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.)