On Beauty

On Wednesday, Dr. Beth prompted us to think on beauty this week. The sentence was scarce complete when I thought of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Both Smith’s novel and Toni Morrison’s Jazz actually have quite a bit in common. Love and marriage, race, and social class are all present in both novels. However, as this is my first time reading Jazz and I’m not quite sure what awaits deeper in the novel, I will not presume to know if their takeaways are similar. For now, though, I can point out the surface similarities (while trying not to spoil any of Smith’s novel for those of you who have not read it) and recommend On Beauty to anyone looking for their next read.

Where Morrison’s novel centers around Joe Trace and his affair with Dorcas, Smith’s shows Howard Belsey, his family, and his affair. Both are married. Yet, while Joe Trace supports his wife by selling Cleopatra beauty products, Howard is a professor at Wellington, what seems to be a fictional Ivy. From what I have seen so far, Joe’s wife Violet and Kiki Belsey handle their husbands’ infidelity rather differently. In fact, the two women are very different, even at first glance. Kiki is heavier set, whereas Violet is described as “awfully skinny…but still good looking” (4).

In the first pages of Morrison’s novel, it is stated that Violet decided to try and win back her husband’s love. She went about doing so by learning which beauty products Dorcas used, how she styled her hair, and conducting all other sorts of research in what seems to stem from the intention to remodel herself after the girl, if that is what her husband is looking for. This pursuit of another kind of beauty only goes to reinforce the old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it appears that Violet is failing to see that. Or, rather, she is simply blinded by her emotions and her longing for human affection.

Meanwhile, Smith’s novel contrasts the Belsey family with that of Howard’s rival, the Kipps. Kiki befriends the matriarch of the Kipps household, and is thus thrust into direct comparison with both Howard’s lover and his rival’s wife. In the effort to avoid spoiling any other aspects of On Beauty, I will not go into too much detail about Kiki’s comparisons. However, I urge you to consider reading Smith’s novel. And I will continue to see how Jazz unfolds in comparison.

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