“It is on journeys like this – where one is so horribly misunderstood – that you find yourself longing for home, that place where you are entirely understood, for better or for worse. Kiki was home. He needed to find her” (307).
While leaving the pub drunk from the funeral service he left, Howard realizes that who he is right now in England is not who he usually is. In this desperate and broken case, he does not even think first of his esteemed reputation as a respected professor, but rather realizes that his identity is tied to those he loves: to his family, and most of all to Kiki, his best friend even before their marriage.
“Most of the cruelty in the world is just misplaced energy” (5).
Jerome writes this in an early email to his father, and says this before Victoria breaks his heart. This quote, however, still does ring true across the various incidents of cruelty that occur in the book. There are no absolutes. Almost everything is relevant, just like the differing political ideologies of the Kippses and the Belseys. Howard’s affair with Claire—and then later with Victoria—are never done out of malicious spite for Kiki, but rather out of his own lack of a moralistic release for his energy. Jerome eventually forgives Victoria, saying that the girl is too beautiful for her own good, and too young, not knowing how to use that beauty; Zora argues that Victoria knows what she does and uses it cruelly, but Jerome believes that Victoria will be able to harness her beauty eventually.
“The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free” (424).
While Kiki is cleaning and gathering her children’s stuff, just before she discovers the painting under Levi’s bed, she realizes this truth, that love is the most binding contract of all. Howard also realizes this when he visits his father Harold, and thinks about the different ways in which people can or should show love. Kiki is bound not only to Howard, who has hurt her terribly, but also to her children, and all of their futures.
“Everything I do I do with my body. Even my soul is made up of raw meat, flesh. Truth is in a face, as much as it is anywhere. We women know that faces are full of meaning, I think. Men have a gift of pretending that’s not true. And this is where their power comes from. Monty hardly knows he has a body at all!” (96)
Carlene and Kiki discuss the differences between men and women. Her delivery of this quote may harken to memory a comment once made by Irish author James Joyce, who said that “Men think in the straight lines of reason, and women in the curves of emotion.” While this is not what Carlene means exactly, it causes Kiki to think that Carlene is saying something similar (that women are more emotional and less intellectually capable than men), and Kiki bristles in response. However, especially in light of the rest of the book’s discussions and stories, Carlene’s comment is not untrue: women are much more preoccupied, at least, with their bodies, and much more in need of using them.
“It’s all interconnected…We produce new ways of thinking, then other people think it” (120)
Howard says this to Claire during his anniversary party, commenting on academics and academia in general, with reference to his own studies of Rembrandt and the useless necessity of big ideas. Right after this conversation, Kiki will realize that Claire was the woman with whom Howard was having the affair. This quotation is not in reference to this impending discovery, but can be ironically examined in hindsight, given Howard’s occupation (and preoccupation) with producing “new ways of thinking.”
“Time is not what it is, and how it is felt, and Zora felt no different. Still living at home, still a virgin.” (129)
Time is something that is important in this book; something that heals, and something that drives forward hurt as well. Time is almost something that grows: something that develops physical appearance, whether for beauty, or against it. The passage of time, too, is commented on quite often. This quotation comes right after summer passes and the school year begins, and the narrator astutely notes that Zora is trying to become someone different, but that change must come from within—mentally and emotionally.
“Fat ladies need love too,” said Carl philosophically.
Although this statement, which Carl says to Zora when Zora criticizes her own mother’s current physical appearance, is almost humorous and not meant to be taken seriously, it is actually one of the most true elucidations of the entire story. Although society is so concerned with physical beauty, Kiki still deserves love and respect despite her deteriorated beauty. “Fat ladies” is, in this case, specific, but it can be extended to any woman who appears less than standardly beautiful. It is important that Carl specifies “ladies” in this case, because, as Kiki will later note of Zora, ironically, women are always hating their bodies, and this is something that needs to change.
“Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything?” (209)
On Wellington’s campus, Zora is a vocal activist who seems to have many opinions, whether in class or out of class. However, she realizes that she does a lot of this just to build up a certain reputation, or perhaps even to build up attempts to have certain passions for certain causes. In actuality, Zora questions herself—and the narrator does it for her, in this case: does she actually care about any of this? Or is the intellectual often just self-defining with respect to his/her passions about the world?
“You don’t have favorites among your children, but you do have allies” (167).
Kiki and Howard each have allies amongst their children, as is evident straight from the start when Jerome writes emails to his father. Jerome is almost always Kiki’s ally, as he is more like her; Kiki, too, is most proud of Jerome and his standing as a sensitive, intellectual black boy. Although Kiki loves Zora just the same, Zora and Howard often side together. In the division between their parents, it is easiest for Levi to slip through the cracks, not particularly allying with either parent (although, when it does come down to it, he sides more with his mother, with whom he simply spends more time.) However, eventually Zora stops sticking up with her father when she realizes he has debased himself by having sex with Victoria; she verbalizes her incredulity too, sad that she initially took his side.
“But life is long, and so is marriage…The metaphors won’t work. And who cares, anyway, for technicalities when that starburst of pleasure and love and beauty is taking you over?” (397).
When Kiki and Howard have sex for the final time—the only time depicted in the book itself—many thoughts go through both their heads about how different this time is from the past. Their bodies are no longer as adjusted to making love as they used to be, hence the commentary on how “long” marriage can be. Furthermore, their thoughts are disconnected because men and women are just too different to be able to really explain all the pleasures and pains of making love to each other. Kiki used to attempt to explain these things by using metaphors, but she realizes that that is useless, and now, pointless.
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.