Wednesday, April 26, 2006


The Happy Ending Blog Project: The Happy Ending Blog Project

Selfish Howard Turns a Blind Eye to Beauty

“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.

While I agree that at a very superficial level Howard is simply a detestable character, I think his story is much more complicated. Yes, he is a very selfish and self-absorbed middle-aged man. But I don’t think it is his fault entirely that he cheated on Kiki. He is a scholar in a very isolated university town. His life revolves around the same things and the same people for many years. He has a routine for everything: for his first class, for Saturdays in the library and even for his once revolutionary, innovative ideas. He doesn’t really know how to connect with Kiki or anyone else other than on a scholarly level.

I think Zadie Smith is introducing more complex characters than “Bad Howard” and “Good Kiki” and a much more complex plot than bad-husband-cheating-on-innocent-wife. Whatever the relative fault between Kiki and Howard, Smith presents a story of two people who devote their lives to different pursuits. Kiki focuses her life on her family, while Howard focuses his life on his studies. Howard is not simply mean-spirited and malicious, even though he may be more self-centered than the perfect character we would like to see in a novel. I doubt that he is disproportionately more self-centered than most of us. For all his faults, in his most disoriented moment, he saw Kiki’s face and realized that she is his life and that there is a hope of a new connection, a new happiness for them. Kiki forgave Howard and came to hear his speech. I think Smith wants the reader to forgive him, not judge him, as well.
Is it just me, or shouldn’t Howard Besley have been rendered impotent instead of Saleem Sinai? While many of our novels have dealt with a lack of connection, Howard Belsey needs to STOP CONNECTING, especially with inappropriate women. However, I don’t agree that Howard is a completely despicable character; I think he is a very flawed, very human character who makes a few mistakes too many. He is selfish and far too concerned with the appearances of others, but I think Zadie Smith makes a point to show Howard’s humor, his connection to his children, and, in the end, his unending love for his wife. Howard’s need to take apart and criticize beauty- like his Rembrandts- demonstrates his inability to just appreciate things- like his wife- for what they are. When Howard sleeps with Victoria Kipps, I feel that his almost passive attitude indicates that he has all but given up- he doesn't know how to appreciate or fix his marriage, and he knows it’s his fault. I really like your analogy of admiring a painting as opposed to taking it off the wall; even if the painting is practically shoving itself under your jacket, you should leave it where it belongs. I thought that was a very clever way to describe what Howard did with Victoria, especially in the context of art and beauty. By the end of the novel, the reader only hopes that Howard has learned that the world “does not stop for [him]” (109).
I agree with both Kristen and Elena in that Howard is not an inherently evil person. He does seem to really love his family (even if, at times, he has an interesting way of showing it), and the ending offers hope that Howard is a changed man. Perhaps I was too critical of Howard in my original post, but I really wanted to communicate the idea that he is responsible for the situation that he is in, and that he is not a character worthy of our sympathy. The event that makes empathizing with him impossible is when he sleeps with Victoria Kipps. Kiki sees that Howard’s affair with Claire was a mistake, and she is willing to forgive him and try to save their marriage – even though it is a struggle. Still, she understands that everyone makes mistakes, and she (as did I) believes that Howard deserves a second chance. But when Howard cheats a second time, I could not bring myself to feel sorry for his situation any longer. Having sex with Victoria is a selfish act Howard commits that shows he places his interests above those of his wife and children. So even though Howard does possess a few admirable qualities, they are simply outweighed by his numerous flaws.
Howard for me was a very tough character to figure out. He is completely aware that he would crumble without Kiki, yet he does thing to sabotage their marriage. The episode with Howard's father offered perspective into what environment Howard had come out of. Harold seems harmless, but he definitely had prejudiced views towards African Americans and homosexuals. Howard rebels strongly against his father in beliefs and actions. I believe his strained relationship with his father gives us some insight as to his struggle with a committed relationship, seeing as how he does not even have one with his own father.
While I for the most part agree with Tony's characterization of Howard Belsey as the superficial, egocentric, bad guy of On Beauty, I also feel that Howard is not an essentially base character. I agree with Elena and Kristen that Howard is a complex guy that takes his studies very seriously. He earns a living by judging and studying the aesthetic quality of paintings and teaching his discoveries. It is understandable Howard's obession with physical beauty.
However, I agree with Tony that Howard must be held accountable for the maltreatment of his family. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Howard seemingly limits the definition of beauty substantially, limiting the quality of his own inner beauty or moral appeal.
The greatest problem I had with Howards Belsey is that he dedicated his life to a subject he dislikes. How anyone can be a Rembrandt scholar, study beautiful Dutch Baroque art for years and dislike it at the same time is beyond my comprehension. It seems obvious to me that Howard has some problems with his attitude toward his family. Kiki is very loving of her family, so much that her never-ending forgiveness may prevent Howard from fixing his attitude problem. Perhaps Smith wants us, the reader, to forgive Howard aswell. Maybe I'm just too traditional of a girl in the sense that I won't easily forgive a guy that cheats on his wife twice without feeling much remorse. I am a forgiving person, but infidelity, especially twice, is unacceptable.
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