Thursday, April 27, 2006
beauty is in the eye of the painter
The turning point in the novel, and Kiki’s life, comes from Mrs. Kipps after she has passed away. When Kiki finds the note in the Maitresse Erzulie painting that Levi had stolen from Monty, she leaves Howard, something we as readers have been waiting for since we found out about his infidelity. “Kiki- please enjoy this painting. It needs to be loved by someone like you. Your friend, Carlene” (430). This note, with the postscript mentioned above, seems to remind Kiki of how Carlene saw her, and she finally leaves Howard.
Howard is an easy character to villainize; he cheats on his wife twice, seems to think only of himself and even the ideas he has that once seemed revolutionary are now “almost automatic” (118). As the publishing date for his book is repeatedly pushed back, and he fails his wife twice, Howard begins to see his life as a fraud. It is the Maitresse Erzulie painting and accompanying note that gives Kiki the final strength to leave Howard, but it is another painting that begins to redeem Howard in the reader’s eyes at the very end.
It’s telling that Smith chooses to end the book at what is supposed to be the most important lecture of Howard’s career. Howard screws up here, yet again, when he leaves his notes in the car. But it is at this moment that Howard realizes what really matters to him (as Carlene would say, “whom” he lived for, not “what”) when he sees Kiki’s face in the crowd. It is through a Rembrandt painting, Hendrickje Bathing, that Howard makes this realization. In the painting, the woman “seemed to be considering whether to wade deeper.” Howard then looks into the audience and sees Kiki- “her face, his life” (442). At the last moment, Howard is redeemed as we realize that he is truly seeing Kiki for what she is once again.
The Haitian Maitresse Erzulie painting provided a backbone for the life-changing friendship with Carlene that Kiki needed, a friendship that continues to impact Kiki even after Carlene’s death, through the painting. The Rembrandt painting, on the other hand, provides an eye-opener for Howard, the least sympathetic character, and thus a last-minute redemption. The colors of the paint also provides a hopeful ending , like the hay in Howard’s End, “the ever present human hint of yellow, intimation of what is to come” (443).
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
The Happy Ending Blog Project: The Happy Ending Blog Project
“It’s true that men…respond to beauty…this concern with beauty as a physical actuality in the world [is] clearly imprisoning and it infantilizes…but it’s true” (207).These words are the words of Howard Belsey, one of the most – if not the most – selfish and unlikable protagonists that we have encountered in this course. Howard, one of the main figures in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, is a 57-year-old Rembrandt scholar, who, ironically enough, doesn’t like Rembrandt, and who also teaches at Wellington, an elite, liberal college in the Boston area. Although the novel includes a plethora of differing characters, the plot centers on Howard and his relationship with his family. These relationships (namely, with Kiki and his father) reveal not only the inordinate value Howard places on physical beauty, but also his inability to see how his actions affect those closest to him.
The most important and telling relationship of Howard’s character in the novel is his relationship with Kiki. Despite the fact that they have been married for thirty years, Howard cheats on Kiki. Twice. The first instance of infidelity occurs with Claire Malcolm, one of Howard’s co-workers who is the complete physical opposite of Kiki (Kiki is an obese African-American while Claire is a petite Caucasian). Kiki confronts Howard after finding a condom in his suit pocket, but to Howard’s dismay, his three-weak affair with Claire “had not ended everything, after all…Life went on…the world does not stop for you. At first he had thought otherwise” (109). Howard’s moral inferiority and selfishness are magnified by the fact that Kiki does not pry for the details of her husband’s affair, while Howard himself is responsible for Kiki’s lack of male companions, for “he had bullied, threatened and frozen them all out. And this was despite the fact that Kiki had always claimed (and he had always believed her) that love started with him” (110). Thus, Howard, who cheats, can have female friends, while Kiki, who is faithful, cannot. In Howard’s mind, it is okay that he sleeps with a “tiny little white woman [Kiki] could fit in [her] pocket” because the “slim black woman” he marries is “no longer slim” (206-7). His lust (however brief) for Claire is based entirely on her appearance, while, so too, is his aversion (however shallow) for Kiki.
After betraying his wife and children, one might think that Howard, “the liar, the heart-breaker, the emotional fraud,” would work to save his marriage by never committing this horrible blunder again, but it simply isn’t so (203). Howard cheats a second time. Victoria Kipps – Howard’s 19-year-old student and the daughter of rival colleague Monty Kipps – is the second woman with whom Howard compromises his marriage. In a way, Smith foreshadows this scandal when she divulges Howard’s intense physical attraction for the girl that his son, Jerome, once claimed to be in love with, for Howard “had stopped trying not to look at Victoria Kipps. There’s no point in trying to do impossible things” (255). While it may have been impossible for Howard to not look at Victoria, it was certainly not impossible for him to refrain from having sex with her. Howard should know that it is one thing to admire a painting, but it is quite another to take it off the wall. Yet, Howard does just that – and by doing so, completely and utterly turns his family life upside down. When his daughter, Zora, learns of Howard’s second affair, she is appalled by her father’s actions, yelling, “I defended and defended and defended you… I took your side…Do you [love your family]? Do you love Jerome? How could you do this to him?” (433) As Howard tries to make excuses, Zora bluntly asks Howard, “When have you ever given a fuck about what anyone wants? (433). All Howard can do is hide his face, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot hide his selfish nature any longer.
While Howard’s relationship with Kiki spans the entire novel, much can be learned about Howard’s egocentricity based on the short, 11-page episode with his father. After Howard walks out in the middle of Carlene Kipps’ funeral (another action that shows he “has just got no borders at all”), Howard goes to see Harold, his father (291). When Howard tells his father that he and Kiki are having problems, Harold assumes that Kiki “found a black fella…It was always going to happen, though. It’s their nature” (301). The fact that Harold assumes Kiki is cheating on Howard because she is black (and apparently he thinks that is what black people do) shows Harold to be a very stereotypical elderly man who is a bit narrow-minded and set in his ways. As Howard angrily gets up to leave upon hearing these comments, however, Harold immediately admits that he is in the wrong, saying, “Oh, no...No. Son, please. Oh, come on and stay a bit longer. I’ve said the wrong thing” (301). It is obvious that Harold, whose wife died forty-six years ago and who lives all alone (the exception being his hired nurse), is lonely and wants to spend time with someone. Harold would appreciate if Howard could just sit and watch television with him for a few hours, but this is unacceptable for Howard, who “did not believe, as his father did, that is how you spend your love…Ten minutes later he left” (302). If Howard cannot spend time with his father in the manner in which he wants, he cannot spend time with him at all. That is simply the kind of man Howard is – self-absorbed and unable to sacrifice his enjoyment for the enjoyment of another.
In the end, Howard retains more than he deserves. Kiki does not leave him, which is frustrating, but is understandable given Kiki’s devotion to her husband and her family. The fact that she goes to his lecture at the end of the novel and smiles at him offers hope that they might be able to work out their differences (provided, of course, that Howard can finally look beyond Kiki’s lack of physical beauty and more greatly appreciate the person that she is). Although no mention is made of Harold, the reader can only hope that Howard will begin to rekindle this relationship as well, and in the process, discover the beauty within that relationship. Howard Belsey is proof that no matter how skewed one’s sense of beauty may be, beauty is, indeed, within the eye of the beholder. While beauty is not absolute, the search for it is unending. Yet, in his search, Howard makes the mistake of allowing his selfishness to turn a blind eye to the beauty that is already present before him.
Beauty Lies Within
Thanks to Smith’s detailed descriptions of our characters’ appearances, the reader can assume that Kiki isn’t considered overly beautiful when compared to our society’s standards. I think that Claire says it best when she describes Kiki as being a new kind of beautiful: she was “natural, honest, powerful, unmediated, full of something like genuine desire…a goddess of everyday” (227). Claire describes Kiki’s beauty in terms referring to her inner beauty, which I believe defined Kiki’s overall beauty. She is a woman that is beautiful on the inside and a woman who must find and connect with this inner beauty in order to be fully happy.
Kiki is more or less an outsider in her own family. Many may say that Howard is the true outsider since he is the only white person in his family, but I would disagree. Kiki often seems lost within her own habitat, partly because she doesn’t feel a strong connection with her family members. Howard is off having affairs, Zora is often at school bugging her professors and the dean and Levi is always out pretending to be who he isn’t. The only person I feel Kiki somewhat connecting with is Jerome because he has such an obvious devotion to Kiki. Because of the lack of connections, it becomes Kiki’s challenge to find herself; to find her own identity that doesn’t include her family. For this reason I believe she leaves Howard living in their house at the end, so she can get away from her previous identity of mother and housekeeper and really learn about who she is. In reestablishing herself, she is able to know herself, which ultimately is a beautiful thing. It is also in knowing herself that she can begin loving herself and then able to love others more freely. This is the only reason I can think of why she would go to Howard’s speech (because I personally wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole after the things he did). But perhaps that is what makes Kiki so beautiful; she is able to find forgiveness deep down within her. Kiki radiates hope, not only to Howard, but also to the reader. She also sends out a message that it is important to know yourself first and then try to love because knowing yourself is really wha
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
How Kiki Got Her Strength Back
The first instance where Kiki’s role is challenged is when she finds out about Howard’s affair with Claire. After this, Kiki attempts to “understand what [her] life’s been for…and what it will be for” (175), because up until then, all she had ever known was the life she had with him. Suddenly, she found herself “alone in this sea of white” (206). What is surprising is that Kiki doesn’t handle the situation the way in which a strong woman like her would have been expected to. She did not kick Howard out, leave him, divorce him, etc. She stayed with him, determined to work things out, despite his affair with a close family friend. At least after the Victoria affair she left him; but she also left the house and her kids. She did not make him leave. I was expecting Kiki to kick Howard out, take him to court, and drain him for all he’s worth; I would have expected her to show she was stronger and can stand up for what she deserves. She does not deserve a man who is going to cheat on her twice and lie about it. Like she says to Howard, “I want to be with somebody who can still see me in here…And I don’t want to be resented or despised for changing….I’d rather be alone. I don’t want someone to have contempt for who I’ve become” (398). So Kiki says she would rather be alone than with someone who resents her, yet she remains with Howard, who cheated on her with women who were younger and slimmer, almost symbolic of how Kiki once looked.
As much as I wanted Kiki to up and leave Howard, I do understand her reasons for staying. She and Howard have a thirty year history with each other, as well as three children together. For the sake of what she and Howard had, as well as for their children, I can see why Kiki would be reluctant to give up on her marriage. She had dedicated her life to Howard and her family; without them, she had nothing else to live for. She had given up on everything else she wanted to achieve in life in order to be with Howard. "All I know is that loving you is what I did with my life" (395). Previously in the novel, Kiki had been shocked when Carlene told her, “I don’t ask myself what did I live for…I ask whom did I live for…I see very clearly recently that in fact I didn’t live for an idea or even for God – I lived because I loved this person. I lived for love” (176). Kiki could not understand how someone could say they lived solely for another person. She believed that to be so retrogressive, especially for black women.
However, Kiki soon comes to realize that she had done just that: lived entirely for another person. “I staked my whole life on you” (206), she told Howard. Kiki begins to see that her pursuit in life was and is to love Howard. Although this seems "small and insignificant", it is what she is meant to do. That is why she could not leave him, and why she came to his lecture at the end. It is not a result of her being weak and clinging on to Howard, despite how he treated her; it is a result of her finally coming to realize what her purpose in life was. Being a strong woman does not mean being alone; it took a lot of strength for Kiki to forgive Howard and want to work on their marriage. And even though it seems as though she is settling for a man she is too good for, I am somewhat happy that the ending implies that they will try to work things out, because I do not think it could have ended any other way. They were made for each other, and it is hopeful to see that this couple will try to prove that true love can, in fact, conquer all. Her marriage is her life, and no strong woman is going to give up on her life. Her ability to achieve her purpose in life lies in her strength to continue with Howard. Thus, the ending of the novel depicts the role of Kiki to be that of a strong, loving, beautiful woman, because her pursuit in life matched exactly with her ability to achieve it.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
You might consider our Big Question in class: What is beauty OR who or what is beautiful by the end of the novel? One way of looking at this would be to check out images of the two paintings central to the close of the novel's action, Rembrandt's "Hendrickje bathing" (the painting about which Howard is to give his tenure lecture) and Hippolyte's "Maitresse Erzulie" (the painting Carlene leaves Kiki). You can find images of both these paintings (as well as others mentioned in the novel) here: http://www.authortrek.com/on_beauty_page.html.
We have discussed the parallels between Margaret Schlegel and Kiki Belsey. But those veterans of Middlemarch might want to consider an earlier literary ancestor for Kiki: Dorothea Brooke. Go back and look at Kiki's reflections of her life on p. 424 of the novel, when she thinks "she had not become Malcolm X's private secretary...". Then look at Eliot's final description of Dorothea's life: "Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion" (514). Is Kiki Belsey best understood as a Victorian heroine?
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Regarding his employer, I believe Stevens refuses to acknowledge any thought or judgement of his own in some ways. Clearly the two Jewish girls were let go for bad reasons. Yet Stevens refuses to see this, while Miss Kenton does. Clearly, his old boss "Lord Darlington" hung with some unsavory fellas. Now maybe they were fine at the time, but retrospect, its pretty ugly. I don't think Stevens sees this, and I think he basically shuts down everything behind his "professionalism". Its like the soldiers say when doing something terrible, "I was just following orders". Stevens was just being "dignified". Now, I am not saying I do not like Stevens as a character. I am just picking away at some things.
Stevens relation to Miss Kenton is also a spot that kind of grabbed me a bit. Its obvious there is some sort of connection between the two of them. Stevens, a man who shows nothing, goes on a road trip to find her. Whether for a job interview or not, he did put some effort into this one. And when she reveals what could have been, Stevens even acknowledges it for a brief moment to us, the reader, but quickly maintains his stiff upper lip and conceals his thoughts. It could be argued, that he was doing a favor to Miss Kenton here. Perhaps he was trying to minimize her dwelling on such a thing, and if he to revealed what he truly thought, well obviously this would make it harder for her to deal with. So in a ways, Stevens took the professional approach, when so many "normal" people would have probably failed, myself included. I give him a little credit, not much, but a understanding I guess.
At the very end of the book Stevens does reveal he has simply lived a life for somebody else when he said "I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really - one has to ask oneself - what dignity is there in that?"(243) By always concealing his own emotions, Stevens really missed out on his own life a great deal. Emotions play a huge role in life, without them, we are sort of like the walking dead.
Monday, April 03, 2006
Mr. Stevens could have had so much more!!!
Mr. Stevens' emotional journey throughout The Remains of the Day is the complete opposite of a rollercoaster ride. Stevens fails to see the small pleasures in life and appreciate emotions for what they are. When it finally seems that Mr. Stevens learns how to judge his feelings, he completely denies them once again. The end of The Remains of the Day left me feeling hollow. I wanted to scream, "Mr. Stevens, you could have had so much more!" The only remains in life that Stevens looks forward to are "Work, work, and more work" (237). This is definitely not a happy ending.
Mr. Stevens denies his emotions at several crucial points in the novel. One of the most evident denials is in Stevens' conversation with Miss Kenton. After Miss Kenton tells Stevens that she sometimes thinks about the life she may have had with him, Stevens admits to the reader, "Indeed- why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking" (239). However, Stevens simply smiles at Miss Kenton and makes the remark, "You are very correct, Mrs. Benn. As you say, it is too late to turn back the clock" (239).
When Stevens is bantering poorly with a stranger about his absence of dignity in life, he denies his emotions once again. Stevens realizes that he has been completely living for someone else; he states, "I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself - what dignity is in that?" (243). Tears roll down Stevens face as he admits to the stranger on the bench that he may not have dignity. When the stranger offers Stevens his "hankie," Stevens insists that, "it’s quite alright…. The traveling has tired me" (243). Obviously with this remark, Stevens has not made any emotional breakthroughs.
Bantering is another topic on the mind of Mr. Stevens. On the very last page of the novel, Stevens further analyzes bantering: “After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth” (245). Although, instead of Mr. Stevens taking this knowledge of bantering and applying it to form new relationships in the remains of his life, he thinks only of Mr. Farraday, and how his new found talent in bantering may please him (245).
What makes this novel most depressing is the contrast between Miss Kenton's future and Mr. Stevens' future. When speaking of Miss Kenton's future, Mr. Stevens says, "…With Mr. Benn retiring, and grandchildren on the way… you and Mr. Benn have some extremely happy years before you" (240). The only thing that Stevens has to look forward to is work, and dying alone at Darlington Hall. Mr. Stevens could have had a life with Miss Kenton, and grandchildren of his own; however, his obsession with work, and neglect of his own life, leaves him completely disconnected from all others.
English butlers have feelings too!
The ever changing world, and the “remodeling of the masters house” provides a context in which one can understand the resolution of The Remains of the Day. Stevens is not a character who undergoes a completely successful transition in a neatly packaged pilgrimage as Jane Eyre does. His is a constant internal struggle, one that is not linear in progression. However, there is internal development and growth, and this contributes to the position that the ending is a happy one.
In an earlier part of the novel, other characters draw attention to his feelings or point them out by saying “Stevens, are you all right? You look as though you’re crying” (105). Stevens has an entrenched alienation and resistance to intimacy and feelings brought on by the butler lifestyle. At the resolution, the break in self and emotions is not fully restored, but there is progress for this reconnection. Stevens recognizes that his heart is breaking during his final conversation with Mrs. Kenton (239) and he also gives her the advice to make the last years of life “happy ones for yourself and your husband” (240). Stevens has finally acknowledged the importance of happiness not only confined to work and professional life. He begins to hope for happiness outside of the paradoxical life of a butler existing for someone else’s pleasure and comfort.
Stevens becomes committed to learn the proper techniques of bantering and I would see this as support for the reading of this ending as “happy.” At the conclusion, he decides to work on his bantering skills so that he may “pleasantly surprise” (245) Mr. Farraday. He is learning to not take himself so seriously. The very act of bantering is bringing him out of the paradoxical nature of a butler’s existence. Stevens is no longer trying to only maintain the “balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is essential to good waiting” (72). By learning how to banter with his employer, he is partly abandoning the belief that his presence is “inhibiting the conversation” (72) by actively becoming an integral comedic part of it.
Stevens finds himself triumphant the night that is father dies and he is able to continue on with his duties. In fact, he labels his emotionless response as a “turning point in [his] professional development” (110). At the resolution of the novel, Stevens begins questioning his past commitment to professionalism and distant interpersonal relationships.
Ishiguro does not end the novel on a completely tragic and depressing note. Reflecting on Stevens’ life decisions and experiences certainly bring about glum attitudes and responses. Ishiguro is careful to point out that it is never too late in one’s life to become a more fully developed “self.” A broken character does not have to remain that way for an entire lifetime. Stevens recognizes that he is not alone in feeling discontented with his life. The man he has a conversation with at the end says, “Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed. And all right, you can’t do your job as well as you used to. But it’s the same for all of us, see? We’ve all got to put our feet up at some point. . .keep looking forward” (243). It is important to note that Stevens is actually listening to the stranger’s words and not walking away, as he does in earlier scenes in the novel.
So while The Remains of the Day does not contain a traditional happy ending, it is hopeful and it does show the main character making some internal progress. Life is more complicated for these hybrid characters, and their resolutions will be complex as well. Stevens is looking forward to the future, intent to make it different and more rewarding than his past.
Always Back to Connection
After everything Stevens has been through in his personal crisis and encounter with Miss Kenton, he seems to recognize the importance of relationships watching the strangers become friends at the pier lighting. Stevens analyzes the group saying, "It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly. It is possible these particular persons are simply united by the anticipation of the evening ahead," (Ishiguro 245). From this statement, it appears Stevens has learned something about human connection from the recent events of his life. The following sentence, however, serves to be a disappointment when Stevens goes back to his old ways saying, "But, then, I rather fancy it has more to do with this skill of bantering," (Ishiguro 245). From this we learn Stevens will continue to work for Mr. Farraday and try to improve his bantering skills.
At first glance it is frustrating to think Stevens has just returned to his same proper but repressed ideas before he made his journey and confronted his feelings with Miss Kenton. It seems strange he would go back to serving another for the remainder of his life instead of retiring to live it out peacefully. The problem with this option for Stevens is that he has no one to live his life with if he retired. After his father’s death and his missed chance with Miss Kenton, Steven’s employers are the only significant people in his life and Mr. Farraday is his only potential for connection. It is appropriate, then, for Stevens to pursue bantering once again.
In the end, Stevens believes that "in bantering lies the key to human warmth," (Ishiguro 245). Mr. Farraday has interacted with Stevens through bantering before, so it makes sense Stevens would try to perfect it again in order to establish more of a relationship with his American employer. Bantering as leading to "human warmth" may seem at first an odd idea, but it may also be the bridge by which Stevens can connect to Mr. Farraday.
The idea of Stevens returning to attempting banter with Mr. Farraday is disappointing because it seems he goes back to his beginning repression and underdevelopment. This would mean he has not learned anything from his experience and crisis. However, it is also logical because after his missed connection with Miss Kenton the only significant human relationship he can expect to have is with Mr. Farraday. He will spend the remains of his days perfecting his beloved profession and "bantering" with Mr. Farraday. This indicates he has learned something from the experiences of an emotional crisis and his final meeting with Miss Kenton. At the very least he is trying to experience human warmth.
The Morning After
At first Stevens is sure that serving a great gentleman gives him contentment with his life. He seems to have no interest it taking part of the world unfolding around him. He prefers his master to make the decisions for him. He feels that serving Lord Darlington is "as close to the hub of this world's wheel as one such as I could ever have dreamt." (126) He disregards himself as one unworthy of participating with the world and only wishes to be a bystander.
Throughout his travels, doubts creep in. He questions Lord Darlington which leads him to question life and his purpose in it. He is greatly troubled at Miss Kenton's phrase in her letter that "the rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me." (49) He is also bothered by another passage that says "I have no idea how I shall usefully fill the remainder of my life..." (49) One wonders if these passages are so disconcerting to Stevens because they represent the questions that worry him. The past, which was once a solid ground for him, has become shaky and leaves him with questions for the future. It leaves him wondering was the remainer of his days hold for him.
As the journey is coming to a close, Stevens starts coming to new realizations. He starts seeing himself as an individual. He rethinks dignity, saying "I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really-one has to ask oneself- what dignity is there in that?" (243) This idea makes him think that dignity might not be to always keep everything hidden behind a mask, but in risking it, making mistakes, and righting them for oneself. He starts realizing that humanity and his interactions with others are an incredible part of life. He's missed out on "human warmth" (245) and resolves to try to banter to connect with others.
This novel, like all the others, shows the importance of the "only connect" theme. With connections and relationships comes a sense of achievement and even dignity. The ending of the Remains of the Day is similar to the other books. The picture painted has a rosy colored hue to it, but it leaves us asking what the harsher sunlight of the next morning may bring.