Tuesday, April 25, 2006

 

How Kiki Got Her Strength Back

“When your chosen pursuit and your ability to achieve it – no matter how small or insignificant both might be – are matched exactly, are fitting… [this] is when we become truly human, fully ourselves, beautiful” (214). Throughout On Beauty, many of the characters struggle to find what their role is. They often end up playing the role of someone they think they should be. Zora plays up being a debating academic, Jerome is the religious intellect, Levi is searching to find his place among all the intellectuals in his family, and Howard is the typical middle-aged man going through a mid-life crisis. Kiki, however, does not appear to have such a clear cut role. Although she is depicted as the “strong black woman”, various parts of the novel, particularly the ending, seem to contradict this. Throughout the novel, Kiki is torn between her love for Howard and her family, and doing what is best for her. She struggles to find her true “pursuit” in life, and whether or not she has the ability to achieve it.

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.

Comments:
I completely agree with Mary Ellen in that Kiki's situation is a rather complicated one. I too thought that Kiki should have left Howard right after she discovered his infidelity. I found it disturbing that her character was so strong and so confident, but yet she decided to leave instead of kicking him out of their house. After all, he was the one who disrespected 30 years of marriage and the lives of their three children. Because Howard disregarded all the things that are important to Kiki, I definately thought she should have made him leave. However, she chose to leave him and their children. I was upset at first when she attended Howard's lecture at the end of the novel, but then I began to understand once I reread the ending. Like Mary Ellen stated, Kiki was not showing weakness in character, she had simply lived her life for her family and for her relationship and love for Howard. It took deep courage for her to look inside herself and decide that she wanted to make the marriage work after all they had been through. I am not sure if I would have reacted the same way, but it finally makes more sense when Kiki discovers her purpose in life.
 
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I did not feel like everything was so clear at the end of the novel. I feel like trying to define particular "roles" for certain people is part of the problem because it is so limiting. Then, it is like you are always "acting" rather than "being." It seems too reductive to say that Kiki's purpose is Howard, but he may be an important part of the whole. So, I see what Mary Ellen is saying, but I did not feel as satisfied or sure at the ending, I'm still thinking about it.
 
I definately feel like this was another unhappy ending to add to the pile of our course! While women give many reasons for going back to an infidel husband, these are always just excuses for settling again, for being too afraid, or "lost" without the person they have grown so used to. If Kiki wanted to have a really "beautiful" ending in the novel, she would have realized that even though her life has been lived for Howard, she still has the rest of her life to live- and she could live it with respect and dignity- without Howard.
 
Maybe this will make me sound like an old fogey, but don't we have to consider that one of the reasons Kiki goes back to Howard is because they share children? The distinction being here that she doesn't just "stand by her man" but rather sees him as part of a bigger life picture that includes her children, who all in some measure share aspects of their parents' strengths and weaknesses?
 
I'm glad that Dr. Reitz brought in the issue of children in this novel. I'm having trouble nailing down what Smith's stance is on children, hope, the future. At the end, we are left with the Bellsey children flipping off their dad (he deserves it). Victoria is sleeping with her professor and Levi is stealing things. Are children, with their imperfections, beautiful? Should we be hopeful for the future with them in charge?
 
I also agree with Mary Ellen in that most of the characters in this book seem to want to or are playing a role they have decided for themselves. And it also frustrated the hell out of me when Kiki is said to be a "strong woman" yet keeps going back to Howard who just manages to screw everything up. But I did like the ending very much because unlike Howard's end, it wasn't the perfect ending. This ending afforded a more realistic view. The view that says everyone is a on going peice of work, no one is perfect. Thats what being human is all about. Perhaps especially so when it is love we are dealing with.
 
I find Mary Ellen's idea of character roles very interesting. I think that she is right in that each character seems to play the role almost as a "stock" character. Smith included the typical middle-aged man, the wronged wife, the smart girl, the pretty girl, the attractive guy, the sensitive young man, and the teenager struggling to find his identity. Smith expands these roles to the reader by having not only Levi, but all of the characters looking to find themselves. In this sense I think Smith was able to end the novel happily because it seemed that everyone seemed to find their identity. Kiki attending Howard's lecture allowed the reader to possibly believe that Kiki realized that she did not only live her life for her family, but her family lived their lives for her as well, that the family would make it together.
 
I feel there is definately a staory to be told about Kiki's journey through life. Her role I feel is discovered at the end of the novel. However, throughout the novel she struggles to find herself, and maybe her purpose as well. I to think that Howards cheating is a launching pad for this journey. As she copes with thisa tragic event, she begins to find herself.
 
Mary Ellen,
I enjoyed reading your post, I considered it to be rather brilliant and very interesting. I hope that you received an A! On another note, I agree that what makes Kiki beautiful is that she not only was able to find "forgiveness deep down within her" but also because she is able to look past the bit of ugliness in Howards heart in order to attempt to make things work in their marriage. It takes not only a strong person, but a person that possesses true love, which is true beauty, within. I think that her ability to forgive Howard also has to do with her loving her own self, and being aware of who she is, HER identity. If one isn't true to themselves, how can they be true to someone else?
 
I agree with Mel with the role playing in this novel. Kiki is supposed to be a strong, beautiful black woman in this novel, but I feel as though she failed her role once she went back to Howard. Like the old saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Shame on Kiki for staying. I also thought Dr. Reitz brought up an interesting perspective as far as the children go. I, too, believe that children should be an important part of Kiki's decision; however, one needs to look at the circumstances. What is better for the children, to have a 'family' that stays together even though the father is unfaithful and may continue to be or to have a seperated family that functions independently of the other half? We cannot fully answer this question because the novel ends without telling us what happens with the future of the Bellsey family.
 
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