In On Beauty, just as recognized by the title, beauty, both physical and non-physical is a very significant concern for the story. Characters struggle to understand the basis or predictability of human reactions to beauty. The book is also rather focused on the beauty of women, and what it does to the men around them, the people around them in general, and to themselves. For example, Kiki Belsey, a main character, was once beautiful in her youth; now heavily overweight and older, Kiki understands that she will never get thinner or return to her original physical appearance. Victoria Kipps, a young college-aged girl, is so strikingly beautiful that all men ever want from her is sex, and all she knows how to give and to harness from her own beauty is her sexuality. An anomaly perhaps is Carl, a strikingly handsome young man, who, like Victoria, is only desired by Zora for his physical beauty. Still, non-physical beauty persists, and manifests itself in the actions and behavior of women; for example, Victoria’s mother Carlene is a soothing and calming presence in the story, despite her lack of significance physical beauty. Throughout the story, characters struggle to understand when one form of beauty outweighs the other, and how to react accordingly to physical and/or non-physical beauty. In the end, neither wins over the other, but, given the presence of love, perhaps non-physical beauty still lasts.
The difference between genders
The difference between men and women is of significant concern in On Beauty, with many central tensions coming up between marriages or because of romantic relations. The central and original conflict between Kiki and Howard is about Howard’s infidelity, but this issue of infidelity is also about a central difference in the way men and women perceive and respond to beauty, with Howard basically conceding that he was unfaithful because of Kiki’s appearance (206). Carlene Kipps also notes that women think and act with their bodies, which is not the same case with men (96). When Kiki and Howard have sex for the last time, Kiki realizes that their experiences might be very different, and that she can hardly use metaphors to explain her feelings to her husband (397). The difference between the two genders is so great that some things cannot even be explained in words.
Professional academic and intellectualism
One of the central questions that On Beauty implicitly asks is: What does it mean to be an intellectual? Several major characters in the book are professional “intellectuals,” or men and women who have stayed in their academic studies their entire life. Men like Howard and the head of his humanities department, Jack French, are like that; Monty Kipps is also one, but one who has gained popularity and fame in the public arena as well (i.e. a ‘public intellectual’). The push-and-pull tension between being “solely” an academic or intellectual and being one who has “real world experience is one that also does not find an ultimate resolution. Becoming an intellectual, the story also establishes, is not a decision that one can make consciously. The story also asks about the relation of the arts to intellectualism. For example, is Claire Malcolm, the poet who teaches creative writing, really an intellectual? At dinner, Zora suspects her of “being barely intellectual” (219) because Claire is not engaged in the critical aspects of academia, but rather in the creative arts.
The power of political ideologies
Political ideology, or just ideologies and beliefs about the world in general, are a great source of unrest in On Beauty. The two main families, the Kipps and the Belseys, are opposed to each other for many reasons, but chiefly for the reason that their ideologies differ: the Kipps are religious, Christian, and conservative, whereas the Belseys are liberal and nonreligious. This shapes the courses of actions that they take, at least in the public sphere.
Family is one of the most important themes of On Beauty; in fact the story could be described as a “family saga.” At its core lies something akin to an academic family feud. What does it mean to be a family? The Kipps are a family held together by values, and so are the Belseys. However, for example, Jerome Belsey does not identify with the main Belsey family values. He is a budding Christian, and when he goes to intern at the Kipps office, Jerome “falls in love with a family” (44). Despite his different values, Jerome is still very close to his mother and his siblings, and loves them very much. It seems that family is more than a group held together by values; for example, Howard would never consider even his like-minded colleagues to be his family. Families need a deep love that binds them together, and so, too, readers see that the Kipps and the Belseys have very different ways of loving each other. For example, Monty and his son are close, and the Kipps are unafraid to talk about money (278), whereas such talk is taboo in the Belsey household.
Social stratification based on race
In the original Howards End by E. M. Forster, the two families Wilcox and Schlegel dispute over social stratification and prejudices based off of poverty and socioeconomic position. In Smith’s On Beauty, the issues of social stratification and judgment is further complicated by issues of race. Both the Belseys and the Kippses are at least partially black. The Belseys are mixed race, something that is no longer frowned upon but that is still of significance. Their respective backgrounds can still cause tension between Kiki and Howard. Both the Belseys and the Kippses come from privileged black backgrounds, with high income and academic intellectualism surrounding them and even coursing in their bloodstreams. However, the general or traditional stereotype of the young black man in the United States is closer to Carl, a 20-year old dropout from Boston. Carl becomes mixed up with the Belseys and the Kippses, becoming friends with the children of the former, and beginning a sexual relationship with Victoria Kipps. However, this stratification even within a race, which is already opposed to the oppressive movement of, for example, white culture, proves to be too much to sustain. When Carl and the Belseys argue at a party, Carl says that intellectual blacks think they are “too good for their own people” (418), and must leave this culture because of background differences.
Visuals, visual art, and aesthetics
In On Beauty, Howard Belsey, one of the main characters, is a professor of art history and aesthetics in a university. He specializes in Rembrandt and the portraits that Rembrandt painted. This subject of study is one that is closely and explicitly related to beauty: art is (traditionally) about physical, visual beauty. By studying artwork (often portraits of women), Howard—and other characters—develops ideas about the nature of physical beauty and what it means to depict people. Studying Rembrandt and visual art also gives the narrative a conduit through which to understand what makes humans react to beauty, and particularly beautiful people: for example, one of Howard’s students loves one of Rembrandt’s “grotesque” etchings of a nude woman: the student realizes that, although shame this woman’s portrait, the subject is really beautiful from the marks of living (251-252). Other forms of art with their own systems of aesthetics are also a part of the story: poetry with Claire, spoken word and rap with Carl and Levi, and classical music such as Mozart, which so profoundly affected Jerome and Kiki at the Boston concert.
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.