On Beauty has already amassed some the most flattering reviews from many critics, on account of its literary accomplishments. I, therefore, shall not talk about its literary prowess but rather discuss its significant political and social ideas, which are relevant and pragmatic. Briefly touching upon the plot, it is based on the lives of the liberal Belsey and the conservative Kipps families, and the differences between them. It has largely drawn from Forster’s Howard’s End, and the author considers her novel as a tribute to the same.
I believe that the novel carries an important political message, that of the emerging radical middle. Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps represent the conservative right and the radical left, respectively. Although, idealistically sound, they are shown to be morally bankrupt. Howard ignores his ubiquitously devoted wife, and has extra marital affairs, first with his colleague and then with a student.
His ideals are overshadowed, crushed and parodied by his personal and professional incapacities. His leftist ideals propagate a non- appreciation of beauty and do-what-you-feel- is-good morality. The beauty in his life is, according to me, his wife, Kiki. Without her, Howard Belsey would not be the respected intellectual he is. She is what keeps him going. Yet, he takes her for granted and does not appreciate her. This drains everything positive out of him. Towards the end of the novel, all his children literally show him the finger and he appears like a burnt out shell to the reader.
Monty, on the other hand, although more professionally successful than Howard, is shown to be a despicable hypocrite. He neglects his dying wife and begins a one-sided affair with one of his students. His appreciation of “beauty”, which is shown by his love for Rembrandt, is nullified by the fact that he obtains the paintings by smuggling them out of riot ridden Haiti. Moreover, his ideology of being a good Christian is proved to be hypocritical because he doesn’t give the painting to Kiki, which had been bequeathed to her by Carlene in her will. Thus, Howard and Monty, epitomes of the left and right respectively, great academics they may be, are shown to be pathetic, pretentious and even laughable.
Thus, the political message of the novel is clear. It prophesizes an emerging radical middle, a delicious mixture of morals and ideals, a political thought, which gives importance to empathy, rationality, beauty, appreciation and realization, all at the same time. This is the only reason why the novel is not demoralizing; there is hope for the future. This hope rests with Howard’s children; the children of the emerging radical middle. They have decisively rejected their father’s and Monty’s paths, and are turning into sensible and responsible human beings. Jerome is shown turning into a smart, sensitive Christian. Not that he’s perfect: he can be prissy and self-absorbed. But his admirable spiritual direction gives the lie to all those books lumping traditional Christianity in with unreason or the far right. Levi is moving beyond rebelling against his middle-class upbringing and is actually beginning to help – personally and politically – the Haitian immigrants he had earlier romanticized. You can see what he will bring to the table when all his changes are through: a life-giving insistence on authenticity and an abiding passion for justice. Call him the conscience of the emerging radical middle. Zora is turning into a Howard (knowledgeable, sardonic, insightful) without the left-wing resentment of greatness, or the self-indulgent, if-it-feels-good-do-it non-morality. In other words, she is turning into a person who might actually deserve whatever power she gets. Count her among the future leaders of the radical middle. This message is real because the excellent prose draws up very realistic pictures of Zora, Levi and Jerome. The fact that Howard and Monty are not very different from each other, both being morally bankrupt and hypocritical, underlines the need for a radical middle. The people who need help in Haiti call Levi to action, not any political ideology, but simple forthright action. This novel therefore, in my opinion, can be considered as one of the first great radical middle novels.
A very important social implication of the novel is the declining significance of race. When one reads the novel, one simply does not, or shall I say one simply cannot pay heed to the person’s race. Smith’s characters are a mixture of black and white, yet the message is that race simply does not matter. Hypocrisy is hypocrisy, devotion is devotion and integrity is integrity. Race has nothing to go to do with it in Smith’s novel. However, I must admit that the blacks in Smith’s novel have a strong sense of culture and identity. This again, should be taken as a political message rather than a racial one, since this sense of black identity and culture is seen in Howard’s children instead of Monty’s. Indeed, while reading the novel one does take note of this black identity, but this is significantly overshadowed by the overtones of empathy and realization. One may say that Smith has tried to mirror the melting pot culture of America in the novel. Whatever shadow of race is there, it is shown in a positive rather than negative sense, a matter of identity rather than seclusion.
Even though Smith is no feminist, the novel essentially attaches importance to women. It shows us what all women can be and do; and the prose entices the reader into sympathizing with them and supporting them. The greatest human bond in the novel is between Carlene and Kiki, two women. Kiki’s devotion to her husband is something to marvel at. Kiki and Carlene are morally sound, they are strong, and their souls seem to be whole. Their husbands, on the contrary are weak, dependent, hypocritical and pretentious. Moreover, out of the warriors of the radical middle, it is Zora, a woman, who seems to be the most powerful and formidable. Her intelligence and directness are almost as admirable as Kiki’s devotion. Therefore, in my opinion, the novel is essentially feministic. Its feminism is both conservative and liberal. The conservative shades are shown in the wives, whereas Zora is cut from the liberal cloth.
Another aspect of the novel that needs to be mentioned is Smith’s complete sympathy towards her characters. The prose has been penned down with full understanding of each character’s actions, faults and virtues. Whether it is the adulterous professor, the devoted wife, the promiscuous daughter, the rational and sardonic Zora, the enigmatic Carl or the volatile Levi, the author forgives and empathizes. This claim of mine may seem abstract, but the reader does detect a continuous stream of tenderness towards each character. Every novel has some characters to hate and some characters to love, but Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” is quite different. Towards the end of the novel one feels that every character has been given justice, and one has the satisfaction of seeing that no character has been made scapegoat of. This can be attributed to the rich cultural background of the novel, or perhaps, more accurately, the clash of cultures. Another reason can be the fact that the novel sparkles with hope for the future. One may view Smith’s characters as means to a better future and therefore, sympathize with them and forgive their faults. We forgive them because they have given rise to Levi, Zora and Jerome, the future pillars of the radical middle.
It is perhaps quite obvious but yet very important to mention that the clash of cultures, outlooks and ideas has been wonderfully depicted. This clash between Howard and Monty, between the two families required genuineness, a reality, which On Beauty has amply achieved. The clash between the left and right is not artificial and pretentious, but simple and unassuming. Smith has portrayed this clash with finesse. This is one of the main accomplishments of the novel. The immense gravity of the clash, spiced with humour and sarcasm, takes one to a new haven of intellectuality. The clash has been portrayed in such a way that it gives off an aura of acceptance, those who are leftists can align themselves with Howard and those who are rightists can align themselves with Monty. However, Smith makes us believe that the novel is not about the clash between different positions at all, it is the clash between purity and bigotry, hypocrisy and empathy. This message is delivered by Smith imperceptibly and beautifully. The left and right are just fighting ants; Smith seems to be enjoining that there is something else, apart from these two, something excluded from them and higher than them.
[image courtesy: http://flickr.com/photos/recurrence/267734456/sizes/m/]