On Beauty

On Beauty Summary and Analysis of Part III: On Beauty and Being Wrong (Chapters 7-13)

Summary (pg. 341-443)

Howard goes home, where everyone is looking for different things for their own respective activities. Zora gets ready to go to her own formal event, and Howard walks into his own hall; he notes that the mixed-sex faculty-student partners are always somehow a little awkward. An all-male a cappella group, a glee club, comes in, but Howard has no time to be startled; Victoria comes in late, looking fantastic as usual. They go in to the hall, where Monty also is, and Howard realizes that Victoria might also be “playing him” (against her father). He, like many other faculty members, gets drunk soon. He runs into Erskine in the bathroom, who drunkenly talks to Howard about how girls today, like Victoria, know more about sex than their generation; hearing another man talk about Victoria lasciviously makes Howard want her again. However, after he returns to the table, the glee club begins to sing, and Howard laughs uncontrollably, unable to bear the actions that go along with the a cappella singing. Victoria is mortified, and Howard has to run out of the room.

Later, after Howard has gone home, Kiki also comes home quite late. She has just been with a girlfriend who is also getting divorced from her husband. Kiki remarks that marriages all seem to be on a timer. Howard convinces Kiki to drink some amaretto with him, and he tells her about the glee club incident. It is revealed that both Howard and Kiki cannot stand glee clubs, and had once ruined some performance at a dinner at Yale. He and Kiki have a good laugh, and Howard thinks everyone is going all right and that he will be able to sleep in the master bedroom; however, Kiki leaves abruptly.

Levi, who has been working for the Haitians for a while now, goes to Boston early one morning during the week to pay a visit to Choo. On the public transportation, Levi reads his book about Haiti, which reveals that Levi is very moved by the immediacy of emotion, but, unlike the rest of his family, holds very little real political or ideological foundation. At Choo’s house, Choo reveals that he used to be a high school teacher in Haiti, and is humiliated by the work he does here in the United States, such as serve at the Wellington formal dinner that Howard and Victoria had just attended.

Back in Wellington, Kiki pays the Kippses a visit and brings them a pie. Monty invites her in, and the two are talking when Chantelle Williams suddenly runs out the door. Monty tells Kiki that Chantelle came to his house asking for support to keep staying in her classes at Wellington, but his refusal to oblige caused her to run out in a tantrum. Kiki and Monty talk about their clashing ideologies and Zora’s support of the opposition on the issue of discretionary students. They walk out together as Monty prepares to go to the university.

Meanwhile, Zora has been spearheading such a hefty campaign for the discretionary students that even Claire Malcolm feels overwhelmed. Claire asks for help from Erskine, since she probably will not be able to keep Carl from Monty’s argument. Erskine creates a new job for Carl as the “Hip Hop Archivist” of the African-American Music Library. Carl is elated and takes up the job immediately. He gets paid to do what he loves. Zora, who now, more than ever, has a crush on Carl, visits him often when he is in the library, often to his annoyance, since he does not like her back. She constantly tells him about all that she is doing in her campaign for him.

Meanwhile, Victoria has been continuing to sext Howard, and, having forgiven him for the formal dinner incident, arranges to meet with him in a hotel. They meet in a room, and she is just about to seduce him when a cleaning woman reveals herself in the bathroom; the Caribbean worker leaves in a hurry, but not before being confronted meanly by Victoria. Victoria begins to seduce Howard, but he exclaims that he cannot do this.

Later, back in his office, Howard and his assistant Smith Miller prepare for an upcoming lecture that may finally earn Howard tenure. After Smith leaves, Howard sits in his office zooming in on the Rembrandt paintings on his hard drive. Levi suddenly comes in, surprising Howard. Levi comes in to ask for money, and also confesses to Howard that he lost his job. On his way out, Levi runs into Carl. Carl insists on showing Levi his new job. Levi has lost interest in Carl, and as he leaves, he realizes that he has matured a lot since last summer, and no longer has any sort of infatuation with or great respect for Carl. Victoria Kipps walks through the door as Carl and Levi are about to part ways; they are both astounded by her body. It turns out that Victoria is walking to Howard’s office, where she confronts him about leaving her both at the dinner and then the second time at the hotel. She makes an abrupt exit after they agree to destroy the email sexts she sent him. As he also walks out to leave, Howard sees Monty giving one of his incendiary lectures, one of the ones Howard failed to block, to a very large audience in the library. Howard sees Kiki there, and goes home to wait to confront her.

When Kiki comes home, she senses something is wrong. She and Howard argue about his selfishness and about different ideological viewpoints. They talk about their past and their past love, and they finally end up making love one more time. After a very brief session of lovemaking, in which Howard is also out of practice in their favorite position, Kiki talks about how things have to be over. She is also in menopause. They cry together, proud of their thirty years of happiness.

On spring break, Kiki and Jerome sit outside and talk about Jerome’s new Christianity, Levi’s shenanigans, and Howard. Jerome sets off into the square to find Levi, where he sees a Haitian Support Group table set up, but no Levi. He finds a column in the weekly campus paper written by Zora about her campaign for the discretionary students. Jerome finds Levi eating a burger nearby, and is introduced to Levi’s crew. Both brothers are very uncomfortable with this situation. After Jerome leaves, Levi walks across the square and runs into Carl again, who thinks Levi is there to see his office and work. Out of politeness Levi follows Carl into the Music Library, where they banter. Carl receives an email and tells Levi that he has been talking to Victoria, who is also sexting him emails now. Carl is about to show him a pornographic picture when his coworker walks in and the boys part ways.

One night not long thereafter, Levi has plans with his crew at the Bus Stop and other places, and Jerome and Zora are going to a Wellington party. Victoria, Carl, and some faculty are also present at the party. Carl stops to talk to the siblings. The party goes on, and later in the night Zora is talking to graduate students when Jerome comes over, drunk. He tells Zora that Carl and Victoria are hooking up in the coat closet. Overcome, Zora runs downstairs and sees the pair looking perfect together. She then forcefully drags Carl out onto the front porch. They confront each other, with Carl realizing that Zora’s attention for him was partially out of lust. They argue viciously, with Victoria and Jerome getting dragged into it. The argument becomes a spectacle. Jerome tries to take Zora home, but Victoria and Zora argue, with Zora calling Victoria a slut. Carl brings up Howard, saying he is a pretentious asshole, trying to shame the Belseys, but Victoria reacts violently due to her secret affair with Howard. The Belsey siblings turn to leave, but just then Jerome realizes from Victoria’s reaction the truth of her relations with his father. Carl delivers one last piece of information: that Monty Kipps has been having an affair with Chantelle Williams, who lives on Carl’s street in Roxbury. Monty is against the discretionary students because he does not want to be found out. Carl laughs bitterly, saying that these people are no longer black, and that they think they are too good for their own people.

The next morning, Kiki wakes Zora up, informing her that the Humanities Department at Wellington has called. It turns out that the administration wants to ask Zora about Carl, who might have stolen Carlene’s extremely valuable painting that was hanging in Monty’s office. Zora, who knows nothing about this issue, indirectly tells Monty about his daughter’s relations with Carl. Back home, Kiki is beginning to clean things out in the house. Jerome wakes up and offers to help her. They begin cleaning Levi’s room, and as they move his bed, Kiki discovers Carlene’s painting under it. Levi and Kiki argue, with Levi saying that this painting was stolen from the Haitian people by people like Monty. Levi had stolen the painting with Choo and others. Kiki and Jerome are transporting the painting when Jerome discovers on the back a note from Carlene gifting it to Kiki, meaning that the painting is actually lawfully theirs. Zora and Howard talk in another room in the house. Zora tells Howard about Monty and Chantelle, and Howard rejoices with the idea that Monty’s head will be served on a silver platter. Zora is pained by Howard’s reaction, and asks him about the truth of what happened between him and Victoria. Caught off guard, Howard reveals the truth, and Zora, in horror and sadness, runs up to her mother.

That summer, the Belseys begin filing paperwork for separate bank accounts. Howard is taking some time off. Kiki is living elsewhere now. The kids are staying with Howard. Today is Howard’s big lecture, and he is still not dressed. Zora and Levi are getting ready for work. Howard makes everyone look for his car keys when he cannot find them. Zora waves at Howard driving away. The narrator says that Zora has a sense of “moral superiority” about her, since she won her fight against Monty to keep the discretionaries. She eventually tried to make amends with Carl, but Carl left the class immediately, detached his phone number, and could not even be found at his home, where his mother had answered Zora’s visit. Because of everything, Howard is running late to his lecture. When he finally arrives, Howard begins delivering his lecture, but thinks about the folder of paperwork of his divorce in the back seat of his car. He is silent, and sees Kiki in the audience. He scrolls through his presentation slides and stops on a painting of Rembrandt’s love, Hendrickje. He and Kiki smile at each other, and the story ends on an image of Hendrickje’s painted hands.


Another difference between males and females is a certain ability of compartmentalization, or at least one that the narrator strives to distinguish, saying that “with the miracle that is male compartmentalization” Howard had “barely thought of her [Victoria] either” (333). This is likely very different for women.

During Howard and Victoria’s conversation post-affair at Wellington, another image of Wellington as a prison comes to light: “in this grotty stairwell, the natural light came in through two grated windows in a manner both penal and atmospheric” (334). This image moves Howard to a “certain emotional urgency” which demonstrates how much effect environments, even ones on a micro-level like this, can have on people and their actions. Such is the case with more macro-level environments as well, such as contrasting Carl’s background in Roxbury and Levi’s in Wellington.

Just before the formal commences, the narrator notes that “unfortunately for young women, this demonstration of pure will is accredited to ‘femininity’ – that most passive of virtues – and, as a result, does not contribute to their Grade Point Average. It is unfair” (341). The narrator is talking about the young woman’s ability to starve herself in order to appear more beautiful in her formal dress. This is yet another difference between men and women—some feeling that men will never full feel. Interestingly, this same usage of the word “will” is reprised when Howard is, comically, trying to fight off his urge to laugh at the glee club: “He had to concentrate all his energies now into bringing his overdeveloped sense of the ridiculous under the control of his will. How strong was his will?” (347). Readers may wonder: is it as strong as the will of the young Wellington women?

Ideologies are incredibly important to the Belseys and the Kipps, and so it is interesting and almost poignant when the narrator finally reveals that Levi is so vulnerable to the radical work of the street hustlers because he “had no hard ideological shell to protect him” (355). While ideologies can be stifling, as seen in the cases of these two main families, it can have positive functions as protection, by shielding young people like Levi from believing anything that emotionally moves them. Levi is profoundly affected by a book he is reading that details all of the evils done to Haiti. The presence of ideologies again resurfaces in a completely different context—as Levi is visiting Choo in Boston, Kiki is visiting Monty at the Kipps Wellington residence. Before they part, Monty says to Kiki that liberals are living a fairytale, and that they are just as hypocritical as their beliefs about conservatives (369). While Monty has the last word in this chapter, this conversation seems to demonstrate a lack of superiority in either ideology, that both will be locked in battles and their own forms of hypocrisy.

Kiki and Monty also talk about the presence of the discretionary students, and Kiki reminds herself and Monty that, as a black woman, she had work “five times as hard” as those sitting near her (367). So when Carl takes up his new job at the Wellington College music library, Elisha, who comes from a similar background as him, tells him that he has to “make [his job] something special. No one’s gonna do it for you, that’s the truth” (374). This is the truth for people like Carl and Elisha, and yet from the situations of many other characters, it is clear that many other people have already had “it” done for them. For example, Zora goes to Wellington because her father is there, and this allows her many privileges.

When Victoria and Howard almost have sex in a hotel in Wellington, a black maid accidentally interrupts them. Victoria is exceptionally rude to the maid, snapping at the woman and asking her if she speaks English (381); she has to be told by Howard to stop. Besides being surprised and intruded upon, this shows that Victoria thinks herself above others, both other blacks and those from a working class, since she has lived her entire life in privileged situations.

Howard and Kiki argue another time—and have sex for what is most likely the last time. This issue of time comes between them again, with Kiki telling Howard that she loves him, but that she is “just not interested in watching this second adolescence. I had my adolescence. I can’t go through yours again” (398). This is another difference between men and women; Kiki is just starting to go through menopause now, and she is only going forward from here, never backwards to her youthful days. Howard, on the other hand, will never experience true menopause as women do, and cannot understand this grand divide between youth and older age. Howard begins to cry, and begins “begging for—and as the sun set, received—the concession people always beg for: a little more time” (398), now occupying the same position his father did when he supplicated Howard.

At the party, Zora flies into a rage of sadness and anger when she finds out that Carl has gotten together with Victoria; she is upset and heartbroken about Carl, and also hates Victoria. At the moment of her rage she “had never in her life experienced an emotion as corporal as this” (412), harkening back to Carlene’s words that women do everything with their body. The ensuing argument with Carl is heartbreaking as it is in some ways satisfying; Carl immediately removes himself from the society that he had almost become a part of, realizing that there will always be some degree of patronization, as long as he stays true to himself and does not truly try to become one of the “intellectual blacks.”

In the last scene of the story, Howard is delivering his big, culminating lecture when he spots Kiki in the audience. They have been living apart for a little while now, so this is a strange sight. In the last moment, Howard draws comparisons between his wife and Rembrandt’s love Hendrickje, and in so doing perhaps even between himself and the famous portrait painter—a collection of scenes of life. In the final passage, the color imagery of the book—color a possible maker of beauty in the visual arts—collapses into the making of the physical appearance of Hendrickje, and thus Kiki, too.