On Beauty

On Beauty


Zadie Smith

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On Beauty Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Zadie Smith's On Beauty. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith was born as “Sadie Smith” in 1975 in Willesden, a neighborhood in the northwest part of London. Her mother had recently immigrated from Jamaica, and her father was a white British man who was 30 years older than her mother. As a teenager, Smith changed her first name from “Sadie” to “Zadie,” and her parents also divorced around this time. Smith studied English literature at King’s College, Cambridge, where she met her future husband, the novelist and poet Nick Laird. At Cambridge, Smith published her first short stories in an anthology of student stories, where she attracted the attention of a publisher interested in taking on her first novel. That novel, which drew substantial interest even before its publication, was White Teeth, and its strong critical reception helped cement Smith’s career as a writer. While Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, generally was not as well received as White Teeth, her third novel, On Beauty, was another critical and commercial success, as were Smith’s subsequent novels, short story collections, and nonfiction pieces. Smith continues to write and lives in the Kilburn with her husband, with whom she has two children.
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Historical Context of On Beauty

On Beauty takes place in the early 2000s when George W. Bush was president of the United States and Tony Blair was prime minister of England. Many of Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps’s debates over liberal versus conservative values are inspired by real issues that universities faced at that time and continue to face now. Affirmative action, for example, was a policy universities adopted during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s and was aimed at removing racial biases from the college admissions process that had historically disadvantaged Black potential students. Affirmative action was a major factor in U.S. education until 2023, when a conservative Supreme Court overturned the policy. In fact, the character of Monty Kipps may have been partly inspired by one of the Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn the policy: Clarence Thomas, who is also a Black conservative and a constitutional originalist. Like Monty Kipps, Clarence Thomas is a devout Catholic and was an admirer of Justice Antonin Scalia. Also like Monty Kipps, Clarence Thomas’s career nearly ended following a sexual harassment scandal involving an assistant, culminating in one of the most highly publicized and contentious Supreme Court nominations. Additionally,  On Beauty references several real historical paintings. Rembrandt was a prolific 17th-century Dutch painter. The religious Monty would naturally like Rembrandt because he painted scenes from the Bible, while Howard would naturally find Rembrandt overrated because he was famous for his self-portraits (and Howard doesn’t like paintings of humans).

Other Books Related to On Beauty

Smith has said that On Beauty is loosely based on the plot of Howards End by E.M. Forster, a writer that Smith claims has inspired all of her works. The name of the character Howard in On Beauty is the clearest tribute to Forster’s book, although it’s worth noting that in that book, there is no character named Howard, and “Howards End” simply refers to a fictional country retreat in England. Howard’s End involves a conflict between families, featuring a rich family of capitalists called the Wilcoxes and family of intellectual idealists called the Schlegels. The conflict between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels has clear parallels to the conflict in On Beauty between the Kipps (who are generally capitalistic like the Wilcoxes) and the Belseys (who are generally idealistic, like the Schlegels). More generally, as a key member of the modernism movement, Forster wrote novels that followed the perspectives of several characters with a high degree of psychological realism, pioneering techniques that Smith also uses in On Beauty and her other novels. The wide-ranging scope and changing perspectives in On Beauty are also inspired by the postmodern writers of the late 20th century, including Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children), Don DeLillo (White Noise), and David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest). Some of Smith’s contemporaries who also take inspiration from modernism and post-modernism include Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad), George Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo), and Elif Batuman, whose novel The Idiot is set at Harvard and also loosely inspired by a classic novel (The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky).
Key Facts about On Beauty
  • Full Title: On Beauty
  • When Written: 2003–2005
  • Where Written: Harvard University and London, England
  • When Published: 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Campus Novel
  • Setting: Wellington College and North London
  • Climax: Zora learns that Howard and Monty are each having affairs with students.
  • Antagonist: Monty Kipps
  • Point of View: Third Person Omniscient

Extra Credit for On Beauty

This Could’ve Been an Email. In Chapter 5 of On Beauty, an anonymous “feckless novelist on a visiting fellowship” sneaks out early from a boring meeting being led by the dean. Zadie Smith was herself a visiting novelist at Harvard, which bears several similarities to Wellington, including its location.

A Literary Family. The poem “On Beauty,” which the book attributes to the fictional poet Claire Malcolm, was actually written by Smith’s husband, Nick Laird. Smith’s brother, who performs under the name Doc Brown, helped write some of Carl’s poetry and even has a character named after him in the story.