Wednesday, April 26, 2006

 

Beauty Lies Within

I personally felt that the ending of On Beauty was one of the happier ones that we have read this semester. Throughout the novel, I tried to understand where the beauty aspect came in and what Zadie Smith was trying to tell her readers about beauty. Did she mean to portray beauty as a superficial or underlying aspect or was she trying to portray beauty in one or more of the characters? There was definitely no beauty in Howard (at least in my opinion) who couldn’t seem to honor his marriage vows and similarly I didn’t find any beauty in his rival, Mr. Kipps. However, I did finally find beauty in Kiki once I began to understand her more. I believe that Smith wanted to show beauty in what Kiki stands for and represents; she’s not just a “strong, black woman” (166) and her beauty lies further than just skin deep.

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

Comments:
Jamie,

I think you really nailed the idea of beauty that Smith was going for in this novel. I also found Kiki beautiful both internally and externally. Her physical descriptions by some characters were not always positive representations, but the confidence that she exuded throughout the novel, even after hearing about Howard's affairs, most assuredly reflect Kiki's inner grace.

I would like to add on to your already great description of Smith's idea of beauty that she tried to relate to the reader. There are a number of characters in the book that do not know themselves, or know who they are and alter their true identity in order to please certain groups. We see Zora, the intellectual that always needs to fight for a cause that she doesn't necessarily feel passionate about. We also meet Levi, who lies about where he lives and rejects his English side and institutions, basically everything his father stands for, in order to identify with an oppressed group. Howard is perhaps the most guarded character in the book, who wants only to be seen as an intellectual, not a human being with emotions or desires. With these characters, and many more searching for who they really are, we understand Kiki's beauty. Beauty is truth. She knows who she is and is proud of it. She is a charismatic woman that is even more amazing when one considers the juxtaposition between her courageous efforts to create a positive, supportive environment for a family seeking a sense of self, thus becoming extremely self-absorbed. Great post! I agree 100% with your interpretation of Smith's intention to present to the reader what true beauty really looks like.
 
I also agree with Jamie that Kiki is a strong vibrant woman possessing extraordinary strength and endurance in the face of adversity. A matriach of the Belsey family, Kiki genuinely cares for her husband Howard, who unfortunately commits infidelity twice, and her children Jerome, Zora, and Levi who all have their own individual obstacles to overcome. After discovering that Howard has slept with his colleague at Wellington, Kiki, instead of committing to a divorce and breaking up the family, retains her composure and promises to keep the family together for the sake of her children. Her unwavering devotion to her family reflects her inner beauty as a loving mother and forgiving spouse. While many readers may scorn Howard for the vile injury he has inflicted, Kiki demonstrates forgiveness and sensitivity to her emotionally crippled husband. However, we applaud that Kiki is able to finally leave her family after finding out that Howard has underwent a sexual escapade again. This time, it is with the young voluptous Victoria. As Jamie mentions, Kiki can now embark on a journey to find her own selfhood which she has suppressed while living with her troubled Belsey family. As Jamie, Zora, and Levi try to find a sense of concrete identity in themselves, Kiki happily gambols on the road of selfhood with a group of lesbian friends to help her sell Monty Kipp's priceless painting. Kiki, who has been repressed most of her life under the foot of emotional uncertainty and family disputes, can now achieve some sense of identity which makes her a more wholesome blissful person. While she fails to connect with her delusional family, Kiki is able to successfully free herself from the forces that have been deleterious to her development. Moreover, her courage and resolution to leave her family is an act of feminine beauty that surpasses the superficial physical beauty of Victoria and characters like her. Hurrah for Kiki!
 
Jamie, I really like the observations you make about Kiki's leaving on self-fulling journey at the end of the novel. I, too, believe there is definite beauty in finding oneself. It is interesting to me that Smith chooses to use Howard's infidelity and mid-life crisis to trigger, in a way, Kiki's mid-life crisis. Kiki finds herself in a life where she has lost herself. It is only in response to Howards infidelity that she is forced to reevaluate what SHE wants in life. She is not okay with Carlene Kipps' idea of living for others; she must live for herself. Kiki represents the beauty of taking control of one's future and deciding where that future will go.
 
Good post! I also agree with Jamie's interpretation of beauty in the novel. Jamie does a great job of pointing out a theme in the book, that is, that people have to figure themselves out before they can truly care for others and live a contented life. The consistent person in the book who knew who they were and what they were about was Mrs. Kipps, and she passed on her insights to Kiki, who comes out triumphant in the end by knowing who she is, what she wants, and how she wanted to head in the future.
 
Jamie,

Your observation that Kiki must leave her ancestral home in order to find herself really struck me. In a course in which we have had so much discussion about houses representing both family and individual identity, I think this is a very important part of the conclusion of the novel. On Beauty is, after all, based on Howard's End, and though Kiki inherits a painting from the Mrs. Wilcox-like character, the house should not be ignored as an important part of the conclusion. The fact that Kiki has to leave the house that she inherited through the hard work of a black female ancestor for a white doctor in order to find her identity is very appropriate, given her relationship with Howard. Also, in both Howard's End and On Beauty, the house remains with a very non-traditional family inside at the end. Smith has twisted and turned the story of home and family into something that is much more easily related to the current state of American culture.
 
I think that it is important that Zadie Smith characterizes Kiki as "a goddess of the everyday," and, as Dr. Reitz pointed out, this places her in the same category as Dorothea Brooke - a Victorian heroine. But while I was reading Dr. Reitz's question, I couldn't help but also think about The Remains of the Day. Stevens ends his story by reflecting that "surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy" (244). In this way, Kiki, Dorothea, and Stevens all struggle to achieve that which qualifies someone as a hero in Victorian literature - extraordinary actions made in an everyday setting.
 
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