On Beauty

On Beauty Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss the significance of the title.

    “On Beauty” is a reference to a series of essays on aesthetics compiled as “On Beauty and Being Just” by Elaine Scarry. It is also the title of a poem by Smith’s husband Nick Laird, which is presented in the story as a poem written by Claire Malcolm. The concept of beauty, or the title, is never explicitly mentioned in the book, but as a whole the idea of beauty and its physical and non-physical natures frames the story. The central conflict of the story at first seems to be the opposition between Howard and Monty, but it is in reality Kiki and Howard’s marriage, and Howard’s infidelity. Howard’s infidelity is largely due to the fact that Kiki has become overweight over time, and “less beautiful.” Furthermore, Howard’s studies are in the history of the visual arts, where aesthetics and beauty is of the utmost concern. His studies are of Rembrandt, primarily a portrait painter, someone who depicts the beauty (or lack thereof) of people. Lastly, the two main young women, Zora and Victoria, are both preoccupied with their bodies, for different reasons. Zora is overwhelmed with an urge to change her heavyset body, and Victoria, who is strikingly beautiful, struggles to realize how to harness and use her beauty, especially against or with her mind. On Beauty is also largely about the differences between men and women, and how the concept of beauty manifests itself so differently in the lives of men and women; for example, all the examples just presented were instances of how cruel “beauty” can be to women.

  2. 2

    How is the narration/point of view of this novel particularly useful? Why do you think the author chose to use this method of narration? Support your arguments with textual evidence.

    The narrator is a presence in the story. She (presumably a woman), narrates the story from an omniscient third person perspective, moving from one close third-person point-of-view focus to another close third-person point-of-view focus (i.e. narrative focus on different particular characters). She often uses “you know” statements; the first line of the book is a “one might as well” statement. This establishes the story as a more intimate recounting, and not a simply a distant recollection of lives. In using this sort of tone, the author often pulls readers into the text. The text also has a lot of characters and a lot of local events, and so pulling the reader in close allows the narrator to bring her audience along for the journey as she navigates the complex stories.

  3. 3

    How is infidelity related to “beauty?” Is it an affront to beauty? Compare and contrast cases on infidelity in On Beauty, discussing their relationships (or lack thereof) to “what is beautiful.”

    The cases of infidelity in On Beauty include: Howard and Claire, Howard and Victoria, Monty and Chantelle, and a slight mention of Erskine in his first marriage. In Howard’s first and main infidelity to Kiki, he manages to shake Kiki's self-confidence, especially when he then implies that her deteriorated physical beauty is the reason why he had his affair. (He says that he had married a thin black woman, not a large one.) In this way, infidelity is essentially an affront to beauty, or a response to it, and one that only makes the process of losing beauty worse and more painful. Monty’s affair does not exactly detract from Carlene’s late beauty, but it immediately damages his “beautiful” presentation and image of himself. This is what infidelity does socially, but it also ruins his Christian and religious construction as an individual. Lastly, Howard’s affair with Victoria is an affront to her beauty because of how debased their sexual actions are: despite Victoria’s extreme beauty, there is something that is now much less grand and separate about her once they have slept together.

  4. 4

    Can men and women really ever know each other? Cite examples from the text. Why is this question so important for this story?

    Based on the arguments that On Beauty provides, it seems that men and women can never really know each other, and that each gender lives in its own world. Carlene talks about the differences between the ways men and women recognize their bodies. While Kiki visibly disagrees with this, she later quietly realizes, without “realizing” this realization, that this is somewhat true. For example, she is pained by how much Zora hates her own body, and laments that this is why she didn’t want to have daughters. Later, while having sex with Howard one last time, she realizes that she cannot explain to Howard how sex feels to her, but wonders why that should matter if they can both experience pleasure. This question is important because the story is completely centered on marriage and interpersonal relationships, and marriage asks for a bridge between (usually) male and female understandings of the world.

  5. 5

    Throughout the novel, Howard is burdened by his unwritten book on Rembrandt. Why Rembrandt? What is the significance of Howard’s burden, or the fact that he is burdened, in relation to the structure and themes of the novel?

    Rembrandt is a painter known for his portraits, and his usage of painting humans to understand slices of life and capture moments of action. (For example, Howard considers the various interpretations of certain paintings that capture very specific moments. He realizes that all of these interpretations could actually be incorrect.) Likewise, On Beauty is a book of portraits, a collection of intimate cross-sections of people’s lives. It furthermore captures the inability between humans to really understand what happens in another person’s life, or another individual’s motivations. Of all these reasons and more, Rembrandt is significant as a specific artist. Furthermore, as a burden to Howard, Rembrandt and Howard’s unfulfilled academic purposes are a reminder of all the lives that are weighing down on his shoulders, of all the narratives that he carries but may never really be able to resolve.

  6. 6

    Trace the relations that Victoria has with various men (that readers know about). Discuss the importance of each, and how these relations seek to define her character. Does she end up being defined by men? If so, why is her character arc written to be the way that it is?

    The first male with whom Victoria sleeps in the story is Jerome Belsey, the second is his father Howard Belsey, and the last is Carl Thomas from Roxbury. There are presumably many more men between each of these incidents. Each of these men is very different from the others. While there is no definite arc or progression for Victoria between each of these men, there is certain significance in her relationships with each of them, and each explores the matter of who Victoria is as a person and as a woman. First, with Jerome, she is still in the flush of her “social and sexual successes of her first summer abroad without her family,” and sees Jerome as being “satisfyingly unmanned by his desire for her” and “weighed down by his virginity” (45). Victoria does not take Jerome seriously, while Jerome takes her seriously. Later, when sleeping with Howard, Victoria says that “she needs a man,” and that Jerome was “lovely, but he’s a boy” (318). Victoria makes this statement in an almost humorous way, as though she is not actually serious about this. Regardless, she eventually becomes the one who is more hung up on Howard and Howard’s lack of care for their affair; this is the reversal of her earlier situation with Jerome. Finally, her sleeping with Carl gives the impression that both parties are rather equivalent and have some sort of emotional disregard for each other. Their relationship is almost all physical attraction; watching them hook up, Zora sees that they are “perfect together” (412). Finally, Victoria has found someone who is relatively “equal” to her in terms of experience, and yet even this equivalence cannot shake Victoria’s continuous need for men to understand her beauty.

  7. 7

    Consider the significance of “street culture” in On Beauty, particularly in relation to black culture. What do characters like Carl, Choo, and Levi stand for? How do these characters’ respective arcs or endings speak to the culture to which they belong, at large?

    The current state of race relations in America is a major concern and focus of On Beauty. The two families opposed to each other are both “black families” to some extent—the Belsey family is interracial. However, the struggle between these families is not only against discrimination from white culture, but also one against blacks. Levi is a demonstration of what happens when an intellectual black pretends to be able to empathize with those living in poorer and less academic environments. In the end, he must return to his proper life. Carl is a demonstration of a “street black” boy who attempts to enter the world of intellectuals, and he, also, in the end, must return to his own home, what he calls “his people.” Choo, differently from the two boys who are still concerned about school, has even been a teacher at some point in his lifetime. Choo’s preoccupation is with economic discrimination as a Caribbean immigrant. Being an immigrant as well as being black in the United States is a major part of Choo’s perceived and real position at a very low rung in the American social system. In all of these cases, it seems as though these characters must return to their respective worlds of origin, and yet their very interactions suggest possible future reconciliation.