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How Zadie Smith Reimagines E.M. Forster's Howards End in On Beauty

Zadie Smith On Beauty: A Novel of Cultural Conflicts and Human Connections

Zadie Smith is one of the most acclaimed and influential contemporary writers in English literature. She is known for her novels that explore issues of identity, culture, race, class, gender, and politics in witty, insightful, and engaging ways. One of her most celebrated works is On Beauty, a novel that was published in 2005 and won several prestigious awards, including the Orange Prize for Fiction. On Beauty is a novel that tells the story of two families, the Belseys and the Kippses, who have different backgrounds, values, beliefs, and lifestyles, but whose lives become intertwined through various personal and professional relationships. The novel explores how these characters deal with cultural conflicts, moral dilemmas, artistic controversies, family dramas, romantic affairs, and personal transformations. The novel also examines how these characters define and pursue beauty in different forms and contexts, such as art, literature, music, education, religion, politics, love, friendship, and justice. The purpose of this article is to provide a summary and analysis of On Beauty, highlighting its main themes, issues, characters, events, inspirations, and messages.

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The Plot Summary

The novel is set in both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: in Wellington, a fictional university town near Boston in Massachusetts; and in London, England. The main protagonist of the novel is Howard Belsey, a white Englishman who is a professor of art history at Wellington College. He specializes in Rembrandt studies but he does not like Rembrandt or his paintings. He is married to Kiki Simmonds Belsey, an African-American woman who works as a hospital administrator. They have three children: Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Jerome is their eldest son who studies law at Brown University but becomes a born-again Christian after a trip to Haiti. Zora is their daughter who studies poetry at Wellington College but struggles with her self-esteem and academic performance. Levi is their youngest son who drops out of high school and adopts a streetwise persona influenced by hip-hop culture.

Howard's professional nemesis is Monty Kipps, a black Trinidadian who is a professor of law at Bristol University. He is also a conservative Christian who writes books that criticize liberal values and policies. He is married to Carlene Kipps, a gentle and elegant woman who collects Haitian art. They have two children: Victoria and Michael. Victoria is their daughter who is a stunning beauty and a talented singer but also a manipulative and seductive woman. Michael is their son who is a devout and obedient Christian but also a closeted homosexual.

The novel begins with Jerome working as a summer intern for the Kipps family in London. He falls in love with Victoria and proposes to her, but she rejects him and humiliates him. Jerome sends an email to his parents informing them of his failed engagement, which shocks and angers them. Howard decides to invite the Kipps family to Wellington for a debate on the role of art in society, hoping to expose Monty's ignorance and arrogance. However, things do not go as planned for Howard, as Monty arrives with his family and announces that he has been appointed as a visiting professor at Wellington College. This sparks a series of conflicts and confrontations between the two families, as well as within each family.

Howard, who is unhappy with his marriage and his career, has an affair with Claire Malcolm, a poet and colleague at Wellington College. He also has a brief sexual encounter with Victoria, who seduces him in order to get revenge on her father for his strictness and hypocrisy. Kiki, who is unhappy with her weight and her appearance, finds out about Howard's infidelity and feels betrayed and hurt. She develops a friendship with Carlene, who is dying of cancer and wants to leave her Haitian painting to Kiki as a gift. Monty, who is unaware of his wife's illness and his daughter's promiscuity, tries to sabotage Howard's reputation and career by accusing him of plagiarism and misconduct. He also tries to prevent Kiki from inheriting Carlene's painting by claiming that it belongs to his family.

Jerome, who is disillusioned with Christianity and Victoria, returns to Wellington and falls in love with Zora, who helps him recover from his depression and regain his confidence. Zora, who is ambitious and competitive, tries to impress her professors and peers by organizing a poetry slam at Wellington College. She invites Claire Malcolm to be the judge of the event, but Claire turns out to be biased and rude. Zora also tries to help Choo-Liam Teo, a Chinese student who writes brilliant poems but suffers from social anxiety. Levi, who is alienated from his family and his school, joins a group of Haitian immigrants who work as street vendors in Boston. He becomes involved in their political activism against globalization and exploitation. He also meets Tana Hickey, a white girl who shares his interest in hip-hop music and culture.

The novel ends with a series of climactic events that force the characters to confront their choices and consequences. Howard loses his job at Wellington College after Monty exposes his plagiarism and misconduct. He also loses his family after Kiki finds out about his affair with Victoria and kicks him out of their house. Monty loses his wife after Carlene dies of cancer without telling him. He also loses his daughter after Victoria runs away with her lover, Erskine Jegede, a Nigerian artist who paints portraits of her. Jerome marries Zora in a small ceremony attended by Kiki, Levi, Choo-Liam, Tana, Erskine, and Victoria. Levi decides to move to Haiti with Tana and the Haitian activists to pursue their humanitarian work. Kiki decides to keep Carlene's painting as a reminder of her friendship and her beauty.

The Inspiration

On Beauty is inspired by E.M. Forster's Howards End, a classic novel that was published in 1910 and explores the social and cultural changes in England at the turn of the 20th century. Smith acknowledges Forster's influence on her novel by dedicating it to him and using one of his quotes as an epigraph: \"Only connect...\" Smith also borrows many elements from Forster's novel, such as the names of some characters (Howard Belsey/ Henry Wilcox; Zora Belsey/ Helen Schlegel; Jerome Belsey/ Leonard Bast; Carlene Kipps/ Ruth Wilcox), the plot structure (the interplay between two families of different classes and outlooks; the symbolic role of a house or a painting; the marriage proposals; the deathbed scenes; the inheritance disputes), the themes (the clash between liberalism and conservatism; the role of art and culture in society; the nature of beauty and justice ), and the style (the use of humor irony and satire to critique social norms and hypocrisy).

However, Smith does not simply imitate or copy Forster's novel, but rather uses it as a source of inspiration and commentary on 71b2f0854b


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