Thursday, April 27, 2006


beauty is in the eye of the painter

“There is such a shelter in each other.” This is what Carlene tells Kiki in one of their first conversations, and this is also what she includes as a postscript to the note in the painting she leaves her. When we meet Kiki at the beginning of On Beauty, she has already begun to feel she is losing her shelter, Howard, because he has cheated on her. As she questions her marriage, she begins to question herself as well. “Right now I’m trying to understand what my life’s been for- I feel I’m at that point - and what it will be for” (176). While she disagrees with Carlene Kipps on some things (“I don’t ask myself what did I live for... I ask whom did I live for” 176), Kiki finds real shelter in Carlene, someone who she feels actually sees her and who provides genuine friendship.

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).

I like how this post points to the paintings' role in realizing the relationships of the book, especially between Kiki and Howard. At the beginning of On Beauty, we learned that the title is from a lecture that goes against the basic concept of art and beauty as it distracts. In the end we see these paintings, images of beauty, going against this idea by bringing attention to emotions in the characters. This is especially seen when Howard is looking back and forth between Kiki and Hendrickje (Rembrandt's love) on page 443. Beauty, as seen through the paintings, is significant in the experiences of the characters.
Howard's is characterized as rebel against beauty, sentimentality and his own marraige. And in the moment of the most important lecture of his career he begins to realize how wrong he's been and it seems he finally sees the genius in Rembrandt: its representation of the reality of beauty and sentimentality.
I agree that it is significant that though Howard screws up with the most important lecture of his career, it is at this time that he heads toward a more positive relationship with Kiki. Maybe he has realized what art and beauty are for. They are meant to bring us to a greater appreciation of the world around us. Up until this point, all Howard had been doing was criticize art for its beauty. Then he turned around and had affairs with the first two pretty women he saw: the first, the exact opposite of his wife; the second, probably more like the young Kiki that he fell in love with. He judged Rembrant because he painted what his wealthy patrons wanted, but then he was unfaithful to the beauty in his marraige. At the end, he actually seems to have an appreciation for the painting, and he sees the connection between that and his relationship with Kiki.
Out of all of the endings so far, I believe On Beauty to be the "happiest." However, in the end I was left questioning myself whether I wanted Kiki and Howard to eventually get back together or not. I agree with Kate that Howard is definitely the villain. Through the novel, Howard repeatedly reveals himself as the scum of the earth. I know that Kiki deserves more than Howard, but somehow I feel that after 30 years of marriage they belong together. The best part about the ending is that it is left for interpretation: if you wanted Kiki to be free from Howard, she finally was, and he missed her; and if you wanted Kiki and Howard to gradually mend their relationship, there was still hope.
I think the ending of On Beauty is signifigant, because Howard has been on such a quest against beauty, and he just can't do it anymore. I read the ending that he was so wrapped up in his rhetoric, having carved himself a space on the acamedic landscape as a hyper critical thinker who thought Rembradt had "decent" talent, that he realized his missed out on beauty. Thus, as the slides appear and then move on, he can see reflected in them his wasted life, a life led by his phony ideals and lived only for himself.
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