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Week 11-what? what? what? what do you make of that?

Anne Dalke's picture

What did Forster think about change?

What does Smith think about Forster?

What does beauty have to do with any of this?

What do you make of Jean-Paul Sartre's "fact" that "We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are"(On Beauty, p. 326)?

I.W.'s picture

Beauty versus Evolution

I think Forster doesn’t believe that real social change is actually possible.  His book shows that in the lack of social movement that ultimately occurs despite what should have been a series of society shattering events.  For goodness sake not only did Helen get pregnant out of wedlock, but it was with the son of a clerk! How much more of a shock to the system did the Wilcoxes need?  Zadie Smith has a slightly better outlook on the potential for change, but she too is restrained in that belief.  While Howard’s infidelities to create much more of a stir amongst his family, in the end there does seem the possibility that Kiki will return to Howard.  I think both Forster and Smith viewed beauty as being in direct opposition to change.  The beauty of the house in Howard’s End lures Margaret into becomes just like Mrs. Wilcox and the beauty of Vee seduces Howard back into a cheating lifestyle.  Beauty is the temptress that refuses to allow change.  

J Shafagh's picture


After reading both novels, I'm not sure if I particularly liked On Beauty.  Like Shannon said once, I get bored when I read two books that are so similar to one another, especially back to back.  One thing I can say, though, is that Smith's book had a better flow to it and that it was easier for her to capture me into the book and I could feel a better connection with her words, (as opposed to Howard's End).  And I seriously don't get how Smith's book is actually related to beauty. The only thing I can think of is Howard rejecting that beauty exists when he is lecturing in class but at the same time, thinking Victoria is just the most beautiful girl.  I guess I'm perplexed!

ttruong's picture

Fewer Gaps, less stoic characters

Similar to Caroline, I felt the same way when I reading On Beauty. I felt that I didnt have to analyze too hard, or be more imaginative than what the author prescribe. With Howard's End my imgination had to constantly reset the setting to place me back in time. I had to draw from knowledge i've acquire about this that period in prior to reading it. I was constantly feeling in on the gaps myself, and feeling a little inadequate at it. These gaps were what Forster presumed the readers should know.

Furthermore, after contrasting On Beauty to Howard's End I feel Forster's lack of emotional communication between readers and characters is even more conspicious than it was prior to reading On Beauty. Though the characters in Howard's end expressed physical evidences of emotions, for some inexplicable reason i found them still very stoic, compared to Smith's characters.

CT's picture

Stereotypes in literature

When re reading certain portions of Howards End and On Beauty, I was thinking about how we discussed the ability to relate to the story and/or the characters. I would argue that I more readily identified with the events of On Beauty because they fit into what I expect and have experienced in my life in those situations. They fit into my schema of the world, so I relax and don't have to "imagine" it as much as remember.

Going back to Tamarinda's point about stereotypes in discussion on Thursday - I also would like people to ignore stereotypes and take individuals for individuals. However, I think that this is unlikely to happen. Because stereotypes are manifestations of expectations. I expect certain characters to behave in certain ways based on how they are introduced. The benefits of a novel include that we are forced to follow the narrative of the author - which can force us through experiencing characters in a different way, breaking those stereotypes.

I think the conclusion that I am reaching is that it is not stereotypes that are the issue, but the expectations which we carry about things and people in the world that change things. What we expect the definition of beauty of be as individuals can differ from other people's expectations. And there is where we find conflict in definitions, conflict in characterization, and conflict in discussion.

LS's picture

Who are you Zadie Smith?

I think that Jean-Paul Sartre's "fact" that "We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are" is very important in our discussion of “On Beauty” I think in fact it describes Zadie Smith and the situation that she is in.  In Prof. G’s class on Thursday we discussed what we actually learned about Zadie Smith from on beauty the list was short; she is extremely intensely emotional, she hates ivory towers, and there is sex ALL the time!  We also could not figure out what the heck she was trying to say and how she was linking to Howard’s End.  We just weren’t sure; does this mean Smith isn’t sure?  I think she did set out with a goal and how she wanted to portray her self in her writing I just don’t think that she accomplished it, maybe as Sartre says she doesn’t know who she is yet is responsible for what she is and how she comes out in her writing.

Kristin Jenkins's picture

I love this idea that all

I love this idea that all you can really know from an author is what they put on the page and how even if its not what they meant, its THERE, so it means whatever we want it to mean. I learned in high school a few close reading rules, all of which I can't remember, but this was definetly one of them. If its there, its there. You are never allowed to assume that this is what the author meant, because you can never really know, and even if you could know, it wouldn't matter.

Maybe Smith had many intentions for this book. All we can do is guess whether or not she acheived them based on what we know about her and her novel and our own intuition. Then again, maybe Smith's only goal was to make us sit here and ponder for weeks on end about what the hell she meant in her book. Congrats, Zadie, you win.

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Smith vs Forster

Although some change occurs in “Howard’s End”, I believe that Forster believe that change can never truly occur.  It is apparent that Forster wants people to have the ability to change, but in actuality, feels that no one can really change.  While Margaret was able to marry into a traditionally wealthy British family the Wilcox’s, she never truly changes.  Also, Leonard strives to change himself through knowledge.  He is able to befriend the Schlegel’s, he is never able to shed his original label.  Ultimately, I think Forster believes people can change, but that change is limited by the original label that one inherently has in society.


I feel that Smith agrees.  She, however, makes her statements about race instead of class.  By discussing Howard and other characters, she depicts levels of blackness.  Some characters act more or less black and are either ridiculed or accepted by different groups (white or black) for acting a certain way.   When a black character acts whiter to fit into society, they are more accepted, but at the same time, ridiculed by other blacks for assimilating.  Ultimately, Smith feels that while a black person can acculturate into a predominantly white society, he or she will always be black, and can never escape that.  Therefore, she, like Forster, is saying that people can change, but that that change is limited by basic original labels that can never be shed. 


One major topic that I think Forster and Smith disagree upon is academia.  While Forrester believes that academic status is the most important aspect of society, Smith greatly looks down upon academia and those who adhere to its rules.   This reminds me of Foucault, who I read in a previous sociology class.  Foucault argues that academia sets up social norms, and creates class lines, by one’s ability to have access to it.  A contemporary example would be the primary education system, where wealthier children have greater academic access than non-wealthy children.  The excess knowledge that wealthier children attain is used against the less wealthy who cannot attain it in a way that creates class lines.  

marquisedemerteuil's picture

i'm not so sure...

"It is apparent that Forster wants people to have the ability to change, but in actuality, feels that no one can really change."

Even though this is just a forum, you would need to prove this by inciting evidence; otherwise, you can't convince me. I think Margaret and Mr. Wilcox both change for each other, so you have to find a way of proving me wrong.

It's also not sensible to compare change in race and class. You can potentially move up or down in class, but you can't have white skin if you don't have it.

I'm also not quite sure what you argument is; first you say that Forster and Smith don't believe that people can change and then say that they both do believe in change, just in limited change.

Shannon's picture

Connections Between...

I am writing my third paper about Howards End because I like this book better and have more to say about it. I'm thinking about relating The House of Seven Gables to Howards End. What's the correlation, you ask? --- GENUS LOCI!

Genus Loci, or "sense of place", defines the profound attributes which give the perception of different sites their character and identity. One of life's simplest pleasures or burdens you can experience is to have your senses immediately stimulated upon entering a surrounding influence or environment. An emanation of good or evil forces dictate how the nerve endings in your mind and body will react. Whether to smell the scent of freshly baked cookies or to have the hair on the back of your neck rise, you are left with a special impression. An aura is established in your mind relative to this locale.

Howards End is a novel of class struggle & the significance of connecting; in addition, it conveys Genus loci with the house of Howards End. The house is special to the people who associate with it, and it represents a happy location for connection to be made for those who choose to do so. In the book, there was great concern as to who would eventually receive the house -- its genus loci emerged here. Howards End (the house) is the glue that holds the characters together.

In comparison, The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne exhibits reminisce of genus loci as well. The House of Seven Gables itself is cursed by the dirty deeds done by family ancestors -- nothing good can come from the house. The descendants of the family are innocently cursed by the house --- in turn, the house produces an aura of fear, burden and anxiety to its inhabitants.

The genus loci(s) in The House of Seven Gables and Howards End are opposite in effect. They produce contrasting emotional significance.

Anne Dalke's picture

weighing in on the other end of the disciplinary spectrum...


you might want to check out Science and a Sense of Place, the archive for a K-12 workshop offered here last summer (and this summer upcoming)--look esp. @ the notes @ the end of Day One, which talks about "a critical pedagogy of place": instead of the current standardized (and so "placeless") science curriculum, that limits/devalues/distorts local geographical experience, designing one that would promote the well-being of the particular place where the kids are learning--AND interrogate 'em. The focus of our workshop was not just on conserving, but on transforming local places, being attuned to the particularities of where people live--especially when those places are poor urban neighborhoods. So (back to your paper): does the city of London have a genus loci? Does Boston?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

something more beautiful

smith accuses academics of ignoring the supposed importance of emotions, for not just taking in beauty, for having to complicate something pure and lovely. i have a response to this. my writing is really rough here, forgive me.

emotion has a certain place in the humanities, but a subtler one than she can imagine. in academic writing, you don't have emotion like you do in a novel, obviously, but emotion is what leads to the intellectual ideas of the piece, is what leads to the dedication to write it. smith doesn't know that the author is never as calm as her prose, and that prose can speak about and inspire emotion without needing to be emotional. why does everything have to be? why should an academic talk about beauty if he doesn't want to? can't beauty hurt? i guess smith would find laura mulvey heartless, too. to get many things done in life, you have to ignore your emotions. you have to fill out forms, take classes you don't want, be nice to jerks, attend boring meetings (as she describes) there's a lot you have to just get yourself to do. but if you're in the humanities, your emotions are significant, because they fuel your ideas, because you can pour them into what you read, see, and write. it's not about bypassing emotions, it's just that you aren't explicit about them. they're not the central focus, and they shouldn't always have to be.

part of the joy of the humanities is that you can pour your emotions into them, but another great element is that you can forget your emotions, which can bog you down, you can create ideas about something that isn't you; you can transcend yourself and the pettiness of your environment. ads for panzani "italian" products are cheap and stupid, but barthes' analysis of them is not. petty things can be ignored but they can also be transformed simply because they are analyzed, and great art becomes heightened with analysis too. academics (subjects not people) can be, in a sense, beautiful when they have nothing to do with beauty, and also when they renounce it.

if you're an actor, or a businessman, or a politician, you have to adopt, and therefore at least partially believe in, society's stifling concept of beauty, because you're success in these fields is limited if you dont' look "beautiful" enough and that leads to a lot of hard work, anxiety, and narcissism (not "video and the aesthetics of narcissism" narcissism). but if you're an intellectual, you can explore other options. so the fact that howard does fictional work that escapes the idea of beauty is liberating, even if he's at an impasse. if you consider academic writing to be stifling, beauty can be too.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

let's break the mold

we spend a lot of time talking about how things ought to change, but the irony here is that our vocabulary doesn't. to be honest, i was really disappointed after class today because i think our way of speaking has gotten much, much too narrow. we've developped specific, unusual definitions of narrativity and non-narrativity, defining narrativity as positive, because everything must be in flux for change for learning to occur, and defining non-narrativity as negative, as when we describe "non narrative" stories about evolution. there is no reason we should have these connotations, and there is also the idea of a-narrative that we haven't touched on. but more importantly, not every philosophical subject can be encapulsated in these two rigid words we've created and this is the only way we're speaking. if you consider howard's perspective to be limited, ours has become worse, and this comes from the one person in the class who thinks specialization is fantastic.

i think it's strange we're reading "on beauty" in this class because we attend a particularly intellectual school. we're not here to criticize intellectuals and they have a lot to offer us. i can't tell you how much i've learned from people who are academics in the strictest sense of the word. that is why i'd go so far as to say that this book is offensive and the ending is the most malicious thing i've ever read. i know i'm getting intense here, but i did not come to bryn mawr to look at a painting and think about how i feel, i came here to learn art history, literature, french, to learn new methods of analysis. when i look at rothko, i think of the holocaust and problems of representation. i think of how he wanted to convey the human figure, how he sought to imply it in his work but didn't feel it could be represented anymore. i want to ponder these things, i don't want to see green and blue. the reason i like to study strange-looking, non-aesthetic art is because i find beauty boring: there are conventions that make something look beautiful to us and i am used to them, i want to see them subverted, manipulated. i read part of a zadie smith interview and she said she likes rembrandt because his work is "fleshy and so full of love." is this bland characterization superior to howard's fictional work? absolutely NOT.

CT's picture

In defense of definitions and "bland characterizations"

" we've developped specific, unusual definitions of narrativity and non-narrativity, defining narrativity as positive, because everything must be in flux for change for learning to occur, and defining non-narrativity as negative, as when we describe "non narrative" stories about evolution."

We must develop such definitions though. We need to specify what we are talking about. Would it then be better to invent new words? Precision in discussion in necessary in order to help define the discussion. We have seen in class what happens we people have different definitions of terms. And in a class where we discussion concepts with which not everyone is familiar, defining terms and ideas helps everyone stay on the same page.

It is not constructive or useful for us to have discussions if everyone has definitions with multiple meanings. Language is already imprecise, there is no need to make it any more rounded or indefined.


"i think it's strange we're reading "on beauty" in this class because we attend a particularly intellectual school. we're not here to criticize intellectuals and they have a lot to offer us."

I took the book very differently. While intellectuals do have a lot to offer us, we must remember the other side of the spectrum of understanding. Becoming only intellectual is constructive, and that in a greater balance in life, it is useful, generative, and enjoyable to explore things not with only an analytical sense, but with a broader sense.

In our discussion, we use percise terms in order to help us move forward in what is a largely intellectually based class. In life, and when generating from "the crack" of loopy science, we do not have to be limited to such thought processes.

Of course intellectuals have a lot to offer people. But non intellectuals do as well, which is the point that Zadie Smith is making. We shouldn't only prize the intellectuals in society. There is an element of elitism that is unfair and nonconstructive in that.

azambetti's picture

Social Order

The social order in On Beauty is not nearly as defined as in Howards End.  I think this is mostly due to Mr. Kipps’ (whose character is comparable to Mrs. Wilcox in Howards End) and Kiki’s (whose character is comparable to Margaret in Howards End) husbands both being professors.  With both men making roughly the same amount of money and money being one of the major distinctions between social classes, it is hard to place the families in their corresponding social classes, which were previously set in Howards End.  The author of On Beauty Zadie Smith might have purposely blended the social classes in her book to possibly show how class distinction since Howards End’s era has become hazy.  I rather liked the social structure in Howards End and had hoped when reading On Beauty that Smith would be setting the story at present day, while keeping with one of the most important themes in the book she reproduced, Howards End.

Andrea Zambetti

Mariellyssa Wenk's picture

what we want...

In response to Jean-Paul Sartre's "fact" that "We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are," I agree that it is nearly impossible to know exactly what we want at any given time. It is much easier to know what we DON'T want in life, so it makes more sense to look at getting to what we want as a process of elimination. This can easily be compared to evolution as it too is a process of finding what it wrong to possibly reach what is "right."
I am still aslo confused about what beauty is. Like Karen said, everybody is going to define beauty differently. So, in my oppinion we're just reading one person's ideas of beauty and comparing it to our own.

LF's picture


After having spent an hour and a half trying to define beauty, i realized that beauty is something impossible to define. Every person has their own ideal in other humans, in art and food. One persons ideal could be another persons worst nightmare. That is the beauty of diversity. If we all thought the same I am sure the story of evolution would not be all that interesting.  

kaleigh19's picture

(Non-)Narrative Disciplines

After class on Thursday, PGrobs and I go into a discussion on the nature of academia, whether professors were generally more or less non-narrative than the rest of the population. This question has been nibbling at my brain for the past few days, and I think I've found an interesting tie-in from On Beauty.

One of the reasons that Howard's art criticism is so subversive is because he attempts to divorce Rembrandt from the romance. He basically argues that a painting is simply a painting - a careful representation of something, and that there's no story, either of the painter's motives or of the figures depicted, framing the painting itself (there was an explicit comment to this effect somewhere, but I've had trouble locating it). I think that this is why he is so intrigued by Vee's comment that the paintings that shy, quiet Katie admired are debased, just "a painting about painting," (253). For Howard, the a painting is self-contained and must be considered as such, critically. In other words, Howard is rebelling against a tradition of viewing art as a story, insisting rather that art is non-narrative.

And he's not published for it! Some students' interest may be piqued, he may get a lot of attention, but it's because he's proposing a subversive means of viewing art. Darwin, too, challenged the way we think about science, arguing that science is narrative, an ever-changing flux, rather than a fixed scala natura. Just as Darwin made non-narrative science a story, Howard reduces narrative art, romantic genius, into a set of fixed, predictable, and replicatable circumstances. What I'm seeing, then, is that Belsey attempts to do to art what Darwin did to science - inverting the narrativity.



Katie Baratz

Student's picture

jean-paul sartre fact

I think Jean-Paul Sartre's "fact" that "We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are"(On Beauty, p. 326), is really interesting. I don't think we ever can really know what we want- what we think we want is often something entirely different than what we actually want. A lot of this probably relates to the consequences, or results- we'll think something has different results than it does, desire it, and then when we experience it, it's not as we thought it would be. I think knowing what we want is a problem, but one we greatly complicate, that can be made much simpler. I think that in the moment, we have an idea of what we want. We're motivated, in the moment, for something. Rather than thinking in the bigger scheme of things, if we just think for the moment of what we want, then maybe that moment is all that matters, right then. Maybe results and consequences should be thought about, but not the great extent of obsession, perhaps taking away from the thing we get that we've thought we've really wanted. The second part of the quote- that we are responsible for what we are- relates to our will, and the responsibility we have for our own decisions and paths. We don't know what we want in the bigger scheme, since we don't know how it will turn out, and it's the results that either benefit us, or do not. No matter, we're responsible for our choices, and for what we cause- ultimately, defining who we are. We can't- or, I guess we can, but we shouldn't, make excuses for ending up a certain way, or for consequences of actions that didn't turn out as planned. We spend too much time trying to figure out just what we want, that by the time we think we have it all planned out, the moment's gone and we have to figure it out all over again... and that's why we'll never really know what we want, but we do need to be responsible for now- for this moment, and for who we are.

Jenn Dodwell's picture

On Beauty...

I wonder, if as Katherine said, if Smith's title "On Beauty" is some wry, sarcastic comment on academia?  Could it be her version of Forster's motto, "Only Connect?"  In Howards End, it seems like none of the characters truly succeed in connecting their separate worlds and in the end, everyone is just as isolated as they were when the book started.  So could "Only Connect" be seen as a subtitle to Howard's End, of which "On Beauty" is a parallel? 

In Smith's mind, is the idea of beauty as disconnected from academia as the idea of connecting is from Forster's novel?  Or is she using the connections (whether cultural or absolute) between beauty and academia to make a statement about academia?  How could she use the word beauty to make a statement about academia if people could not recognize some correlation between the two concepts?  Would she still be able to get her point across? 

Julia Smith's picture

Re: On Beauty...

I hope this ends up relating to what you're talking about...

What I've been thinking about is the relationship between "beauty" as we would define it, (something beautiful is usually something one of our senses reacts to, like in On Beauty, a Rembrandt painting or Victoria), and a kind of inner beauty. I think by trying to deconstruct visual beauty academically, as Howard does with Rembrandt, it takes away from his sort of inner-beauty. This is really hard to explain, but think of it this one of Prof Dalke's Thursday sessions we were talking about what characters Smith sympathizes with most, and we agreed that she liked Kiki more than she liked Howard, and that she generally liked the non-academic characters more than the academic characters. Could this then be a way of seeing Beauty? 

I think another interesting thing to look at is Claire. She is thought of as generally being very beautiful outside, but she is also sort of beautiful inside in a non-academic way because she dislikes having academic discussions with her students. She is an artist. In fact, she wrote the poem "On Beauty" in the book. I think the poem itself, calling the beautiful "the damned", can even touch on this. Also, the way that Claire thinks about Kiki is also very very interesting. Claire definitely isn't the ideal version of Beauty...I guess I just think she understands more than the other characters what Beauty is. She has a lot of issues, but what I find most interesting is that she thinks that Kiki is this "new kind of woman". Is that what Smith thinks Beauty is? Does Kiki represent Beauty?

ekorn's picture

Maybe we cant change after all

It’s hard to understand how Zadie Smith defines beauty when we ourselves cannot even define it. In class on Thursday we did, or at least we attempted to. We defined beauty as being an entity that does not change. Though our definitions of beauty are constantly in flux over time, e.g women during the renaissance who were considered voluptuous and therefore beautiful, would be shunned in today’s culture and even considered repulsive, our own personal notions on beauty are static…as Becca explained in her post.
Forster and Change…
In Forster’s book we come to understand that though its apparent change can happen, and some say it’s even inevitable, essentially seeds are planted within us that define who we are and what our mental states are. To unearth or unroot such seeds seems impossible, no matter how hard we try to change (the most we can do with such seeds and the crop they produce is harvest them…though they will eventually grow back). I would say that Forster, in his metaphor of the seed, does not believe in a change of mentality.
Smith and Change…
What are we then to do with Smith’s character Jean-Paul Sartre when he states that “We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are” (On Beauty, p. 326)? I think it may tie back into Forster’s notion of seeds being planted in our brains (unfortunately I don’t remember the exact page number we discussed in section). Seeds in general may have evolved over time in ways that we may not witness or even understand, but their crop fundamentally make-up the environment that surrounds them. If our brains are home to such seeds, then they define who we are, what we want. Maybe we do not know why we desire beautiful things, but we are ultimately responsible for that feeling and the actions that stem from it. I think Smith is telling us that we are who we are and that change is not an option when we cant even define why it is “we want”. Essentially, without an answer to the why there is no way to understand or even change our mentality.

Christina Cunnane's picture

Howard is Blind

I don't think that Howard Belsey is capable of seeing beauty. I think that might be way he wants to describe Rembrandt in such mechanistic terms, because he couldn't describe how or why it was beautiful. Or even if it was, because he wouldn't know. I don't recall Howard describing anything as having beauty. Almost everytime Kiki's physical appearance is described, she is said to have beauty and a beautiful face. She is described this way by the narrator, Mrs. Kipps, and Victoria. However, when Victoria mentions Kiki's beauty, Howard shrugs it off. When Howard talks about Kiki's appearance, he calls her fat. I think a large void in their relationship is Howard's failure to see Kiki's beauty. I think he often mistakes sexual desire for beauty. Claire and Victoria are desirably women but they aren't beautiful people and aren't described in the way Kiki is. I think he may have, just may have, seen beauty at the very end of the book.

There is a definite sense of respect that Smith has for Forster. However, I think she has a totally different writing style than him. On Beauty is extremely detailed, especially with the descriptions of the characters. Smith makes you develop feelings about each one of them for their distinct characteristics. Personally, I grew to dislike everyone, except maybe Carl. I didn't feel strongly one way or another about the characters in Howard's End. I do, however, find Mr. Wilcox and Howard to be big jerks.

rebeccafarber's picture

Last week we discussed the

Last week we discussed the authors' perspectives on change, which I find to be both different and yet at times overlapping. On the one hand, we have Forster who is a true narrative writer, trying to reach an actual end in time, the permanent calm of the storm. However, Smith is a lyricist, capturing the staticness, fleeting momentary events and building on them. Beauty, we decided in our discussion group on Thursday, is a lyric moment of joy, a non-changing and unconscious decision the mind makes to accept a thing or person or idea or any other infinite substance in this universe as beautiful. As far as I can perceive, this unconscious and clearly involuntary response to a beautiful noun is a non-narrative story. So is it that easy to pinpoint beauty as simply non-narrative, making clear the distinction that it will not consist of those characteristics of a narrative, that is: contain ahistorical background, it will not change, will not evolve, and will not be a conscious decision. Apparently it is the work of intellectuals in insisting on making a narrative of beauty that makes me skeptical to characterize it as such, and so I will have to continue reflecting until I make up my mind.

Elise Niemeyer's picture

Thoughts on Change and Beauty

I got the sense from Howards End that Forster had mixed feelings about change.  He seemed to favor intellectual and political growth, but at the same time highlighted the disastrous consequences of “progress” through industrialization and class interaction.  Smith appears to be making the opposite claim about intellectuals.  They are stuck in a pretense of progression that is in reality no longer evolving.  I think this may have something to do with her critique of universities as institutions that espouse innovation and change, while in reality may be perpetuating the same ideas year after year.  This is certainly true of Howard and Claire who for all their radical ideas have ceased moving forward intellectually.  Because of this I think Smith finds Forster’s assessment of intellectualism applicable in some ways to modern society, especially in cases where it causes problems rather than solutions, as for Leonard Bast.  Similarly, Smith transforms Forster’s depiction of “practicals” from necessary yet stagnant members of society into people who change in significant ways like Kiki and Carl.

I’m still unsure about how beauty impacts all of this.  It is a powerful force in both books, and the characters’ appreciation or rejection of it seems to heavily influence their actions.  Perhaps this relates to Sartre’s “fact” because many of the characters in both works are confused/conflicted (sometimes about beauty), but still act in accordance with who they are as a whole, whether intellectual, practical, progressive or not.


evanstiegel's picture

Forster thought very little

Forster thought very little of change based on Mr Wilcox' progression or lack there of throughout the novel.  But then again, Margaret attempts to change him but has little success yet she still stays with him.  Maybe she stays with him because she appreciate the effort that he started to make at the end of novel in changing his ideals. 

 In terms of the change that occurs with England in the novel, I feel Forster is anti-change.  I think this because of the fact that the Schegels had to move out of their home in London because of the changing conditions occuring.  In this sense he is implying that change  is somewhat negative.

 Smith obviously is a big fan of Forster's if she is writing a book that she  calls an homage to Forster's Howards End.  Smith uses many of the same themes and motifs that Forster uses which suggests that she wants to send  a similar mesage to her readers.  To imitate someone suggests to me that you respect them greatly.

Katherine Redford's picture

What DOES Beauty Have to do with this?

I'm having alot of trouble placing where beauty actually fits into all of this.  Mostly, I'm trying to dig out what Zadie Smith is saying about beauty.  Her message on this, to me, seems very fuzzy.  Especially when we contrast it with her strong opinion on academia.  I am beginning to think, that maybe her stand on beauty has everything to do with her stand on academia.  I find it interesting how Howard will renounce beauty's existence in the classroom, but then go on and on about how beautiful Victoria is.  I think his resistence toward beauty as a part of academia says alot about his character.  Beauty is a fuzzy thing, in Anne's discussion last Thursday we failed to even define it.  Is Howard unwilling to see anything academic in a shade of gray? I think so.  And for this reason I think that Smith is using Beauty as a way of condemning the wonderful world of academia again as something dry and counter productive.  And here I agree with her, if education does not provide the opportunity for further thought, than it is entirely useless, for it is then only knowledge, but not learning or continuing thought.

marquisedemerteuil's picture

mon hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere!

"Is Howard unwilling to see anything academic in a shade of gray? I think so. "

I don't agree with you, I actually addressed this point in the first post of week 11. You may want to re-read my post and respond to it.

CT's picture

Define beauty

Like Tamarinda, I have been thinking about our discussion on Thursday. It is becoming clear that we have to carefully define what we are talking about when we refer to beauty.
I used to be quite diffused about having different meanings for words. After all, we use these words that have arisen in the course with loose context, bending the words to give us more in those specific situations but making the word itself less distinct.

While it can be argued that giving a word multiple meaning through using it in different contexts gives a word more meaning - in a fundamental way the word also loses power. It losses its ability to make a sharp distinction, to be independent.

Is this a bad quality? I am not sure. While I am not made to be an English major, I can nonetheless appreciate the impact of using a word in a new context.

Our discussion on beauty is worrying, because if we are recklessly using words and not using the same definitions, the problems which define our society seem even more reasonable.

tbarryfigu's picture

Beauty, It's ON

I have been struggling to define beauty since our group conversation on Thursday, as I feel it parallels the whole "why are there mutations" vs. "what is a mutation/what are the consequences of mutation" argument we approached during the first sectional discussion. This is more difficult though, as beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder (I'm not trying to be corny here). I can define how I determine the difference between something beautiful and something else, I can name a million different things that I find "beautiful," I can even explain how a taste can be beautiful (much like any sight or sound) despite it's tangibility (we came to the conclusion that most beautiful things are the subject of perception). However, to define beauty is to negate the thought that most beautiful things cannot be categorized under any other title.

For example: A flower is beautiful, a woman's voice is beautiful. What unites them besides beauty? OK, so maybe a few things have connections, but my point is that somewhere there are two beautiful things that share NO relation, each is a product of a random combination of random events that led to random molecules joining together in some sense...

Here is what everyone I've asked has said to me in response to my inquiry:

"Define Beauty"

"of what?"


"Of a person or of a thing?"

"Beauty. Just beauty in itself, without a physical context with which to apply it"

"Oh, that's hard."

The closest I can get to a proper definition is "Beauty is finding happiness," for everything that is beautiful seems to make someone happy, somewhere. However, as mentioned earlier, this brings us back to the argument faced when discussing why mutations exist: "That is a consequence of beauty, a result of being in beauties presence. WHAT is beauty?"

I have no idea, and I think that makes beauty more beautiful.

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Is Natural Selection at work once again?

In her novel, On Beauty, we see considerable evidence of Zadie Smith emulating Forster and his novel, Howard’s End.  From the almost identical beginning sentence to the detailed coming-to-life of two very different families we see similarity in the plots, structure, and conflicts generated within these two novels.  But most importantly, Smith attempts to not only re-create an updated version of Forster’s plot; she also sets out to reach a higher ground by not getting bogged down in the differences but instead emphasizing the strength and heart of the characters and by adding humor to the story.  From the plethora of connections forged in Smith’s On Beauty to Howard’s End, it is clear that she is by no means hiding her adoration of Forster’s old English novel.  Thinking back to biological evolution, I can almost see Smith’s reconstruction of Howard’s End as a model for the process of natural selection. That is, the job of a good novel could be to create a story telling process through which the author is able to successfully develop and create themes.  Once freed from their specific contexts, these themes have the power to penetrate a society; expanding the understanding of individuals and the world in which they live.  To Smith, the way in which Forster constructs his themes of class, society, art, and intellectualism, are revolutionary.  She has examined his novel and observed the effectiveness of his story telling process, and as she goes forth into the literary world, she too wants to be the “fittest” author: able to leave behind her unique themes to subsequent generations.  The fact that she is describing a very different world from that of Forster requires her to adapt her story.  And she does.  Drawing in the modern themes of racial diversity, nationality, and identity, Smith in On Beauty allows her characters to struggle with issues that will hopefully look very different a century from now, just as can be said when we look back at Forster’s novel today. She introduces a new species of novel, and yet, the homologies between the two books are still there.  Natural selection is at work – just with a few tweaks.


Anne Dalke's picture

sociable darwinism

Just my usual Monday morning reporting in from the weekend's NYTimes: this time it's a review by Natalie Angier of a new book by David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives:

"all of life is characerized by a 'cosmic' struggle between good and evil, the high-strung terms we apply to behaviors that are either cooperative or selfish, civic or anomic. The constant give-and-take between me versus we extends down to the tiniest and most primal elements of life...the conflict between being well behaved, being good, not gulping down more than your share, and being selfish enough to get your fair share, 'is eternal and encompasses virtually species of earth'....How do higher patterns of cooperative behavior emerge from aggregates of small, selfish units? With carrots, sticks and ceaseless surveillance....the entire human race can evolve the culturally primed if not genetically settled incentive to see our futures for what they are, inexorably linked on the lone blue planet we share."

See also "New Tricks," Charles Siebert's piece in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine: "In order to reduce the number of abandoned dogs put to death...shelter workers have become interspecies matchmakers."

For what intellectuals and academics contribute to either of these projects?

Come back tomorrow afternoon....


marquisedemerteuil's picture

the intellectual and the personal

i have a point i'd like to bring up. it is not related to any of prof dalke's questions, but it is on my mind and important, so here you go.

in grobstein's group, people made a connection between belsey's "renunciation of beauty" and his affairs, saying that he's more affected by beauty than he's willing to admit and that he's a hypocrite. i'm not sure if anyone quite said this, but i felt it was strongly implied in what many people said.

i would have to completely disagree with this. belsey does not actually "renounce beauty." i don't even think he's "against beauty." saying belsey is against beauty is like saying that foucault thinks no one in the 20th century actually authors texts: these are such exaggerations of subtler arguments that they are simply wrong. belsey is basically saying that viewing rembrandt's art through the traditional, overused and arguably superficial lenses of beauty and genius is misguided; beauty is not a significant aspect of rembrandt's art and rembrandt does not even qualify as a genius, he is an "artisan" who follows his patrons' wishes. he does not like looking at conventionally beautiful art, probably because it reminds him of all the philosophies he finds superficial, so he only includes nonrepresentational art in his house.

his argument does not extend farther than this. his argument has nothing to do with sexual desire and intercourse. therefore there is nothing hypocritical about him cheating on his wife and renouncing beauty in rembrandt. kipps is the hypocrite because he, as a bit of a political pundit, takes a strong ethical stance in his work and in his ardent religiosity, and he cheats. so cheating can make an ethical position look worse, but not an intellectual one.

i am guessing that smith views belsey as a hypocrite because most of the book is about his intellectual beliefs and his personal conduct; they're juxtaposed to be compared. one of the problems i have with this novel is the inappropriate connections smith makes between the intellectual and personal -- wait till you read the ending of the book. i'm not saying there are no connections between these two realms of life; i just think smith makes incorrect ones.

after all, the main way she criticizes intellectuals in her novel is by showing how awkward they are in person: at parties, at poetry readings, in boring ineffective meetings, etc. but all these awkward times have nothing to do with their ability as scholars. her criticisms of academics do not hold up to academic scrutiny.