On Beauty by Zadie Smith – A Literary Wives Reflection

Zadie Smith's "On Beauty", marriage, and sex

What does it mean to be a wife? How does the role of wife impact a woman’s identity?

These are the core questions we address in a project called Literary Wives. We read novels with an eye on what they have to add to our understanding of what it means to be a wife and a woman.

This month’s pick: On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Check out other responses and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers! You can find them all through the Literary Wives page.

Spoiler alert up front in this one. I assume you read the book — though really, the writing is wonderful enough that spoilers wouldn’t ruin a thing.

On Beauty focuses on the Belsey family, shifting focus between members to explore a variety of themes including race, ethnicity, belonging, bodies, and — of course — beauty.

The Kipps family serves as a foil to the Belsey family. Howard Belsey critiques the very notion of Rembrandt’s genius; Montague Kipps wrote a book in praise of Rembrandt. Howard is a white Londoner living in Massachusetts with his African-American wife and their children. Montague is a Trinidadian living with his family in London (until they move to the Belsey’s town). The Belseys pride themselves on being liberal atheists just as much as the Kippses pride themselves on being conservative Christians.

Forays into the lives and character of other family members aside, the drama of the plot mostly centers-ish on Howard’s professional and moral competition with Montague, and on the impact of Howard’s affairs. Both men are insufferable for different reasons, and in the end, we find they perhaps aren’t as different as we would imagine: both have firm ideological morals — that they fail to embody.

Kiki, Howard’s wife, is hurt by his affair with their close family friend Claire, complicated by the fact that Claire is thin and white — traits culture values and Kiki does not possess. There is more to explore about the implications of this for both the character and the culture, but that will have to wait for another reviewer.

Today, we’re interested in what the novel tells us about marriage.

Mrs Kipps has perhaps the most “traditional” view of marriage. She seems comfortable with women’s role in society, happy to remain in the home, and content to transport that home across oceans as necessitated by her husband’s career. She tells Kiki to leave the ideas and criticisms to their husbands; that women are more embodied creatures. Which sounds a bit awful to this modern feminist reader, except that Mrs Kipps embodies it in a way that is full of delight. Unlike her husband, who intellectualizes art, she simply delights in it. Whereas competition defines the husbands’ relationships, their wives focus on connection. I think Mrs Kipps understands herself as a balancing component to her husband; the counter-archetype to his type. And she’s happy to “give her life” — her time, energy, and selfhood — to that relationship.

Kiki adopts that viewpoint after conversations with Mrs Kipps. She uses the same phrase in a fight with her husband, when her true feelings about his affair are finally spoken. I got the sense that it was authentic, though — not simply an adopted worldview, but language that expressed what had been her reality all along. It’s the opposite of Kate Chopin’s marriage-as-trap in The Awakening. It’s marriage-as-becoming, perhaps even marriage-as-flourishing. She had found meaning and a sense of belonging in her family in a way that she didn’t in other areas of her life. And Howard’s affair broke some of that — or at least broke any illusion that he might be grateful for her contribution to their home, which for Kiki, is to be ungrateful for her entire self and energy.

Perhaps a more fitting question for On Beauty is not what marriage means, but what sex means.

For Mrs Kipps, her identity is found outside of the sexual realm. She’s content in her role of wife and mother, and is unbothered by her husband’s affairs. (I’m assuming, here, that she knew of them — it would be hard not to, when the mistress lived in-house.) For her, sex is an activity that has little bearing on her marriage or identity.

For Kiki, though, it’s something more … and not. She’s surprised at her son’s anger over the affair; “she wished she could muster up such clarity of hate.” It’s only when she finds out that the affair wasn’t a one-night stand with an anonymous stranger that she seems to feel it as a betrayal, which in turn shifts her sense of self, her marriage, and the entire family’s dynamics. What’s especially interesting is the impact of the affair on Kiki contrasted with the experience of it for Claire.

For Claire, sex is nearly meaningless. She notices how she feels one thing and does another (she and Paul have a lot in common) with men, concluding that her sexual behavior confirms “what she knew of the darkest parts of herself.” Perhaps sex is a way to feel valued, or powerful, or to punish those who abused her. Either way, Claire reflects very little on its impact on others; it’s simply more information about understanding her own self.

Interestingly, even beautifully, it’s after sex with her husband that Kiki is able to find that sex and marriage don’t need to define her. Moments after climax, she tells him that she’d rather be alone than be with someone who resents or despises her for aging:

“I want to be with somebody who can still see me in here. I’m still in here. And I don’t want to be resented or despised for changing. . . I’d rather be alone.”

I think perhaps the intimacy gave her the confidence to claim what she wanted for herself, even as the act confirmed that marriage is just an agreement that can be walked away from.

And I think this is the turning point for Howard, too. He seems willing to concede that Kiki can feel hurt and betrayed — but mostly detached from the underlying issue, which is that his choice of partner shamed Kiki’s body. Only in the last paragraphs of the book do we see this sink in for him — seeing, perhaps really appreciating, Rembrandt’s painting of his beloved (herself not a petite woman), does he understand what it is to see someone and to love them just as they are.

Don’t forget to check out other thoughts and reviews on the same novel from Literary Wives bloggers! You can find them all through the Literary Wives page.


7 Comment

  1. Kay says: Reply

    I didn’t really examine the Kippses marriage in my review, but you make some good points about it. I think your comments are more analytical than mine.

  2. You did a nice job bringing together several aspects of the book. I really had to narrow my focus so as not to feel too overwhelmed by all the intricacies of what was going on.
    This book made me think about sex in marriage more than some of the other books. Because it means different things to different people, it’s hard to know how to treat it. However, Howard really crossed the line for me with Victoria.
    Also, why does it seem so much more of a betrayal when you know the person your husband was unfaithful with? Is it because it feels like a double betrayal? Or, in Kiki’s case, was it more to do with Howard choosing white and thin over Kiki’s opposite traits? (I don’t expect you to know the answers – just tossing the questions out there…)

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      Such good questions! I think it’s because it ruins more aspects of life, you know? Like, if it’s just an affair with a stranger in another state, it impacts your marriage, but your only your marriage. If it’s with a friend in the same neighborhood, it impacts the entire social setup — breaks friendships, somewhat forces everyone to align themselves with one person or another. (And that’s even without the point you brought up — the white and thin societal comparison.)

      The Victoria thing — I just felt so much compassion for both of them, both clearly hurting in different ways and using each other to try to get a need met. I felt more heartbroken than outraged.

  3. I really like how you have analyzed the book. I thought the moment when Kiki goes through her children’s stuff was poignant, too, although that has more to do with motherhood than being a wife. I wish there had been more of Kiki.

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      Me too! I feel like this is one of those books that, a generation from now, someone could rewrite from different characters’ perspectives — like Wide Sargasso Sea did for Jane Eyre. I hope that person chooses Kiki.

  4. I’m amazed at your ability to see so much in this novel! I can see glimmers of what you’re saying, for sure. Especially with the Kippses as foil for the Belseys. But I felt like all those elements were just incomplete enough not to offer a full picture. As ever, Smith bites off more than she can chew, complicating her plots with numerous themes that mostly leave me wishing there’d been just a little bit of focus.

    1. Kate Rae Davis says: Reply

      Hm, I took it as more intentional on Smith’s part — not too big a bite, but intentionally complex, condensed flavor. Like an amuse-bouche — you have to savor it to begin to sort out the complexities and how they intermingle. Intentionally complex and multifaceted, because life doesn’t have a single thematic focus either.

Leave a Reply