On Beauty

On Beauty Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Symbol: The Haitian Painting/Haiti

None of the black or Caribbean characters in On Beauty has Haitian roots except for a few minor extras such as the maids (Monique and Clotilde), Choo, and the support group. However, Haiti, Haitians, and even Carlene’s painting of a Haitian goddess (by Hyppolite), recur throughout the story. Haiti becomes a symbol of the lowest “caste” of black-Americans, as they are often only visible in working-class positions, despite sometimes coming from educated backgrounds (like Choo). The Haitian painting, itself symbolizing many positive things, also stands as a testament to the power of the black woman, and how, despite all that has been done to her, she continues to stand strong and beautifully.

Symbol: Rembrandt

The Dutch painter Rembrandt is Howard’s chosen artist of study, and in many ways this makes sense. Rembrandt is known for this portraits and depictions of slices of real life, which is essentially what On Beauty is: a presentation of intersecting human narratives; a series of portraits of these interlocked lives.

Symbol: The Bus Stop

The symbolism of the name of the poetry café in Wellington, the “Bus Stop,” is one that is not explicit but one that can be plied open. Carl, who performs spoken word virtually as a career before he starts working at Wellington (briefly), only performs occasionally at the Bus Stop. The Bus Stop is exactly that: a halfway point for “true” spoken word artists; merely a stop on the way to success. That is the same case with Wellington, which is almost the real city of Boston, but not yet, and not really.

Symbol: Rap music/hip-hop culture

Rap music and its accompanying hip-hop culture in many ways has already surpassed its typical status as a symbol, but within On Beauty, still, one of the ways Levi tries to identify himself with “street blackness” rather than the academic, intellectual blackness of his family is by listening to rap music and dressing in the fashion of rap artists. His knowledge of rap is extensive and is even part of his work at the mega-store. When not an equivalent or a constructive element of it, rap music is a stand-in or substitute—a symbol—for street blackness.

Motif: Black and white colors

Throughout the entire story, notes about specific images or objects that are black or white (or gray) are made–for example, white teeth (74), a black hole (122), and a black mood (165), among many others. This is an obvious reflection on the existence of black/white racial divides and social issues in the United States and in England, as well as how important race and appearance are for the two families that dominate this story.

Motif: Warm colors

Yellow/orange/red – the presence of warm colors is what explicitly ends the book, and also what gently begins it. Kiki is described as wearing these colors often, and in the first scene which really introduces Wellington—the scene at the town celebration—Claire Malcolm comments: “It’s so good to see you. What an outfit! It’s like the sunset – the red, the yellow, the orangey-brown – Keeks, you’re setting” (52) to Kiki. (Later, Howard will also be described as a “dying sun” (338).) At the very end of the story, Howard indirectly draws a parallel between his own wife and Rembrandt’s love Hendrickje, commenting on all the colors used in the paintings of Hendrickje’s hands, but ending on “the ever present human hint of yellow” which is “an intimation of what is to come” (443), revealing that yellow, like the sun, is a color of promise.

Motif: Poetry/poems

Although the central part of Howard’s studies (and therefore the central “academic subject” focus of this story) is the visual arts, poetry, interestingly, is a repeated occurrence in the plot. Whether this is in the rap that Levi listens to, the spoken word Carl performs, or the page poems that Claire and Zora write, poetry is a thing of beauty that takes many forms, just like people.