. Victoria also has a great deal of beauty, using it to her advantage to have multiple affairs. Smith shows beauty as something that can be used by its owner to gain what they want. It can also be used at times to control men.

    On Beauty, Zadie Smith: quotes

    On Beauty is a long and complex novel. It explores the complications of familial relations and the competitive nature of academia. Below is a table of important quotes from Smith's novel.

    QuoteChapterExplanation
    'Monty saw his chance and took it. Howard would have done the same. To enact with one sudden tug (like a boy removing his friend’s shorts in front of the opposing team) a complete exposure, a cataclysmic embarrassment—this is one of the purest academic pleasures.'Chp. 4.Smith shows here how competitive the academic field is. While Howard and Monty specialise in similar areas, they disagree on nearly everything. Howard is liberal, whereas Monty is highly conservative. Both take pleasure in proving the other wrong and embarrassing each other. Smith presents this as a common occurrence in academia.
    'The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.'Chp. 12.This quote is from Kiki's perspective. After Howard's disloyalty, she expected herself to have left him and the family home by this point. But she is still there, caring for her home and her children. She feels tied by the love she has for her family.
    '“Fat ladies need love too,” said Carl philosophically.'Chp. 2.A humorous line said by Carl, it is also an important one. It is said in response to Zora's criticisms of her mother's weight. Carl is making the point that people deserve love, regardless of how they do or do not fit into society's standards of beauty.

    Zadie Smith On Beauty - Key takeaways

    • On Beauty is a 2005 novel by British novelist Zadie Smith.
    • It focuses on two families with academic fathers who deeply disagree on everything.
    • On Beauty discusses themes of family and beauty.
    • It shows the ways in which beauty, particularly female beauty, can be used as currency.
    • In her novel, Smith also tackles issues of identity in the modern world.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Zadie Smith On Beauty

    What is On Beauty by Zadie Smith about?

    Smith's novel is about two interlinked families, brought together by their two father's positions as professional enemies in academia.

    Who did Howard cheat on Kiki with?

    Howard cheated on Kiki with both Claire and Victoria.

    How does the book On Beauty end?

    On Beauty ends with Howard making a speech that could save his career, but he fails. The only light is a smile he shares with Kiki in the audience.

    Who is the main character in On Beauty?

    There are multiple main characters in On Beauty, with Howard and Monty being some of the most prominent.

    Where does On Beauty take place?

    On Beauty mostly takes place in the fictional town of Wellington, near Boston.

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