The Floridian, African-American wife of Howard Belsey, a white and British art history professor. Kiki works at a hospital. She has three children with Howard: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Kiki is beautiful and noble-looking, and was especially so when she was thin and young. Over the years she has gained excessive weight, and this is part of the reason why her sexually frustrated husband Howard had an extramarital affair. However, Kiki is also a deeply forgiving character, staying with Howard after this. Eventually, Kiki and Howard do separate.
The British, white husband of Kiki Belsey, who is an art history professor at the fictional Wellington College (based loosely off of Harvard University). Howard’s focus is on the painter Rembrandt, although he has still not published, after many years, the grand book he has been writing on the Dutch artist. Howard’s class is known for being hard, and he himself is known for being an intellectual, despite coming from a working-class London background. Howard is also a radical theorist in art history, and very politically liberal. He has an affair with Claire Malcolm, which nearly ruins his marriage; he also proceeds to have a brief affair with the daughter of his academic nemesis, Monty Kipps.
Sir Monty Kipps is a Caribbean-British intellectual, and Howard Belsey’s intellectual archenemy. He and Howard have completely different views of the world, and competing academic works. Monty has two children with his wife Carlene: Michael and Victoria. Although originally living in London, he is invited to teach at Wellington, and prepares to deliver conservative lectures, much to Howard’s displeasure. Although very Christian and conservative, it is revealed near the end of the book that Monty was actually having his own extramarital affair with a young local black woman. While charismatic and engaging, Monty also has an aggressive and abrasive side; for example, he is furious that his wife would leave a valuable painting to Kiki.
The Caribbean-British wife of the intellectual and professor Monty Kipps. She is an older woman, described as very noble and often profound in her speech. She has a calming effect on all those around her. Unbeknownst to family and friends, Carlene is slowly dying of cancer throughout the story, but refuses to tell any of those closest with her. She becomes friends with Kiki Belsey, and gifts the other woman a valuable painting after her death. She dies and is buried in London, with a service in her beloved populist church.
The eldest child of the Belsey family, he is a sensitive and intelligent young man who attends Brown University. Jerome, not very successful sexually before he interns abroad at Monty Kipps’ office during his second year at Brown, falls hard for Victoria, who breaks his heart. Jerome is close to his mother, and not close to his father. Jerome also becomes a Christian, more and more so throughout the book, much to his father’s chagrin. He is the one who realizes that his father and Victoria had a brief affair.
The second child of the Belsey family, a hardworking young woman who attends Wellington College, most likely hoping to study art history, like her father. Zora is rather close to her father. On campus and in classes, Zora is a vocal activist as well as a generally opinionated and pushy student. She has a crush on Carl that is unrequited.
The youngest child of the Belsey family, a young man still in high school. Levi is rather academically and intellectually detached, and not very disposed to schoolwork in the first place. Rather, Levi chooses the extreme alternate route, identifying with black street culture and hip-hop culture, dressing in the same style as rap artists and going out frequently in Boston. He is emotionally affected by issues such as the plight of the poor in Haiti, but is not as intellectually stimulated as his siblings. Because of this, he is roped into a group of Haitian street hustlers, who eventually even have him join them in stealing from Monty’s office.
The elder child of the Kipps family. Reserved, noble, and hard, Michael works as a risk analyst for an equities firm in London. He is engaged to Amelia Kipps. He has a certain aspect of coldness and cruelty around him. He is very close to his father, and (he thinks) he is close to his sister, as well.
The younger child of the Kipps family. Strikingly beautiful, Victoria uses her beauty and sexual allure for her own pleasure, seducing many, including Howard, Jerome, and Carl. She is not unintelligent, but her physical beauty completely outweighs her mental faculties.
A young black man from Roxbury who performs slam poetry. He is a school dropout. He meets the Belseys at the Mozart concert in Boston, and continues to run into them and become tangled up in their affairs. After winning a poetry slam at the Bus Stop Café, Claire Malcolm invites him to her poetry class, where Zora petitions the faculty to keep students like Carl. Carl takes up a brief job at Wellington and begins a relationship with Victoria, but then leaves after Zora humiliates him at a party.
One of the heads of the African-American Studies Department at Wellington, and one of Howard’s closest “friends” amongst his colleagues. They are friends mostly because of their mutual distaste for their colleagues. Erskine is a bit of a womanizer, and often subtly insults his wife, Caroline.
The head of the Humanities Faculty at Wellington, who is therefore in charge of many of the affairs of Claire, Erskine, and, of course, Howard and Monty. A slightly awkward middle-aged white man.
A famous poet who teaches creative writing at Wellington College. She was a friend of Howard’s from graduate school. Troubled and sexually frustrated, Claire and Howard begin a three-week affair. Eventually, Claire marries her friend Warren Crane. Claire is physically almost the opposite of Kiki. Claire is a small, petite white woman.
A young black woman from the Boston/Wellington area who attends Monty Kipps’ church, and is invited into Claire’s poetry class based on her talent. However, she and Monty have been sleeping together, and this is largely one of the reasons why Monty wants to kick discretionary students out of the school: to save his own reputation.
A Haitian street hustler who used to be a French teacher in his homeland. He and Levi are partners in hustling, and he knows that Levi is lying about actually coming from Roxbury. He eventually somewhat warms to the younger boy, who constantly tries to become better friends with the Haitian man.
Howard’s father, a former butcher. Howard and Harold do not get along well, and Harold is about as far from an intellectual—as far from his son’s world—as he can get. Howard impulsively visits his father while in England, once, but cannot stand his father’s politically incorrect views.
Adam and Rachel Miller
Friends of the Belseys, with whom they stay during Christmas. The Millers own a sprawling England estate.
Smith J. Miller
Howard's academic assistant.
Claire’s husband, a firefighter and a family friend of the Belseys.
Michael Kipps’ fiancée, who speaks too much for her husband and soon-to-be father-in-law’s tastes.
Levi’s manager at the Boston megastore, a sorry-looking and very mean young black man. He and Levi do not get along, and after they argue, Levi quits.
A Boston black girl who works at the megastore with Levi. She is already a mother. She and Levi often flirt with one another.
The Belseys’ Haitian maid.
Jack French’s administrative assistant.
A sixteen-year-old early college student who is overwhelmed by the intellectual difficulty of Howard’s class.
On Beauty Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for On Beauty is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.