Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Week 10-The End of Howard, the Beginning of Beauty

Anne Dalke's picture

Any "last" thoughts about Howard's End? Any first impressions of On Beauty? Any in-process thoughts about connections/disconnects between them? What sort of "adaptation" seems to you to be going on (or not) @ this point?

Anonymous's picture

Question about On Beauty

In the novel On Beauty by Zadie Smith, do the phrases "only connect" and "concentrate" apply? If not, is there another pair of phrases that does?

I.W.'s picture

An unchanging story

            In finishing Howard’s End I find myself depressed by the moral I got from it in the end.  Nothing changes truly.  Mrs. Wilcox may have died, but Margaret has taken her place.  The only real changes are the shift in Margaret’s character and the birth of the illegitimate child.  Both of which leave little opportunity for real change in the future.  Margaret has left her liberal ways behind to pursue a quiet life in the country catering to her ill husband’s every need.  She held so many chances for opportunity.  She was in such a unique position for a woman of her time in that she was entirely independent of any men.  She was able to provide for herself and her family.  While the lease may have run up on her house, she had enough money to find them a new place to live.  Instead she gave herself over to the conservative Mr. Wilcox because she was so afraid of choosing the wrong house, and it seemed so much easier to have a strong, willful man in her life.  Helen’s child on the other hand I find even more depressing.  While it is a nice thought to think that the son of a poor clerk will inherit an old money mansion in the country, that is not the reality of the situation.  Somewhere in his mind the boy will know of his real descent, but it wont truly mean anything to him.  The male role models for him will all be Wilcoxes.  He will be raised a Wilcox too in the end.  He will never have to wonder where his next meal is going to come from or how he will pay the rent as his father did.  Really all it proves is that you can’t change the system no matter how hard you try. 

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Evolution of Liturature: Beauty Vs. Howard's End

            It is obvious that “Beauty” is at least somewhat of a modern adaptation of “Howard’s End”.  The writing is somewhat similar, as are some of the characters and plot.  But what does this say about the evolution of literature.  Is “Beauty” better (more fit) than Howard’s end, because it represents the next generation?  It depends on how we look at it.  It seems that the majority of the class, including me likes “Beauty” better, because we can better relate to the times Smith talks about, as well as the way in which she writes about it.  Smith took a great piece of literature (Howard’s End), and evolved it into a novel that can be better understood, and enjoyed by the current generation.  In this sense, “Beauty” is “better”, because those who are living now can enjoy it more. 


A literary critic or someone who studies literature may have an alternative opinion about which novel is better.  They may argue that because “Howard’s End” is more original, and “Beauty” is more of an adaptation than an original work, “Howard’s End” is superior; in terms of credit given to the author, yes, but in terms of the evolution of literature, no.  It is interesting how different people interpret literary work differently.  Who is to say what makes one work “better” than another? 


The evolution of story is extremely interesting in the sense that what makes a story more or less fit is extremely debatable.  Just how the interpretation of a story relies on the one reading it, the interpretation of how good the story is relies on the same.  Now that I think about it, biological evolution is the same.  Yes, biological evolution is a process determined by nature, but us humans have the power to change the way nature works (change the environment).  So again, there can be a debate about what is evolutionarily “better”.   Is treating a person with a genetic defect evolutionarily the right thing for the human species?  Some would argue that is not.

hayley reed's picture

Only Connect...

When Levi comforts his mother after Carlene Kipps’ funeral his comments remind me of the quote “Only connect…” at the beginning of Howard’s End. Levi says, “But sometimes it’s like you just meet someone and you just know that you’re totally connected. Even if they don’t, like, recognize it, you feel it. And in a lot of ways it don’t matter if they do or they don’t see that for what it is-all you can do is put the feeling out there.” Pg. 304

Levi recognizes that it is random that his mother and Carlene forged such a strong connection in such a short amount of time but, he still respects the bond they made. In direct contrast to Levi’s respect for his mother’s friendship, the Kipps family actively resists the friendship. But, in not fulfilling Carlene’s wishes the Kipps family actually disgrace her memory. Carlene may not have been able to explain the bond she felt with Kiki but, she recognized that there was something there and acted upon it. If the Kipps family really cared about Carlene they would have fulfilled her wishes and made sure that Kiki got the painting. Carlene put her feelings “out there” when she left a painting to Kiki that meant a lot to her. She made the decision to connect with Kiki and the painting was symbolic of the connection she was trying to forge with her. While it was very generous of Carlene to give the painting to Kiki I am not convinced that the act  of wanting to connect was enough. Is only connecting enough? Or is there something more needed?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Using science to go beyond ....

"Post modernism" or "abject relativism". What's important about different stories is not which is right (neither is) nor even why either exists (they both do) but rather that they are different, which in turn provides the grist from which new questions can be posed and new stories created. Science is as much about creating as about discovering; literature is as much about discovering as creating? The are both as much about what might be as what has been/is?

evanstiegel's picture

My problem so far with

My problem so far with reading Zadie Smith's novel is the fact that I have already read Howard's End.  Rather than trying to find meaning in On Beauty, I find myself only trying to make connections between the two novels.  The whole first part of On Beauty for example I was trying to pair up characters between the two books like Jerome and Helen, and Monty Kipps and Mr. Wilcox.  When reading On Beauty I often find myself thinking that Smith expects you to have read Howard's End with the amount of concurrence that there is between the two novels.  I wish I had not read  Howard's End first to see if I would get new meaning out of this novel. 

I have a problem with literary adaptations or "homages" in general after reading the first part of this book.  This is my first experience reading a book based on another book.  I am okay with film adaptations because, for me, you get to compare the characters from the novel that you have formed in your mind with the characters as they are represented in the film.  I feel that there is nothing rewarding about reading a novel based on another novel because all you can do is anticipate what's going to happen next in the novel. 

Shannon's picture


I too have been having the same problem with reading On Beauty after Howards End. I really don't appreciate the book because I feel that Zadie Smith is just a copycat -- I do not consider it a "homage".

I am definitely a fan of originality, and when I read the first line of On Beauty, I knew I was not going to enjoy it because of its obviously familiar tone. For me, there just isn't any adventure or enticement to read On Beauty because I know that it is based from Howards End. I believe a book can spawn from another, but that second book does not need to closely copy the plot and have similar characters.

I completely agree with Annie Zambetti's post... couldn't have said it better myself!

marquisedemerteuil's picture

smith isn't copying forster to the letter! people are incorrect!

but i would argue that the beauty of both a literary and filmic adaptation is that they provide an interpretation of the book, they add to it, if you want you could say "they are evolved." i completely disagree with something caroline said in class last tuesday -- i don't think a film adaptation should just be an accurate version of the book translated into a new medium. there's no art in this. the director (or other writer, like smith) should add something unique to the story. and while i strongly dislike "on beauty" as well as elaine scarry's "on beauty and being just" which i just finished, smith really does depart from forster's novel. i really don't think people are giving smith enough credit here. one tries to create parallels, but smith thwarts them, because she introduces modern material, has a different writing style, talkes about universities which forster doesn't do at all, talks about race issues which forster doesn't do at all, talks about liberal guilt or lack of it which didn't exist in forster's time, and as i've said in another post, if you look at the kipps and belsey families, the children do not precisely correspond to those in the schlegel and wilcox families because the numbers are different. there are three main points i can think of where smith follows forster closely, but she mostly departs from him. the three points are: the very beginning, the concert where they play mozart instead of beethoven (though the way smith describes listeners is very different from the way forster does, no goblins here) and then a part later on i don't want to give away. i will say though that the end is not at all a mimicking of forster, and is, in a sense, the opposite of his.

hayley reed's picture

The end of "Howard's End" and the beginning of "On Beauty"

Yesterday in class Prof Dalke posed the question why Mrs. Wilcox's home is called howard's end. I am not sure I have an answer to her question but, she prompted me to think about the meaning of the words beginning and end. I think the beauty of “Howard’s End” is that as a reader I have the opportunity to read about a complex set of relationships without knowing everything there is to know about every character in the book. The beginning of the story for the reader was not really the beginning of the family’s story but, it was simply when Forster chose to start. Similarly, the end of the novel wasn’t really the end of all of the character’s lives- their stories continued on even when we were denied permission to follow them further. From a biological standpoint, just as evolution didn’t begin with the beginning of “Howard’s End”, evolution didn’t end with the end of “Howard’s End”. In fact, the beauty of evolution is that with every end, there is a beginning. For instance, the beginning of “On Beauty” only came with the end of “Howard’s End”.

marquisedemerteuil's picture


i actually think it's a pretty neat (as in tidy) resolution because you've got the people who are pissed, the guy who's in jail, and the happy folks about howard's end. this novel doesn't intend to end in a state of uncertainty, margaret says "the hay's as big as never!" or something like that. she's pointing to a beautiful future, so ultimately the unhappy people don't really matter. they're going to continue on and they're not the main characters, and i think we're supposed to decide that charles wilcox deserved what he got. oddly, the scene of him hitting bast in the film makes him look very guilty and i saw it more ambiguously when i read the book.

azambetti's picture

An Original Tale?

On the back of my particular version of On Beauty, there is a quote from a writer from The New York Times stating “a thoroughly original tale,” which is an undeniable lie, having read Howards End.  How is this book even slightly original when it “thoroughly” copies a previously written book?  I have been upset about On Beauty’s originality since I read its first line, which unquestionably mimics that of Howards End

Howards End’s first line: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister” (Forster 3)

On Beauty’s first line: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” (Smith 3)

This anger comes even with being forewarned that On Beauty was based off of Howards End.  I guess I hadn’t understood the sheer amount of reproduction this entailed.

Andrea Zambetti

kaleigh19's picture

Identity in On Beauty

I think something that's already really grabbed my attention is the way Smith plays with the concept of identity. Within Howard's family, there are so many different kinds of "stock" identities: Howard is an intellectual, Kiki is a black woman in a white intellectual's world, Zora figures herself as spanning the bridge between Levi's urban ghetto identity and her parent's more academic identity, and Jerome is the oddball - he's a womanish kind of intellectual philosopher. And then in the larger group, all of these factors play into characters' identities: race, color, physical build, academic interests,'s really fascinating, and I think that Smith is picking up on Forster's dichotomies and expanding them. Sorry this is so half-formed.

Katie Baratz

marquisedemerteuil's picture

identity in on beauty

that's pretty generous -- i think she just isn't capable of writing fleshed-out characters and is working in terms of cliches.

Christina Cunnane's picture

I like On Beauty alot more

I like On Beauty alot more than I liked Howard's End. I guess it's just the more modern writing style. Forrester's was terribly boring. Smith is a little more engaging. I got caught up in reading it. Especially during the party scene, wondering what Howard's actual infidelity was. I like the characters more too. There doesn't seem to be the "only connect" stuff looming over the book. And there isn't those terrible references, like the Ophelia reference in Howard's End that makes On Beauty alot easier and more relaxing to read.

There is a clear and definite connection between Howard's End and On Beauty. The beginning started out just the same. And there was the quick romance and someone went to stop it. Then there was the party. I see the clear connections but there are also some disconnections also. Like the plot of the story evolved, not just the time and place. The characters are easy/hard to relate to Howard's End. Jerome is clearly meant to be Helen, but then again he can't possibly wind up pregnant and alone. I think the house in Wellington is analogous to Howard's End. And I see Kiki as a Mrs. Wilcox. This makes me sad because Mrs. Wilcox dies and I like Kiki, so hopefully Smith has evolved this part of the plot too.

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

on beauty

I have to agree with Elise. She said, "At first I just thought, this is nice, well written, with some well-placed allusions to Howards End, and perhaps a similar structure.  As I kept reading, I admit I started to get a little ticked off at Zadie." 
Maybe it's because I am reading one right after the other, but I can't help to think "On Beauty" is inferior to Howard's End. It just seems that Zadie took the plot of "Howard's End" and construed it with 21st century embellishments. I can see how the plot would work in 19th century England because class and wealth were so much more of a division, but I can't quite swallow the modernized version. The e-mails in the beginning of "On Beauty" really killed me; they just seemed so forced and uninteresting. I hope the book gets better as we keep reading.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

yeah, i thought the emails

yeah, i thought the emails sucked, too, but as i said in a previous post, it is true that smith departs considerable from the novel as you read more.

Katherine Redford's picture

Starting On Beauty..

I am also getting the sense of class difference in On Beauty, and because it is a more modern novel, I am beginning to rethink my original thoughts about what deserves to go in the literary cannon.  At first I agreed that the novel need not be able to connect with our time. Howard's End did contain themes that are relevant to today's society, we see them being applied in On Beauty.  That being said, I did feel a huge disconnect between myself and Howard's End.  Upon beginning On Beauty, I feel as if this disconnect in Howard's is only more apparent.  I can obviously attribute this to the fact that On Beauty takes place in the now, while Howard doesn't. 

All that being said, I have no idea why we choose the books that we place in the cannon.  If it isn't by relevance, how do we do it? How do we make the distinctions.  This appears to be an easy question, but obviously it isn't as easy as I thought it was.

Jenn Dodwell's picture

Morality: Darwinian or Absolute?

I have often wondered about morality, and whether the recognition that being a moral person and the decision to do so is a result of some absolute truth or calling that we perceive, or if it is merely something that is programmed into us biologically.  Biologically, there are many reasons to be moral.  Many things that are immoral seem like they are immoral for the simple fact that they harm members of our species, and thus our ability to adapt to life.  Stealing and killing someone are immoral because they harm members of our species; stealing by depriving someone of things they might need to live, and killing by taking their life away. 

 However, lying and cheating are also immoral; but how would lying to someone affect his/her chances of survival?  Likewise, how would cheating at something, like a game make any kind of biological difference?  It is less clear cut in these cases what the role of biology plays, if any, in the formation of our morals. 

 Nevertheless, all these morals and many more are ones that most humans agree to strictly live by, because they have been taught that it is the right way to live (and in some cases, such as killing, perhaps do not even have to be taught, but just instinctively know).  But what exactly is the reason why such teachings exist in the first place?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

power, rebellion, and cookies

or morality can be seen as an imaginary creation of the power structure to get the inferiors to obey, and to want to obey so there is no coup, and that the reason anyone believes in morality is because they have essentially been brainwashed. morality wouldn't be a universal concept, because those don't exist, but an arbitrary category set up by the power structure to maintain power. there's your foucault for the day. always happy to provide. my definition of morality is that jennifer dodwell bring me cookies, so make sure to do that tonight or your life will be a sham.

tv, for all its dumb programming, does a very clever thing: it markets the idea of rebellion, so it takes the concept of rebellion, parallel to the concept of individuality, and tells you how to rebel, which of course is telling you how to conform. so this means that it is no longer possible to rebel. what we consider to be rebellion is its opposite so rebellion no longer exists. it would if we could "think outside the box" but that has become a cliche too.

Calderon's picture

I can find meaning


I do not like this book and I can find a meaning to it, something that I can disprove or agree with.  It is difficult to me to read a simple novel that is not asking me to agree on anything after reading “What Evolution Is” and “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” that are books full of meaningful things.  I find myself lost in a meaningless book. I hate to think that things in life are meaningless and I refused to it when it was proposed through the discussions during class but now I am kind of starting to believe that there are certain things that are truly meaningless like “On Beauty” and “Howards End.”  I think that in order for me to relate to something it has to be through emotions because they are timeless and since the two previous readings are more concern about a certain time in history it is impossible to do so.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

history vs the universal

"darwin's dangerous idea" is (supposedly) a philosophical text, so it looks at issues relating to evolution like morality, first causes, some on religion (more in the new book), algorithms as evolutionary models, etc. he's got a host of big issues. mayr basically documents what we have created as a history of evolution and spends a little time talking about bigger issues like the idea of progress (which grobstein and i think he skirts around in a cowardly manner, well i don't mean to put words in our prof's mouth but he agreed with me when i said this) and altruism. so i don't think it's fair to say that howard's end and on beauty are meaningless compared to these texts because they are looking at similar philosophical, arguably universal issues: morality, beauty, class, race, social interaction. forster's novel is in the canon because it is believed to transcend history. while one doesn't have to agree with that assessment and i'm not a huge fan of the novel, i think it partially succeeds in doing that. i think our class is too stuck on the notion that society has changed and we're in a different part of the world. there's still stuff to get out of forster.

for my course, "libertinage et erotisme" i've been reading 18th century literature and each book describes different facets of parisian society of the epoch in detail. that's mostly what the books are about, on the surface.

but plenty of universal questions can be found here. in fact, famous french critic rene etiemble (he is just etiemble, one of those one name figures like madonna and cher) argues taht there are many universal ideas chez crebillon. i actually learned about how to talk to a boyfriend from crebillon fils' majestic heroine and the knowledge i've gained benefits me all the time. however, this is a pragmatic view of what 18th century french lit can bring a 21st century american reader.

i wrote a paper on prevost's manon lescaut arguing that it takes issue with and puts into question three fundamental aspects of more traditional novels of the time: the reliability of the narrator, the existence of true love, and the triumph of morality. so in a sense prevost is pre-postmodern, yet his strategies are subtler, more shakespearean in practice, than postmodern strategies of defying conventional "wisdom." gee, i could have expanded the paper to write about that, but comparing prevost to postmodern french writers could be a thesis topic. an awesome thesis topic. in conclusion, period novels, if they are good enough, have a lot to offer to the modern reader, and i would say that forster and smith, despite their faults (smith's novel bathes in faults) have something to say to us, even if what they say kinda sucks.

LS's picture

Same story different time

I kind of agree with Elise about being ticked at Zadie Smith, I really so far don’t like the book and I think I feel a little bit bad about it.  First, yes Beauty is much much easier to read I think but I am soooooooooo bored with it.  Granted the story line is difference but not difference enough to capture my attention like, when Jerome writes to tell his father that he is marrying Victoria and he immediately sets off on a plane it’s like, ohhh no here we go again.  I guess I have just found the book to repetitive and a little predictable in some areas and I don’t like this.  I know this is supposed to be a great novel based on Howards End but so far I think that its kind of crappy that it is so closely based on the same some what story line.  Maybe this is illustrating evolution but I feel bad because I think I am looking for something more, more crestivity more links, not just a rephrased plot line.  Although I’m not thrilled with the book I still have hope there will be something more, I have only noticed this in the very beginning so I haven’t given up totally.

tbarryfigu's picture

Evolution, Really?

As I read further and further into this book I find that I am observing less of an evolution and more of a replication of events, "with flavor." As mentioned by Laura, some aspects of On Beauty are simply modernized representations of the events in Howard's End, the simplest and earliest example having been the opening line: "One might as well begin with..." followed by Jerome's series of emails (how clever?). This is just the beginning. Though Zadie Smith makes perfectly clear her adoration of Forster, my opinion thus far is that her hommage is a little less "adapted" (from an evolutionary standpoint) and a little more "maybe it should be written like this," even though (and this is ridiculously obvious, so excuse me) her setting did not exist in Forster's time. Sometimes I am angry with Zadie Smith and I think to myself: "If this book were an organism, adapting through time and adapting, it would die." Give me time to get used to her, I think I need it.


marquisedemerteuil's picture

same story different time?

i think at the beginning the novel follows on beauty pretty closely. i was annoyed by the first sentence. "god, it's the same and she thinks it's witty cuz it's over email now! argh!" but i gotta give her credit, she really departs from it in the middle and i kept thinking, "is he this one? is she that one?" she intentionally gives the families different genders and numbers (i feel like i'm doing grammar, oops) than the ones in howard's end so the parallels can't be too obvious. it's clear who the schlegels and wilcoxes are, the belseys and kipps respectively, and perhaps the title of the first part, "kipps and belsey" is a reference to forster's novel being about the relationship between families (though there is more obvious feuding going on in on beauty.) in the schlegel household there are 3 children, and there are also 3 in the belsey home, but the belsey home has 2 parents while the schlegel home has none, the belsey kids are much younger, there are 2 boys and a girl instead of 2 girls and a boy, and then there are boys on the wilcox side, charles and paul, but a boy and a girl, michael and "vee" on the kipps side. so already we have complications. later, there is a pretty clear leonard bast figure, but sometimes based on the forster i would expect certain characters to act certain ways or have specific traits and they would be given to another character. but then the novel "touches base" if you will and follows forster's plot rather exactly. the ending is not exact at all, though, but i will say no more. over the whole 443 pages, smith isn't really "stealing" much from forster, she has created a new piece, but i think it's kinda sad that she needs both em forster and elaine scarry to do it. besides, i'm reading the scarry right now and it really isn't good. it's as unintellectual as smith's writing (i'm referring more to the fail better essay) so maybe that's why smith likes it.

J Shafagh's picture

I'm not "Connecting"

Because we spent the first part of the semester mainly talking about biological evolution, I am having a difficult time tying it into "cultural evolution" or the "evolution of stories."  I guess I wasn't prepared for this transition in the course, and I am not finding ways in which I can connect the two together to make sense.  Howard's end was a good book, but I can't say that I loved it.  And it frustrated me that I wasn't able to say that I really connected with any of the characters in the book, as so many of you did.  I feel really indifferent.  Another difference is that with biological evolution, I believed a lot of the topics we discussed were more fact than fiction, and with stories, I feel that as we discuss each book, we don't really draw any concrete answers.  I like answers that are "less wrong" than others, and analyzing the text to try and see what the authors intended to write just doesn't do that for me.  I feel like its a dead end, with no real answer, or, albeit, one that is less wrong.  Any suggestions on how to appreciate these books or to be able to "connect" with them?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

connecting is stupid

i would argue though that we are talking too much about if we are connecting to characters, and that while connection is forster's theme, it's a theme among characters and not the best lens through which to view the book. i think reading through "connecting" is too sentimental. ultimately, characters aren't people, we can't meet them and like them and dislike them, they are the author's tools to make a point, and i'd rather look at how he makes that point than how i feel about characters. when i read, i dont' think my feelings are important. in high school, they would always ask, "would you like to meet this character?" and people would get really involved in answering the question and i would groan and turn back to my didion, who for some reason i constantly mention on this board (well, twice). so jasmine that doesn't exactly relate to your point but i wanted to say it, so there you go.

Student's picture

relating to characters in Howard's End

In our smaller discussion groups, we talked about relating to a character...if we could, and which one that would be.  I said that I related to Helen the best.. maybe it was her "impetuous thoughtlessness", as was suggested.  I liked that she wasn't predictable.. that she acted on her emotions and just went. Later, thinking about it, I realized that I don't think I relate to her as much as I thought I did... or maybe it was that I wanted to relate to her, that she had qualities that I wanted to in someway embody.  Maybe that's what "relating" to a character is about... finding qualities in them that you want in yourself, and maybe thinking that these qualities are in you, at first, is our way of attempting to see ourselves in that character... or, ourselves with those qualities. 

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Thoughts on Adaptation

Since beginning On Beauty, I’ve gone through a cycle of different reactions.  At first I just thought, this is nice, well written, with some well-placed allusions to Howards End, and perhaps a similar structure.  As I kept reading, I admit I started to get a little ticked off at Zadie.  Is this what modern writing has come to, taking a classic and bending its plot, themes, and characters into a modern situation where the allusions to the previous work are all too obvious?  But then, I took a step back and reminded myself of the main themes of this course: evolution and storytelling. 

There is a definite evolution to be seen between these two works.  Smith has forced Howards End into the twenty-first century by telling her story through the eyes of a modern multicultural family that inhabits the world we live in today.  The main themes remain the same, but with a twist.  Class is addressed through the subtleties of changing economic status and racial backgrounds, rather than the clear distinction between rich and poor in 1910.  The clash of ideologies remains to some extent intellectual and practical, but with distinct overtones of liberal versus conservative.  In a sense, the story of Howards End has been adapted to fit its surroundings.  While the world of Forster’s original novel may seem alien to us now, Smith makes us see that the same issues are still relevant in modern society.  While I think her linkage of the two works would have been just as effective without the overt allusions to Howards End, at this stage I am content to view Smith’s work as an homage rather than an imitation.


tbarryfigu's picture

Choices, choices, choices

Recently, I've been wondering more and more why we are reading books such as Howard's End and On Beauty. Though Forster touched on the evolution of his characters, I find it hard to believe that we are reading these novels so that it can be proved to us that there is both biological evolution and cultural (or personal) evolution. That thought is way beyond exhausted at this point, and I feel like the beginning of the semester set us up for way more than what I'm extracting from these stories. It's as if I've adapted to making sense of the abstract and am now being asked to make obvious observations:

"Here is a picture of a circle, what do you see?"

"A circle."


"Because Forster said: I am going to write a story about shapes. There is a circle in my story."

This is not to say that I am enjoying this half of the semester any less than the first, though I continue to wait for something relevant to our "there is no truth" theory in the novels. Was that just a side-dish anecdote to carry with us in the future? Because if so, i've been going about this class all wrong. That theory changed how I look at everything because I thought we were supposed to ignore the "forest from the trees" and instead say "there is no forest, cool huh?"

Additionally, I keep wondering why this class does not incorporate books like Ishmael which so obviously takes Literature and the Topic of Evolution and mixes it into a wonderful delight of goodness. It is a perfect read for this class! A novel...about trying to identify "What Evolution Is..." why things are the way they are, why we place meaning on the meaningless, the origin of morality, culture...basically THIS CLASS in novel form...which evolves just as much as Howard's End. Especially if you read it's prequal and then Ishamael. Perhaps it offers answers to questions you (the professors) want us to come across ourselves. Either way, it's a steller book, and I highly recommend that you consider it in the future.

Will On Beauty fullfill my desire to continue making sense of the abstract? Let's hope.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

you need to learn to love

you need to learn to love the tomato. (it's a joke, read the end of the book.)

danYell's picture

only connect

Smith emphasizes social class in her novel On Beauty but I think that the implications are a bit different. The world we live in today, and in Smith’s novel is much less claustrophobic than Forster’s world. Maybe it’s just a color issue, where Smith’s focus is on the black intellectual and the black emotive, and the mixed race individual. While Forster mixes classes, Smith mixes race and class -- I think this gives the novel more depth. I think that Smith’s characters are much more relatable than Forester’s characters as well. This may just have to do with the contemporary setting, but I get her song references and inside jokes where I struggled with Forster.

I was trying to lay out the characters side by side and see whom I felt I knew. I think that Levi relates to Helen in his admiration for the marginalized class, but we have a clearer view of how his family sees him. This helps me know him better than I felt I ever knew Helen. I would be hard pressed to say anything negative about Smith’s characterization because I really think she nails people down.

The only connect is emphasized in a clearer way with Levi connecting culturally and socially with the marginalized class. I doubt this would have been possible in Forster’s time. In Smith’s novel you don’t have to romanticize Africa in the margins, it is before you in living immigrant color. The layers of blackness are very interesting to me. The black English intellectual, the southern black, the Haitian immigrant, the biracial intellectual. Only connect almost becomes silly when you think about the access we have to one another in public settings. It becomes less about class standing and more about only connecting the intellectual and the emotive, or even the narrative and the non-narrative.

Danielle Joseph

marquisedemerteuil's picture

smith wants to end howard

howard belsey is actually white and english. i know when you said black you were referring to kipps (you is technically trinidadian, if you want to be technical) but he's not southern, haitian, or biracial, so i didn't see him included on your list. however, the beginning of the book isn't really clear about howard's race and it's clear that kiki is black and that his family is biracial. maybe smith does this intentionally, to level the playing field, to get rid of "the white guy" dominating the scene and our thoughts, he's just one of a big melting pot or something.

LF's picture

Survival of the fittest

If there is no universal morality, then it should also be hard to judge when someone is being selfish. When Henry conceals the note from Ruth to Margaret many people in the class said that this was a selfish act. Even though it was Ruth's dying wish for the estate to go to Margaret, should Henry feel obliged by this last minute wish based on a brief friendship? If you feel something belongs to you, do you not have the right to fight for it even if it means deceiving others? Doesn't everyone have that ounce of selfishness inside them? In the end it really is about survival of the fittest.

CT's picture

Groups determine judgements

Yet I feel like certain things can be judged. Selfishness, for instance, can exist regardless of morality. A value judgment on selfishness is another matter.

It is a theme that seems to reoccur with Howards End and On Beauty - qualities can always exist, but how we judge these values depends on how society values it. Obligations are valued in a societal aspect. Evolution is an aggregate activity. It is the group, not the individuals, that determines how we judge things. The individual's judgment is influenced by the group.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

oh really?

how can selfishness exist regardless of morality? you could do things for yourself and not for others, but that's not the definition of the word "selfish." that's intriguing though -- do elaborate!

rebeccafarber's picture

I am fascinated so far by

I am fascinated so far by Zadie Smith's ability to describe normal situations with such attention to detail and precise wording. She does it so effortlessly that the scenes just seem to flow, the characters moving and waiting for us exactly as we left them every time we put down the book and resume it later. I skimmed over Hayley's post and found that she pointed out an aspect in the beginning of the novel that I, too, found especially interesting for multiple reasons: when Kiki changes her behavior and way of speaking when Monique, the black housekeeper, arrives. It caused me to really question Kiki's character and her place- what made her uncomfortable about a woman of the same race cleaning up after her as a mode of occupation is that the situation speaks to the inequality of the class system and the American Dream as well as Kiki's and her family's place in the intellectual sphere.

The family dynamic is amazing, and I am enthralled by Howard's position in the family. I am not sure where he stands, and the family's initial animosity towards the Kipps family raised questions. But I loved Smith's line in between Howard and Kiki's quarrel over where the Kipps's phone number was, which Howard had mistakenly left behind at a conference (the first explication that he chooses his occupation over his family: "when [he] had more important things on [his] mind than [his] wife and family" [page 13]). As Howard asks to talk about it later, Smith writes: "When you are guilty, all you can ask for is a deferral of the judgment." Touche! Touche!!!

hayley reed's picture

So far so good!

While there are many differences between "Howard’s End" and "On Beauty" subtle commentaries on class can be seen in both novels. I thought the interaction between Monique, the cleaning lady, and Kiki was particularly interesting. Kiki’s behavior changes dramatically when she is around Monique. Zadie Smith writes, “Kiki stayed in her strange movement, nervous of what this black woman thought of another black woman paying her to clean. She spoke in a quite different formal voice, stripped of its Florida music.” Kiki feels that she has to be a different person around Monique because she is her employer but, also because she is black. Kiki’s nervousness suggests that she feels that she feels there is something wrong with her hiring a black women to clean her house. One of the reasons I was so sensitive to this interaction between Kiki and Monique is because of Smith’s language. She writes with a specific attention to detail which really allows her readers to gain a better understanding of the character of her characters.

The epitome of this particular style of writing is seen when Smith describes the Belsey residence. In chapter 3 she eloquently describes what makes the family home so special. Her vivid descriptions allowed me to picture exactly how the home looked and I felt as if I was seeing the house for the first time instead of just reading about. Her descriptions reinforced the idea for me that there is a difference between a house and a home. A house is simply a place where someone lives. But, a home is so much more. A home is so special because it can’t be separated from it’s history. In learning about the home one has the treat of learning about the family’s house as well. Every mark on the floor and dent in the banister has a special purpose and story behind it. I haven’t reached the end of On Beauty but, I hope that the home plays a special role in the plot as howard’s end did in Forster’s novel.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

one of the biggest

one of the biggest differences between "on beauty" and "howard's end" is the treatment of intellectuals and practicals. forster, through the character margaret, identifies with the intellectuals but believes that "it takes all kinds" and he shows that despite his many shortcomings, practicals like mr wilcox have good qualities, too, and are needed in shaping a world in which intellectuals and practicals should come together. mr wilcox does worse things, especially at teh end of the novel, than margaret does, and margaret is able to forgive him, so forster seems to be saying that people need to accept others for who they are. people can change, as wilcox seems to soften at the end, but only up to a point. mrs wilcox is definitely the noblest practical in the novel, and she does have a powerful reserve and admirable selflessness, but i think that her taciturn behavior at the schlegels' party shows her limitations intellectually and socially, not any kind of power on her part as members of grobstein's discussion group were arguing. helen is mrs wilcox's foil, as she is too impetuous and mrs wilcox lacks spontaneity. but helen is the only one who truly understands how unjust they have been to leonard bast. forster is very diplomatic. he gives each character credit and criticizes each one as well. i think an appreciation of the merits of each character manifests in his writing.

i have finished "on beauty" so i am not going to give anything away, but one of my many, many issues with this novel is the way it unfairly skewers intellectuals. the only characters who are not caricatures, for whom smith shows some sympathy, are the practicals, kiki in particular, also mrs kipps, and levi. she mocks levi quite a bit, but he becomes a deeper character by the end and she sympathizes with his concerns. however, you'll see many parts where she makes fun of universities, professors, meetings, poetry readings. she hates howard belsey because he does not agree with her on beauty. this is a crime to her, so basically this novel is howard's end, and we watch his gradual decline. a good word to describe smith may be rootless because she is a writer, and on the intellectual side of the spectrum (she graduated from cambridge if that makes any differences, though plenty of non-intellectuals graduate from such institutions, and i don't mean to say that negatively) but her novel is all about skewering intellectuals. none of them is a realistic character, none of their merits is appreciated. joan didion's novels show more love for humanity than "on beauty." (i'm a big fan of diddie, don't get me wrong. but this smith woman, grrr....)

Julia Smith's picture

Evolution: Biological vs. the Novel vs. the Play

I've been thinking a lot about the importance of being able to relate to a book, which is something we've kind of been discussing in our Thursday sessions with Prof. Dalke. In my last posting, I said something about it being unfair to Forster to try to push his novel to make it fit our time. 

For another class, I just read the essay "Aiming the Cannon at now: Strategies for Adaptation" by Susan Jonas. Jonas is a director and dramaturg who rewrites classic plays and adapts them for modern times. She asks many of the same questions we've been asking in class: "Why is this considered a classic? What of it is timeless and universal? What is not?" 

She wants to, in her words "infiltrate plays". She wants to use the classics and reshape them to make a point about modern times. Because she is a feminist dramaturg, she wants to give a voice to those left out of the classics, and to those who have been discriminated against for race, gender, or sexual preference. She does this in a variety of ways. She sometimes changes the gender of characters, includes snips of famous speeches, transplants plays to alternate times, and includes lots of alternate media, including music. 

She claims that, because a play was meant for a different audience, if we don't change it for our audience, then our audience will be seeing it differently than intended anyway because they're of a different time.

I kind of agreed with what she was saying. I generally enjoy adaptations of plays set in modern times, providing they're done with the right kind of motivation and research. And I think that with plays you have an option that you don't have with novels. Plays are meant to be done again and again, and a good playwright leaves gaps and intends for his or her plays to be interpreted different ways to keep them fresh. This is different from a novel, especially if we take into consideration that Forster said he no longer likes Howards End. I guess Forster intended for Howards End to be read again and again, but not in the same way that a play should be performed again and again. Novels to me just seem like they should be separate stories, something comfortable that you can return to, something unchanging. 

Plays, though, I see as something that moves. Something that you can constantly change or find a new piece of depending on your cast, or your director, or your dramaturg. I think this is more relatable to biological evolution than the novel, because plays to me are constantly changing. They adapt to their current environments but are never fixed.