On Beauty

On Beauty Summary and Analysis of Part II: The Anatomy Lesson (Chapters 6-11)

Summary (pg. 194-271)

The following day, Sunday, Jerome finds his mother sitting half in the cold in the kitchen. They, with Zora, talk about not knowing where Levi is; Levi has not come home since he headed out yesterday. Kiki says that she is unable to keep him home. Kiki is also very clearly going through menopause. Levi emerges from his bedroom; he had actually made it back last night. Levi says he needs to go to the Bus Stop on Tuesday night; Zora’s poetry class is incidentally going there for a field trip on the same night to see spoken word poetry.

The kids leave the kitchen and Howard comes in. He and Kiki argue, at first obliquely, and then explicitly, about Howard’s affair with Claire. Kiki tells him that she gave up her entire life for him, living almost completely with white people. Howard, on the other hand, references the fact that Kiki has changed a lot, physically. He leaves the house on this broken note.

On Tuesday night, Zora waits for her poetry class near the Bus Stop. Most of Claire’s class has come. They eat dinner first, as the Bus Stop is also a restaurant. Claire and Zora coincidentally sit at the same table over dinner. Levi arrives and says hello to his sister and Claire. He is with a large group of guys who will be performing later that night.

After dinner, the class goes downstairs, where a heavily minority-filled crowd has gathered. The first poet is not very good, and the class laughs at this. More and more poets follow, while Claire thinks through her decisions in life regarding men. She had been seeing psychiatrists for many years now, and her most recent one, Dr. Byford, had gotten her closest to a breakthrough: she married Warren after following some of Dr. Byford’s advice. She recalls the affair with Howard, and how it was cut short because Kiki had discovered an unopened condom in Howard’s pocket.

A group of nine or ten boys gets on stage and begins rapping in Creole with an English chorus; the whole performance is frenetic. Levi, surprisingly, gets on stage with them and acts as hype man. The performance has something to do with Haiti and Haitian rights. Claire and Zora go out to smoke for a little bit, also as a small reprieve from the loud performance. Zora’s friend Ron suddenly runs up to get them, because an amazingly talented black man is performing. Zora realizes that it is Carl. Carl wins the poetry contest of the night, sees Zora, and kisses her full on the lips. Claire Malcolm flags him down and asks him to join her class, to help perfect his work. In a rush of happiness, Carl agrees.

Just before Thanksgiving, all three Belsey children run into each other by pure coincidence on the streets of Boston. Levi is skipping school, but his siblings do not rat on him. They all gather in a restaurant and catch up. They catch up about everything: Howard and Kiki, the Kippses, Carl, and more. Levi says he has to go back to school, but in reality he is heading over to hustle with the group of street vendors that he ran into last time. He has joined their team, led by a man named Felix. Felix assigns Levi a partner, Chouchou, a quiet Haitian man, whom Levi nicknames Choo. Choo and Levi set up a stand of knock-off name-brand purses and movies. As they part ways for the day, Levi lies to Choo, telling him that he (Levi) comes from Roxbury.

The story shifts to one of Howard’s classes in session, but also from the perspective of a freshman named Katie Armstrong, who is only sixteen years old. From Katie’s perspective, it is shown that Howard’s class is rather hard and very intimidating for most students. She notes that Victoria, who is auditing the class, commands Howard’s attention continuously. As class is dismissed, Howard’s teaching assistants come up to commend him, but Howard watches Victoria’s impressive backside walk out the door. Then, out in the courtyard, Victoria asks Howard if he would accompany her to a formal student-professor dinner; although surprised, Howard agrees, although he tells her not to have a glee club in attendance there.

In Claire’s class, Carl is learning exceptionally well. Claire knows that Monty Kipps is going to try to ban discretionary students like Carl, and so she asks Zora to spearhead a campaign to allow these students to continue attending classes. Zora looks forward to making a speech in front of the humanities faculty.

Soon, Christmas break begins, and Carlene and Kiki go Christmas shopping together. Carlene tells Kiki about a house that the Kippses will be going to over the holidays, and how there are original paintings there; when Kiki expresses how much she loves Edward Hopper, Carlene urges that they go to the Amherst house now, together. When Kiki turns this down, Carlene becomes agitated and silently upset that Kiki did not take the spontaneous opportunity. Bothered by this even after she goes home, Kiki turns up at the train station later anyways, to go to Amherst with Carlene. However, suddenly, the rest of the Kippses show up and Carlene pushes plans with Kiki back. She watches the happy Kippses walk away from the train platform.


While sifting through papers and calendars, Kiki notices an old button she bought in New York in the eighties that reads: “I myself have never been able to figure out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat” (195). This is one of the few times when the word “feminism” is used openly, and the button’s first line, “I myself have never been able to figure out precisely what feminism is,” is actually indicative of Kiki’s own perspective. She is clearly a feminist, believing in her own rights, and yet her capacity to forgive Howard for infidelity might be interpreted as deference to him.

Now, references to prison come up in the Belsey household when Kiki says that she is not Levi’s “jailer” (197). Throughout the story there is this subtle preoccupation with being liberated, as opposed to being jailed. This is a reflection of the overall narratives of socioeconomic and racial oppression that takes place in America, narratives that also occur quietly, often unrecognized.

When Howard and Kiki argue, Kiki notices “every fold and tremble of his fading prettiness” and finds “contempt for even his most neutral physical characteristics” (203). By describing these neutral physical characteristics in a hyper-realistic and slightly negative manner, Kiki can reconstruct her husband as ugly—thereby making him easier to despise. Howard, likewise, reveals indirectly that it was easier to be unfaithful to Kiki once she was so much less physically attractive, so much larger—“It’s true that men – they respond to beauty…it doesn’t end for them, this…this concern with beauty as physical actuality in the world” (207), Howard tries to explain, only to make matters worse. Kiki rhetorically asks him: “You married a big black bitch and you run off with a fucking leprechaun?” (206), referencing Claire’s petite, white appearance. This prompts Howard to say “I didn’t…I married a slim black woman, actually. Not that it’s relevant” (207), revealing that physical beauty definitely had a role in his infidelity.

While taking her class to the Bus Stop and having dinner there, the narrator tells readers that Claire “spoke often in her poetry of the idea of ‘fittingness’: that is, when your chosen pursuit and your ability to achieve it – no matter how small or insignificant both might be – are matched exactly, are fitting” (214), and that this is where Claire believes “we become truly human, fully ourselves, beautiful” (214). This theory of beauty is general and well received, and can be applied to many instances in the book. However, at this point the theory does not seem completely explanatory of, for example, Howard’s actions. Only from a macroscopic view does this theory have a certain hold in the book: despite racial barriers, despite intellectual disparity, Howard still loved Kiki enough to marry her. Their relationship Claire muses about in her thoughts a little later on, saying that “without Kiki, he [Howard] couldn’t function—anyone who knew him knew that much” (225). However, something “about his academic life had changed love for him, changed its nature” (225), Claire notes, and this was what had made their affair possible. Claire thinks back to when she had first met Kiki, when her “beauty was awesome, almost unspeakable” (227), and how, for Claire, Kiki has always radiated “an essential female nature…full of something like genuine desire,” that Kiki is a “goddess of the everyday” (227). Kiki’s beauty and her genuineness and intellectual “simplicity” were—and perhaps still are—a counter-balance to Howard’s own life.

Levi starts working with the black street hustlers, and thinks to himself of his boss Felix that “Felix was like the essence of blackness in some way. You looked at Felix and thought: This is what it’s all about, being this different; this is what white people fear and adore and want and dread. He was as purely black as—on the other side of things—those weird Swedish guys with translucent eyelashes are purely white” (242). This is the kind of culture, this kind of concentrated blackness (and even anti-whiteness) that Levi seeks to identify with, and so attracts him to the street hustlers. The narrator makes no comment as to whether this sort of concentrated blackness is necessary in today’s culture to combat prejudice, because in a lot of ways it only serves to perpetuate prejudice. It sometimes serves as a source of fear, as Levi notes that white people might fear and/or dread people like Felix.

Howard’s class progresses through the year with a much smaller group of students now. In his class is the extra-young Katie Armstrong, who, before class, studies up on a few Rembrandt works. “The Seated Nude,” a 1631 etching, always moves her to tears. She is moved to tears because of how beautiful the misshapen woman is, a “simple naked woman” (251) who is repulsed and declaimed as disgusting by men throughout history. Yet Katie wonders: “Is she really so grotesque?...Katie began to notice all the exterior, human information, not explicitly in the frame but implied by what we see there…This is what a woman is: unadorned, after children and work and age, and experience – these are the marks of living” (251-252). Katie’s perspective gives a sorrowful and youthful insight into the same work that Howard studies—but from a woman’s perspective. A man may not have picked up the same information that Katie did from the etching, nor would have come to the same conclusions.

Because time is marked so keenly in this novel, it is not surprising that the narrator comments on the transition from autumn into winter by asking, “How does one cry from help from these seasonal prisons?” (264). As much as time is a liquid, flowing process, and one that can be positive, it can still function as a trapping device.