On Beauty

On Beauty Summary and Analysis of Part I: Kipps and Belsey (Chapters 7-12)

Summary (pg. 69-125)

The Mozart Requiem begins, and the narrator dictates the musical “narrative” of the piece in the second person, but in general from Kiki’s perspective. Kiki looks around and sees her family sitting around her. She turns to ask Howard something, but finds that he is asleep. Zora is intently listening to a Discman that guides her through the movements of the piece. Jerome, lastly, is crying. Kiki thinks about what it means to be a young intellectual black man, feels proud, and scans the crowd, betting she will not see another such man, yet an elegant young black man is sitting right next to Zora. The piece ends, startling Kiki, and Howard wakes up, ready to go. They need to look for Levi, who pops up about a hundred yards away. They start towards him.

The perspective shifts to that of the young black man that had been sitting next to the family. Having heard the end of Kiki and Howard’s conversation on whether or not Mozart was a musical genius, he reaches down to retrieve his own Discman, but finds that Zora accidentally swapped the two. He runs after the Belseys, and runs into Levi in the crowd, who helps him argue with Zora to correctly exchange the Discmans. The young man, named Carl, had been listening to hip-hop; he and Levi talk about this, and about Carl’s spoken word work. Carl talks to the Belseys briefly about spoken word poetry, and about a place called the Bus Stop in Wellington that allows for spoken word nights. Claire Malcolm often takes her class there, and Zora sulks because she was not accepted to Claire’s poetry workshop last semester.

The Belseys’ anniversary party arrives, and the whole family cleans, cooks, and prepares. Levi works at a music mega-store on Saturdays, and he takes the public transportation into Boston again this Saturday, just like any other workday. After his shift ends at four, he is walking back home through the neighborhood when an old black woman on a porch stops him. Levi is cross, used to older women thinking he will hurt them, simply because of the way he dresses and acts. The old woman calls him up to her porch, and asks him about his mother. She references that people are unpacking inside, and finally lets Levi go. Back home, Zora and Levi “fend off” another older woman who thought Levi was an intruder; they go inside to where people are preparing food. Kiki realizes that the strange old black woman who annoyed Levi was most likely Carlene Kipps, as the Kippses have just moved into the neighborhood. Kiki says she has to invite them now. In reprimanding Levi, she causes him to knock over chocolate sauce; the family all disbands in a bad mood, leaving Kiki to clean up the mess and everything else.

Soon after, Kiki sets off for Redwood, the street on which the Kippses live. She finds Carlene sleeping on the porch, but Carlene wakes up. She and Kiki talk about the differences between England and America, Kiki feeling defensive about the way the English always badmouth America. They talk about how both of them are the non-intellectual wives of intellectual-husbands. Carlene recites, “There is such a shelter in each other,” from a poem (93). Kiki invites Carlene to the party, and Carlene accepts.

The party commences with two of Howard’s graduate students arriving. Howard flirts with Kiki, pushing towards having sex again, but Kiki turns him down, not yet ready, despite the peace in their household. Howard answers the door to Carl, whom Levi had invited to the party. Howard curtly turns Carl away, and the young man leaves, upset. The party itself really commences and goes well; Howard gives a speech at nine-thirty, and it is received positively. Howard is relieved that his infidelity has not spoiled everything for good. Not long after, the Kippses arrive, but without Carlene, who apparently does not like social gatherings such as this. Monty Kipps begins to control conversations and the social politics of the party, much to Howard’s dismay. When Claire Malcolm asks Howard to introduce her to Monty Kipps, it is revealed that the story of the one-night stand in Michigan was purely invented: in reality, it was Claire with whom Howard had a three-week affair. Claire drunkenly slips a hand into Howard’s shirt, but Kiki interrupts the two of them; Kiki can tell the truth from Howard’s face. Claire finally leaves. Kiki tells Howard not to come near her, although he can stay in the house. She asks him to go change he music, which has suddenly become hip-hop.

Howard finds Victoria in the room changing the music, and is annoyed with her lack of deference to him. She is dressed provocatively, and acts so, as well; he finds himself attracted to her, understanding why Jerome fell for her.


The narration of the Mozart Requiem in the second person is interestingly from Kiki’s perspective. The first sentence of this section, and also the corresponding first part of the Requiem, “begins with you walking towards a huge pit” (69), and goes on to later say: “In the pit is a great choir, like the one you joined for two months in Wellington in which you were the only black woman” (69). Perhaps the author is asking for empathy to be extended to a black woman, as the figure furthest removed from the white male (ironically, Kiki’s husband), which is essentially the “generic audience” (also, Mozart was a white man).

While listening to the Requiem, Kiki is moved by how moved Jerome is by the music. She sees that her daughter Zora is listening to a recording of a professor’s analysis, and comments that her daughter always “lived through footnotes” (70). This immediately demonstrates an inherent difference in the way that the two Belsey siblings interpret and perceive the world. It is also slight foreshadowing of the way Zora behaves in the coming chapters, where she fights for causes she may not even really, completely believe in, simply because she believes she should have an opinion—experiencing things second-handedly.

When the Belseys meet Carl, he calls out to Zora, who has taken his Discman: “Hey! Hey, sister!” (73), which mirrors what Kiki had called other blacks earlier in the story, even the Haitian vendor at the fair. There is a kind of fraternity that ties the black community together, even though they come from all different backgrounds. At least, there is a supposed fraternity, although the less-privileged Carl will soon discover that this is all a myth, and that backgrounds and social prejudice still shape a person’s image.

When Carl finally catches up to Zora, the family notices how “stupidly good-looking” Carl is (74). This might remind readers immediately of the story’s purported focus on “beauty.” Zora, ever the striving intellectual, pretends that she is above noticing physical beauty and having attractions to a poor black boy, and makes “a point of ignoring it anyway” (74). Carl also talks about his work in spoken word, which is met with a dubious and almost rude response from Howard, and Zora, too, who says that people like Claire Malcolm are “poet poets” (77), insinuating that Carl’s form of poetry is in some way illegitimate in comparison. This mirrors the same way young, poor blacks from the “streets” are alienated by “proper society.”

On the evening of his parents’ anniversary party, Levi walks back home and notices that the “pristine white spires of the college seemed to him like the watchtowers of a prison to which he was returning” (79), and this imagery of a prison continues in many different places in the story. Note that in this particular statement Levi also observes that the “white” spires of the college contribute to this prison look—that despite anti-discriminatory laws for higher education, “good” academic institutions will still try to block students like Carl, and others.

As the party preparations progress, the narrator notes that “Soul food has a scent that fills you up even before your mouth gets near any of it” (84), one of the many incidents in which the readers are directly addressed, pulling the readers into the direct moments of the party. Later, when Levi swears, the narrator further says that “swearing was, as we have seen, generally accepted in most situations” (87), attempting to make the reader identify with the events. This is most likely because the story has so much to do with identifying with others (or lacking the ability thereof).

When Kiki goes to see Carlene for the first time to invite her to the party, Carlene recites the line from a poem that reads: “There is such a shelter in each other” (93), which signifies many things, including the implication that Kiki and Carlene will seek shelter in each other when their husbands cannot understand them or when they cannot understand their husbands. When Kiki returns to her party, she finds that Howard’s graduate student fans Meredith and Christian have arrived. Meredith and Christian are classic examples of hysterical-realism characters: they are ridiculous and borderline unrealistic, and yet still wholly plausible as real people.

When Carl shows up at the anniversary party, Howard describes him as “tall, pleased with himself, pretty, too pretty like a conman” (105), implying that there is something almost unrealistic about Carl. The conman/criminal association also undoubtedly comes from the last adjective describing Carl in this passage: “black.” When Zora meets the Kippses, she describes Michael Kipps as “striking, but wholly void of sex appeal” (113), and immediately “thought, strangely, of that boy in the park”–“that boy” being, of course, Carl. She muses: “Why can’t respectable boys like this look more like boys like that?” (113), having readers again wonder if there is really that big a divide between “street blacks” like Carl and “intellectual blacks” like the two families—especially if they had been born in slightly different socioeconomic situations.

After Kiki discovers that Howard had actually been sleeping with Claire, not some random one-night stand, Howard feels his drunkenness taking hold of him in a negative way, and the narrator describes his feelings by saying that “neither the white tip of a thought nor the black hole into which it was vanishing would be visible to him” (122). This passage utilizes an interesting contrast of white and black color images, one that mirrors Howard and Kiki’s own physical appearances. This stark contrast of the “thought” that is disappearing, and the “hole” into which it is vanishing gives it more power—these colors are total opposites.