On Beauty

On Beauty Literary Elements


Realistic/Literary Fiction (Novel)

Setting and Context

Wellington, MA, a fictional city near Boston

Narrator and Point of View

Omniscient third person point of view; the narration moves from close third person points of view to other third person points of view

Tone and Mood

Generally realistic and descriptive; often humorous; slightly exaggerated; very detailed

Protagonist and Antagonist

There are no clear protagonists or antagonists. The Belseys are generally the protagonists, and the Kipps generally the antagonists.

Major Conflict

Howard’s infidelity to Kiki; Howard Belsey and Monty Kippses’ academic feud; racial tensions and relations in America


Discovering that Howard’s affair was not with a stranger but rather with family friend Claire Malcolm; Zora’s tense argument with Carl, and Jerome’s simultaneous realization that Howard and Victoria Kipps have also slept together.


(Page 93) – Carlene and Kiki talk about a line from a poem that Carlene loves, which reads “There is such a shelter in each other.” In context, this line reflects how the two women will take shelter in each other, as women, when their husbands, a completely different gender, cannot truly understand them. Plot-wise, this line also returns when Carlene gifts Kiki her prized painting, but the true note of ownership is tucked into the back of the canvas.




(Page 64) – The Mozart Requiem concert is an almost spiritual experience for Jerome and Kiki, and before the concert Jerome comments that the orchestra seems to “hover above the water” based on the reflection of the lights nearby (64). This is a Biblical reference to a passage in early Genesis, in which the Spirit of God hovers above the waters before finishing the creation of the world.

(Page 74) – When noting how good-looking Carl is, Zora “could no longer ignore the fact that he was stupidly good looking…Pride and prejudice, however, connived in Zora to make a point of ignoring it anyway” (74). The terms “pride and prejudice” are a reference to Jane Austen’s wildly popular novel from 1813, in which two characters attracted to each other originally allow pride and prejudice to bar them from admitting this attraction.

(Page 109) – When thinking about his affair with Claire after his speech at the anniversary party, Howard “had to restrain himself from crying with relief before each new person who was kind to him. He had made a silly mistake – this was the consensus – and should be allowed (for who among middle-aged academics would dare throw the first stone?) to remain in possession of that unusual thing, a happy and passionate marriage” (109-110). This is a Biblical reference to a story in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus tells those preparing to stone an adulteress that, if anyone here had not committed sins themselves, then they could cast the first stone (thus insinuating that they all were sinful, just as the adulteress was).


See Imagery section. The text is generally filled with many descriptions and visual imagery, and is also very detailed in its descriptions. Some common description passages include the descriptions of people (each of the Kippses, each of the Belseys, Claire Malcolm, and Carl, for example), of landscapes (the Heath in London, and Wellington in various seasons), and of emotions “made tangible” (for example, the Mozart Requiem in Boston which the Belseys attend as a family outing.)


While not exactly a paradox per se, the impossibility of reconciliation between liberal and conservative social/political ideologies between Monty Kipps and Howard Belsey is an example of a macro-level unresolvable opposition that, in the end, does not really present an ultimate “correct answer.”


“What am I looking at exactly?” is the first line of the second chapter of the book, the one that launches the story (after Jerome’s emails to his father). Kiki asks this to Howard, who responds sourly (7). Later, Howard will ask this question to his son Jerome, who has presented to his father a contract to separate Howard and Kiki’s bank accounts on behalf of his mother. This is in the last chapter of the book (page 434), and presents a full circle in the narrative, but also a forward movement in character development.
General parallelism also exists between the Kipps and Belsey family compositions: both Monty and Howard are academics, and have some focus or interest in art, art history, and aesthetics. Michael and Jerome are set up in stark contrast to each other: they are both intelligent, black young men, but they have very different dispositions. Victoria and Zora, the daughters, are also set up parallel and in contrast to each other, with both being concerned with appearance, but one being much more beautiful than the other, and the other being much more intellectually inclined or at least interested.

Metonymy and Synecdoche