On Beauty Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The cast of characters in On Beauty includes the members of the liberal Belsey family, white English Howard married to African American Kiki, and their three children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi; the conservative Anglo-Caribbean Kipps family, Monty, Carlene, and their children; as well as a host of other students and academics at fictional Wellington College. The novel pays homage to E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) from its opening line, to the cross-cultural friendship of liberal Kiki Belsey and the dying conservative Christian Carlene Kipps, to the conflict between cultural liberals and conservatives.

As the novel opens, the Belsey’s oldest son, Jerome, while spending a summer in London, has come under the influence of Howard Belsey’s academic and philosophical archrival, Monty Kipps. Jerome has become a believing Christian, to the dismay of his atheist and ultrarational father, and has fallen in love with Monty’s lovely daughter, Victoria. The antagonism between the two men is intellectual and academic; they are both art historians specializing in Rembrandt and have radically different approaches to interpreting the artist’s work.

Howard is an antihero. As the novel opens he is trying to cover up his affair with a female colleague. Later he engages in an affair with Victoria Kipps. He is sometimes amusing, but his morals are too loose to make him a likable character. His approach to art is purely theoretical; he has spent his career deconstructing...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

On Beauty Overview

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is an intricate study of love in all of its manifestations, challenges, and complications. Smith explores love for one's partner in good times and bad. She examines the differences between love and sex and the conflicts between love and independence. Finally, the author addresses the fundamental need to love one's self before love can be shared.

Smith's discourse on love is told through the relationships of the Belsey family. Howard Belsey is white. His wife, Kiki, is black. The couple has three mixed-race children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Although Howard and Kiki have been married for thirty years, their marriage is in trouble. Howard is a philanderer. Kiki, although strong in many ways, feels dependent on her husband and resents her own sacrifices to further his needs. Her personal loss makes her all the more resentful of Howard's indiscretions.

All is not well for the three Belsey children either. Jerome, the eldest, has a brief affair with the beautiful but sexually manipulative Victoria Kipps, the daughter of Howard's professional nemesis. Victoria humiliates Jerome by mocking his emotions. Jerome bears the scars of her scorn.

Middle child Zora has an incredible intelligence but a debilitating lack of self-confidence, particularly when it comes to her body image.

Levi, the youngest, has been raised in England and in a small, mostly white and well-to-do Massachusetts town. But Levi wants to be "of the people"—which, to Levi, means black people living in the Bronx. Levi emulates the rappers he listens to all day through his headphones. He wants so much to be black that he falls in with a group of black immigrants. Levi is willing to do anything to help them and be accepted as one of them, even if that means stealing. While all of this sounds quite serious, Levi's antics are often employed as comic relief.

On Beauty allows readers to watch how the Belsey family deals with one another and with the people who enter and exit their lives.

On Beauty Extended Summary

Part I: Kipps and Belsey

This first section of Smith's On Beauty is used to identify the major characters and to set up the dynamics among them. The story begins with e-mails from Jerome Belsey to his father, Howard. Jerome is temporarily living in London. He is staying with the Kipps family. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps have very different political and academic philosophies. Howard is liberal. Kipps is conservative. Howard is white and British. Kipps is a Jamaican black. Both have taken a deep interest in the artist Rembrandt, but their opinions are quite different. Kipps has just published a book on Rembrandt. Belsey's book remains unfinished.

With their great differences, jealousies, and dislike for one another, it is no surprise that Howard is not pleased that his son Jerome is staying at the Kipps's house. Furthermore, Howard is mortified when Jerome writes that he is going to marry Kipps' daughter, Victoria.

As it turns out, Jerome, who is a social misfit, has misinterpreted Victoria's attentions towards him. Jerome had been a virgin. Victoria definitely was not. She has sex with Jerome but is not in love with him and certainly has no intention of getting married. Jerome realizes his mistake too late.  Both families are incensed. Mortified, Jerome comes home in distress.

Home for the Belseys is Wellington, a small college town outside of Boston. Howard is a professor of art history at Wellington College. Kiki, his black wife, is a hospital administrator. The couple has three children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Howard and Kiki are planning a party to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary, but there is tension in the air. Howard has recently admitted to an affair. He claims that it was a one-night stand while he was at a conference in Michigan. He has not named the woman, and so far, Kiki has not pressed the issue.

But at the party, Claire Malcolm, a longtime friend of Howard's and a fellow faculty member at Wellington, makes a motion that is too personal for Kiki's keen sense. Claire, while talking to Howard, touches his chest and slips her finger between two buttons on his shirt. Kiki, standing nearby, reads her husband's face. She now knows that Howard's affair has been with...

(The entire section is 930 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear