Summary (pg. 127-194)
Summer ends and the first week of school begins. Zora begins her sophomore year, paying close attention to how she dresses and presents herself. She tries to go to the pool to swim every morning and exercise. This day, she finds her goggles accidentally taken and used by the man in the lane next to her. The young man turns out to be Carl, again, who catches up with Zora after their swim. He tries to talk to her about his well-fleshed-out thoughts and research on the Mozart Requiem, but Zora, occupied with meetings and thoughts of her own agendas, does not really respond. However, she ends up telling Carl even about Howard’s recent affair. She finds herself becoming more attracted to Carl, who is quite charming, even if he occasionally gets upset about society’s status quo.
Howard prepares for the first day of class, knowing that a ridiculous amount of students will come in on the first day, but that the majority will drop soon afterwards, afraid of the difficulty of the class. In another building on campus, Zora meets with Dean French to petition her way into Claire Malcolm’s class. While met with initial refusal, Zora mentions the possibility of discrimination on Claire’s part due to the affair she had with Zora’s father. This difficult situation causes Jack French to speak with Claire. Meanwhile, in Howard’s class the students are finished with their first taste of his course, but are afraid to ask questions. Finally, Victoria Kipps asks a small, logistical question.
Back in Dean French’s office, Claire says that Zora does not really have any poetic ability. However, the case at hand forces her to concede and let Zora into the class. Dean French also points out a few “discretionary students” in Claire’s class, whom she has been able to let in over the years as special cases from the community who have real talent.
Kiki, who has tried to visit Carlene several times and only found out that she was unwell, now tries to bring a pie to the older woman. Two days after the party, Carlene had delivered an old-fashioned card to the Belseys saying that she would love to return Kiki’s visit. Kiki wonders if Monty is holding Carlene in against her will. Carlene welcomes Kiki into her home, and then Kiki eats and chats with Carlene. Michael Kipps, Carlene’s son, has just gotten engaged. They talk about what it means to live as a woman, in relation to a man. They also talk about a beautiful painting in Carlene’s room, of a Haitian goddess.
Levi goes to work one Saturday before the holidays hit. He already does not like his job or his supervisor, and on top of this they have been told that they have to work on Christmas Day. Levi tries to rally his coworkers into supporting his efforts, but fails to gain unanimous cooperation. Instead, he angers his manager Bailey, and argues with him; Levi impulsively quits in his anger. Only outside does he realize the gravity of what he has done, and desperately realizes that he now has no more income, and that his parents may soon be getting divorced. Just as he is out on the streets of Boston, pained, he is interrupted by a group of Haitian street hustlers, who sell knock-off purses and bootlegged movies. He smiles and walks towards them.
The episode involving Zora going to swim in the morning reveals much about her character: Zora is very hardworking, and a certain consciousness manifests itself in all of her decisions. However, Zora also realizes that being conscious about a decision does not mean the outcome is necessarily what she wants—for example, her “bohemian intellectual” outfit (129) depends on the way she fills it out, and not on external factors. This is the same case as “being an intellectual” is: one cannot consciously become one, but rather, simply intrinsically has to have intellectual tendencies. While swimming in the pool, the prison-like imagery of the university again resurfaces, this time in Zora’s observations. She says that “up beyond the stadium seating, at the very top of this giant room, a glass wall let the autumn sun in and shot it across the room, like the searchlights in a prison yard” (130), further constructing Wellington as a jail-like space for many reasons (and for many people). When Howard and Smith prepare for the first day of class, Howard remembers that they would have so many students that “they’d have students…lined up against the wall like prisoners waiting to be shot” (141), which gives action and content to this jail-like place, which was hitherto only described spatially as a prison.
While Zora is talking to Carl after seeing him again at the pool, the narrator says that “he reminded [Zora] of the young boys she used to mentor in Boston…His attention span was like theirs. And always the toe-tapping and head-nodding as if stillness was the danger” (135). Not only is this description of Carl rather condescending, but it also demonstrates a difference between Zora’s world and Carl’s world. In fact, in Carl’s world, stillness may very well be the danger—stillness and idleness.
Jack and Claire have a conversation in the hallway this same first day of classes, just before Jack asks Claire to take Zora into her class. Claire shows Jack one of her old poems, which shares the title of the book: “On Beauty.” The poem is a “pantoum,” a Malay verse form that utilizes interlinked quatrains, in which the second and fourth line of each stanza “go on to be the first and third” (152). The nature of the poem is such that the same lines are woven into the verses over and over again, and the whole repetition becomes complicated as the poem moves for forward progress. In the poem “On Beauty,” several lines carry implicit significance, lines such as: “The beautiful don’t lack the wound” and “It is always beginning to snow” and “speech is beautifully useless” and “the beautiful know this” and “and so their sadness is perfect.” The poem, four stanzas of a total of 16 lines, begins and ends with the line “No, we could itemize the list” (it opens with: “No, we could not itemize the list/of sins they can’t forgive us” (153)). As a whole, the piece deals with the concepts of sins, forgiveness, and being damned, albeit completely obliquely. It also establishes something the book has been hinting at throughout the story: beauty is accessible only through “the beautiful,” and the beautiful have a special focus on their face, where so much beauty is transmitted.
This purported focus on the faces of the beautiful is thrown into confusion when Howard notes Victoria’s physical beauty, at the end of his class. He focuses entirely on her body, and in particular, her breasts. At this point he does not do so with an overly lascivious description, but rather notices them in an almost “natural” and organic way, describing her by images of nature such as moonlight, sunshine, and vegetation. One of the differences between men and women, then, it seems, is the male focus on the bodily beauty of things and people.
Because On Beauty focuses so much on academia and what it means to be an intellectual—as separated from those who live in the “real world”—it is rather unsurprising when the seemingly always awkward Jack French is described as a “university man from the cradle” (161). French, the Dean of the Humanities Faculty, is in awe of men like Monty Kipps, who are able to straddle both worlds of the public sphere and the academic ivory towers. The story raises questions as to whether one world is better than the other, and whether they can ever be reconciled. In any case, there exists a mutual condescension on both sides for the other.
Talking to Kiki, Carlene comments on her own physical appearance and the ways men are attracted to beautiful bodies. She says that “men become very absolute about pretty girls, don’t they?” and says also that “I was never one of those women. I’m glad I wasn’t,” since men will become angry and bitter if they cannot “possess” beautiful women (171). Carlene ends by saying that this “left Monty free for other interests” (171). The irony and sadness in this statement is that it is true—that Monty pursued other women, like Chantelle Williams, without anyone else’s knowledge. Kiki also feels uncertain about this statement and the kind of strange deference it lends to men over women. Carlene’s statements may be true, but they are also meaningful in other ways that readers have not yet uncovered, and ways that she will never discover herself, passing away before Monty’s affair is discovered.
While commenting on the beautiful painting of the Voodoo goddess Erzulie hanging up in the Kipps house, Carlene tells Kiki all the things that the woman in the painting symbolizes. Kiki comments, “Phew. That’s a lot of symbolizing” (175), which in effect captures the ways that literature and the arts have been using women as merely symbols, flat concepts, and not often full and equal people.
Just before he quits his job, Levi argues with his manager Bailey, who is one of the most sorry people the boy has ever met, a black man with physical “deformities” such as psoriasis and just being a generally ugly person; “there was a strong streak of perversity in Bailey, born of his isolation, which pushed him to pursue these feeble eccentricities” (189). Bailey is everything that is ugly, all rolled into a black man, which causes him to be even uglier in white eyes. Bailey tells Levi that he sees right through the boy, who comes from the nice suburbs as opposed to the streets. This breaking of the fourth wall is too much for Levi, who cannot reconcile his background and family with the culture he wishes he came from.