Why do you think that Zadie Smith titled this book On Beauty?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The title of this updated version of E. M. Forster's Howard's End seems to indicate that the novel will have more in common with an academic essay based on some abstract concepts rather than an engaging narrative that features real-life characters. Interestingly, Zadie Smith herself comments upon how she came up with the title for this work, and how this process was not necessarily the kind of epiphany that we might expect from an author of her gravitas:

It’s not a very interesting answer. I felt a lot of my fiction to be very essayistic, very tick-all-the-boxes, so I wanted to give this one an essay title and do exactly the opposite; be free with it, let it go its own way. I can’t explain it any better than that. My titles always come immediately to me and are never changed. I never really have a very good reason for them apart from the fact that they seemed inevitable.

Such a response indicates the way in which Smith chose this title as a constraining influence that she is then able to break out off and let her creativity claim the novel rather than be restricted by homage to such a narrow form as the academic essay. We can easily see how this is achieved when we focus on her characters and the gloriously chaotic events that transpire.

In addition, however, I think we can reach beyond Smith's articulation of her own purpose in titling this novel as she did. Beauty seems to be a governing characteristic in terms of acting as a way to analyse and approach all the characters within the pages of this novel. Every character stands in relation to the ideal of beauty in some way. There are some who reject it, some who possess it, some who long for it and some who reach out for it and hold onto it tightly. Lastly, there are characters who are themselves extinguished by their desire for beauty. Most importantly perhaps, it is the kindled desire for beauty that is at the heart of the friendship between the two central female protagonists of the novel. The title therefore gives us the key to unlock the action and the characters that we find in the pages of this novel.


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