On Beauty

On Beauty On Beauty's status as an homage to E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End

Author Zadie Smith has explicitly said that On Beauty functions as a homage to the classic work Howards End by E. M. Forster. The plot bears heavy similarities to Forster’s novel. For example, the Forster novel is about two families representing conflicting ideals (the socioeconomically prejudiced Wilcoxes and the generally helpful and aware Schlegels), just as On Beauty is about the conservative and traditional Kipps and the liberal Belseys. Helen Schlegel and Paul Wilcox have a brief engagement before it is called off—just as Jerome and Victoria do. Kiki and Carlene, like Margaret Schlegel and Mrs. Wilcox, also become tentative friends and go shopping together. In both cases, the older woman invites the younger to go to her property on an impulse; in both stories, this offer is first rejected and then accepted. Sad endings befall both stories when the older woman’s family whisks her away, and then the older woman dies without seeing the younger one. In both stories, one family meets a younger, working-class man at a classical music concert: Leonard Bast at Beethoven in Howards End, and Carl Thomas at Mozart in On Beauty. These problematic, sad characters are also both written out of the text unfairly towards the end, after tragic and angry arguments.

Specific textual parallels also exist. For example, On Beauty opens on Jerome’s letters, just as Forster’s opens on Helen’s letters. In fact, the stories begin with the same exact lines. When going out shopping with Margaret or Carlene, Helen or Kiki also contemplate the same concept: they experience the same wonder at the true, friendly, and intimate nature of the older woman—whether she really wants to be friends or not. The name “Howard” for “Howard Belsey” is also most likely a reference to Forster’s title. Furthermore, it is then ironic when Howard finds E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View at his father’s study, and comments, “Can’t stand Forster” (298), as though he cannot stand the tale into which he has been written.