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On Beauty

Author: Zadie Smith

Campus Novel Book Review: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005)

The campus novel, On Beauty (2005)by Zadie Smith, is marked as a clever reflection of E.M.Forster’s Howards End (1910). Smith plans herself for an impressive work of fiction that bargains a style flexible enough to place divergent principles in one single podium between the families, the Belseys and the Kipps in an American university town. From an epistemological view, the novel shows concepts of morality, racism, apartheid, human psychology, constant construction and destruction of relationships and professional jealousy. The novel is inspired by the author’s autobiographical essence as Smith wrote the story from her own experience as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.

The title highlights that the storyline would suggest some epistemological idea on beauty from objective and subjective point of views and it does through different characters. I sensed that the book shows a constant interrogation of what we call beautiful in human psyche, culture and physique. With the development of the story, we find the emphasis on male and female concepts of beauty, ideas of physical and mental attractions and what we consider beautiful in humane actions of importance: intellectualism versus certification, conjugal vows versus extra-marital affairs, love verses sex. Though, intellectual talks between the professors, morally corrupt mentalities and disrespect toward nuptial bonds color the title of the novel pretty ironic in my view.

Perhaps,from a sexist point, the author highlights that the males focus on the bodily beauties and females focus on ethics and subjectivity. From a feminist view, I would say that the females, especially the prime characters, are shown more sophisticated. Only two minor female characters, Claire Malcolm and Victoria, are shown as unethical that balances out the novel not falling into the above mentioned two categories.

The novel starts depicting a dispute of ideologies between a son and his father. Opening the novel with personal letters engages the readers into a more personal connection with the characters. The tone of the son when he addresses his father clearly echoes that the father is a stern egocentric individual. Later, the reader is informed that silence is something inevitable in Belsey family. The father never replies to the son’s emails neither the Belsey members talk to each other during breakfast. Not having a personal phone by Howard clearly depicts the communication gap the liberal and atheist Belsey family carries with their children. Additionally, Howard’s falling asleep at Mozart Requiem concert indicates how disinterested he is in socialism and art and this portrays him as an alienated individual. All these issues are post-modern problems of today’s world, which Smith skillfully demonstrated.

The next series of actions indicate the cold conjugal relationship between the Belsey couple. The affair of Howard with Claire clearly shows the crack between marital vows. The characterization of KiKi as an African American feminist has been displayed as a sphinxlike expression who has strong resilience towards odds of life. She is a victim of body shaming for being over-weight and a woman of color. She also indicates that Howard has racial perspectives that trigger his white supremist chauvinist attitude toward the whole family, particularly to Kiki. Her characterization justifies the title as she echoes that beauty is something beyond physical appearance and is based on the quality of resilience and virtuous subjectivity of the mind.

When the writer indicates the impression of a black woman asking another black woman Monique, to work, this indicates the concept of racism and apartheid in the fiction, though most of the other main characters are also black. A good list of contrasts has been shown between the street blacks like Carla and the intellectuals like - Kiki, Erskine Jegede and Jerome. Moreover, the image of prison, claustrophobia and jail highlights the image of racism in America too. At the climax of the story, Howard and Monty’s dispute increases as Jerome, Howard’s son, accepts the internship under ultra-conservative Christians, the Kipps and eventually falls for their daughter. Despite all these feuds, KiKi and Carlene, Monty’s wife, becomes good friends. Zora and Levi becomes good friends with a poorer African-American man and eventually gets fond of him considering him as a better representative of the black community and culture than the one they are in. At the end, the novel ends with a mixture of positive and negative notes.

Therefore, we cannot call it a hardcore sexist novel where the blacks are shown virtuous and the whites are shown wicked but it can be defined under various literary theories. As it is a homage to Howards End, it shows the class conflict of metropolitan societies linking it to Karl Marx’s Proletariat and Bourgeoisie classification. But Smith shows that the commercial imperialist crowd and the intellectual cosmopolitan crowd, though antagonist themselves, both have money. The only difference is in their ideals that segregate them from each other.

Furthermore, the psychological feud between the father and son relationship has been shown into two folds: Howard’s relation to his son Jeorme and Howard’s relation to his father Harold. On the contrary, Jerome’s appreciation of parental serenity of the Kipps family indicates the tension and insecurity Belsey family has. In that case, Jerome’s decision to marry Kipps’s daughter is just to catch Howard’s attention. Howard is also not in good terms with his father Harold due to culture clashes and ideologies.  They both are stern, uncompromising and quite categorical in their lifestyles. If I gauge the father-son relation under Freudian psychoanalysis, I can relate them with the myth of Icarus. The incident of Jerome trying to marry Victoria was an over ambitious attempt despite Howard’s consent. Like Icarus, he failed and such an event echoes the concept that ‘fathers know the best for their sons’. To some extent, Howard resembles the malignant narcissist Daedalus who became jealous of his own son’s skills. Similarly, an implied jealousy is found in Howard’s attitudes regarding his reading of the emails of Jerome. Overall, I would say the novel is a good book to read in a leisure time and useful enough to compare and contrast the 21st century psychological dilemmas of the American intellectual societies. It gives a good list of contrasts between academic versus non-academic lives, intelligent versus naïve individuals, morality versus immorality, conservative family unity versus liberal personalities, religion versus secularism and so on. In short, the fiction gives an opportunity to readers to wear the hat of a critic and scrutinize it as a campus novel having diverse themes depicted by realistic characterizations. I liked reading the novel and I personally liked the character Kiki for her resilience and her ethics on land acknowledgement. I also feel that the novel lacks the suspense and intellectual thrill, which campus novels usually carry as a dominant feature. Overall, it is a good piece of work depicting the lives of the academic individuals, specially the professors, in a post-modern era and the sophistry of the black community in American society.


Smith, Z. (2005). On beauty : a novel . Viking Canada.

Derdeyn, L. (2018). “It’s all Interconnected”: Naming as Representational Affirmative Action and Character Development in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. English Studies, 99(8), 922–943.

Wall, K. (2008). Ethics, knowledge, and the need for beauty: Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” and Ian McEwan’s “Saturday.” University of Toronto Quarterly, 77(2), 757–.

Arnold, L. (2020). Psychoanalysis. The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory.

Khatami, A. (2019). Feminism. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 55(5), 610–610.

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