On Beauty

On Beauty Summary and Analysis of Part III: On Beauty and Being Wrong (Chapters 1-6)

Summary (pg. 273-341)

The Belseys spend Christmas in London with the Millers, some family friends. The Millers are old family friends of Howard’s, and do not have children. They also do not celebrate Christmas, which also abides by Howard’s liberal ideology. They have been together for long before Kiki receives a call from Michael Kipps that Carlene Kipps is dead. They are invited to the funeral, which is happening in London.

A little before this, a mile away at where they are staying, the Kippses talk about Carlene’s death, which was the result of a cancer she told no one about. They also talk particularly about a note they discovered, written in pencil, in which Carlene gifts a painting to Kiki Belsey. Michael and Monty are extremely upset, as the painting of the Haitian goddess (the one now gifted to Kiki) is worth a very high amount. They are upset and cry some. They decide to invite Kiki to the funeral, thinking she would not come.

The Belseys all go to the funeral together, and note that the attendees of the funeral are from all different social classes. They run into Erskine Jegede here, who wrongly supposes Howard to be there for social and political motives; Kiki is not happy with this assumption. The church where the funeral service is being held is a very strange, open, and low-class area, and the building itself is cheap and unattractive. Zora sees Chantelle Williams from her poetry class in the crowd, and is surprised to see her here at all; Chantelle is another one of the “discretionary students,” like Carl, whom Claire has taken on. The service begins, and Howard begins to think about death as a concept, and as it relates to himself and his family. He begins to grip the arms of his chair in panic, and begins to cry silently but heavily. He finally has to run outside of the church.

After the service, Kiki is taken aback when Monty Kipps invites the Belseys to the cemetery and the wake. They have a conversation that makes Kiki say that Monty isn’t petty, but she then stops and resolves to no longer criticize her husband in front of her children. Zora has gone to talk to Chantelle Williams, who attends the same church as Monty back in Wellington and is interning for him here in London over the holidays. However, because of Carlene’s death, Chantelle will be returning home early; she cries about everything in Kiki’s arms. After the girl leaves, Kiki expresses anger at Howard’s behavior. She calls the Millers, but Howard is not back at the house.

Howard, on the other hand, has walked out of the funeral and without knowing where he was going, subconsciously headed for Cricklewood, the lower class area in which he grew up. He visits his father Harold Belsey in their old house; an older woman answers, which Howard is not very happy about, since he does not believe they need a random worker to be taking care of Harold. Harold and Howard have a very unique and not altogether positive relationship. Harold is slightly senile and very close-minded, and also completely removed from Howard’s academic and intellectual life now. They sit and talk for a while, with Howard finding many parts of his old life, tied to his one still-living parent, insufferable. Howard tells Harold about his marriage and how it is falling apart, and Harold makes a racist comment, which prompts Howard to finally leave. Harold begs for his son to stay; the narrator comments that there is never enough time.

Back at the funeral, the rest of the Belseys walk around in circles trying to find their way back. They talk about Kiki’s friendship, or at least acquaintance, with Carlene. After leaving Harold, Howard goes to a pub, and watches a football match with random pub regulars. He calls Adam Miller while drunk, saying that he has been separated from everyone, and to ask where Kiki is; Adam has to hang up, and so Howard goes outside and takes a cab. He asks to go to the Kippses’ residence at Queen’s Park. While there, he finds the Kippses’ front door, open, once again, and walks in. He walks around, smokes a thin, quick, cigarette, and drinks even more wine. He has to go to the bathroom; while looking for it, he accidentally walks into Victoria Kippses’ bedroom. He is invited in, and talks to the girl, who is mourning and drinking wine. They talk about Carlene, and also about Howard’s class; Victoria lets him into a students-only secret about how difficult Howard’s class is. Lastly, they talk about Kiki, and Howard begins to leave, although he has always been attracted to Victoria. When Victoria asks to drink one sip of wine from his glass, she instead leaps into his lap and begins kissing and seducing him. They move on to the bed, where they make love, with Victoria being incredibly dramatic the entire time. Afterwards, they compose themselves and go downstairs.

Back in January in Wellington, the much-anticipated Humanities Faculty meeting commences. This is the meeting during which Howard and Monty will finally vocalize their ideological differences, with Howard intending to block Monty’s conservative upcoming lectures. This is also the meeting in which Zora will present her case for the discretionary students like Carl and Chantelle. Howard has his entire performance planned out, and discreetly maps out his supporters in the audience, but when he gets up to speak, he is distracted by the sight of Monty and does not deliver his speech as well as he would have liked. Howard asks that Monty submit the written transcripts of his lectures for review for hate speech prior to their delivery, and that otherwise the Humanities Faculty should ban these lectures. Monty refuses to submit, and the two academics argue back and forth in the meeting, which leads to other faculty arguing back and forth. Monty’s will prevails in the end. Zora comes in to deliver her speech.

After the meeting, Howard runs into Victoria as he goes out to smoke outside the fire door. They go inside the fire door, where Victoria says she had tried to call him. Howard presumes it is about the affair, and Victoria reminds him tartly about his agreeing to go with her to the formal dinner tonight. They are interrupted by Liddy, the Humanities office assistant, and Howard fakes a proper teacher-student statement at the last minute.


When the Kipps discuss Carlene’s gifting of her painting to Kiki, Monty and Michael take over the conversation and “the women in the room were not offered hats and instinctively sat back in their chairs” (279). Although Monty, as a black Christian conservative, often appears charismatic and spiritual in public, this implicit yet open misogyny demonstrates a very wrong aspect of his beliefs. Things are only worse when his eventual infidelity, even leading up to the time of his wife’s death, is revealed.

When the Belseys attend Carlene’s funeral, Howard is suddenly overwhelmed with emotions about death and its permanence, mostly about his own family. He is particularly affected at Carlene’s funeral probably because of his age and of what has recently transpired in his life. Again, like when Kiki discovered the truth of his infidelity, his thoughts “fled from him and rushed down their dark holes” (288) and he pictures his family’s gravestones—particularly Kiki’s.

When visiting his father Harold, Howard realizes that he still cannot connect with his father. He still is frustrated with “banal little English catchphrases” that are completely meaningless noise, that are “substitutes for real conversation” (297). This might bring to mind one of the repeated lines of Claire’s pantoum, “On Beauty”: the line, “Speech is useless/the beautiful know this.” The same way that Howard will eventually beg Kiki for more time, so Harold begs his son to stay. But Howard simply cannot—“he just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love” (302). Without being told explicitly what Howard does believe is a proper way to spend love, readers might assume that Howard believes in some sort of action, some lack of passivity, to demonstrate love.

While Howard talks with Victoria in her bedroom just before hooking up with her, the narrator drops an obvious hint of foreshadowing. When Victoria says “Kiki,” suddenly, Howard feels “how awful the corruption when you hear the name of your heart in the mouth of the person you are about to betray her with!” (313.) This statement also carries a strange dramatic gravity that suggests grandeur in this situation. Yet, when the actual affair occurs, and in many of their interactions afterwards, there is very much a lack of grandeur, in which Howard often forgets about his infidelity with Victoria, since so much of his tension with Kiki comes instead from the original affair with Claire.