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Darwinian Evolution in On Beauty

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

In the class Evolution and Evolution of Stories, we discuss the evolution of universes, species, and populations.  In Darwinian evolution, individuals who are better adapted to their unique environment have a better chance at survival. These biological aspects of evolution can also be used to describe literary evolution.  For example, books that are useful or generative are kept in humanity, whereas books that have no use or readers cannot connect with are rarely read thus become extinct.  Looking further into literary evolution, we can analyze the evolution of a character in a novel and see if the character changes over the course of the novel to adapt to his changing environment.  In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, the Belsey family does not evolve.  At the start of the novel, Howard and Kiki’s marriage is strained and Howard cannot connect with his kids.  At the end of the novel, nothing has changed within the dynamics of the family.  The relationships of the family members remain unchanged. Biological evolution is seen at the population level, but delving deeper into the levels, we can also say that the unit of selection is the individual.  Although the family unit as a whole in On Beauty does not evolve, do the characters evolve in the novel (in particular Howard Belsey)?

            Howard Belsey has a weakness for beautiful women.  In the beginning of the novel, Smith makes it clear that Howard has had an affair with Claire.  In response to Kiki’s question on why Howard is unable to tell her the truth about the affair, he replies:


It’s true that men- they respond to beauty… it doesn’t end for them, this… this concern with beauty as a physical actuality in the world- and that’s clearly imprisoning and it infantilizes… but it’s true and… I don’t know how else to explain what- (Smith 207).  

Howard is not able to express his emotions to Kiki in plain words but has to use the language of “lecturing” to tell her that he is affected by beautiful females.  He does not put the blame on himself, but rather he puts it on men in general and their imprisoning weakness for women.  He is making an excuse in the form of aesthetic theories to support his disloyalty towards Kiki.  Their marriage became strained after Kiki found out about the affair.  One would expect Howard to learn his lesson after his affair with Claire and to understand that affairs are harmful to family relationships, especially towards his wife.  But in the end, he has another affair with Victoria, Monty Kipps’ teenage daughter.  Clearly, Howard has not learned from his “great mistake” (Smith 123).  He does not understand the concept of reality and how it hurts his family.  Kiki vilifies him of his wrongful action when they were arguing saying,

 This is real.  This life.  We’re really here- this is really happening.  Suffering is real.  When you hurt people, it’s real.  When you fuck one of our best friends, that’s a real thing and it hurts me (Smith 394).  

Howard does not comprehend the meaning of reality.  He is too selfish to see the effects of his hurtful affairs, even after his marriage has fallen apart due to his first affair.  He begins a second affair with Victoria, only to have his relationship with his daughter Zora strained.             

In Biology, evolution is trial and error.  Species that survive learn how to adapt to their environment by performing an action and analyzing the feedback.  If the feedback is negative, the species will not do it again.  Successful species are species that learn from their mistakes.  In the case of Howard, he did not learn from his great errors.  He keeps on performing them, even after receiving negative repercussions.  He has not adapted to the environment, which is his family.             

Evolution sometimes rewards selfishness.  An animal who only cares about itself and kills other species for food will survive longer.  In the wilderness jungle, this instinct is useful as a survival technique, but in context with family relationships in our society, this selfishness is harmful.  Being selfish is not viewed as a positive characteristic in human society.   Howard is selfish, thus this affects his relationships with his family.  Throughout the novel, Howard has played the game of trial and error with the error always being his selfishness.  We first see his selfishness when he attempts to stop Jerome’s relationship with Victoria because Howard does not want to become related to Monty Kipps.  Kiki and Levi advise him to let Jerome discover life for himself and not to meddle into things that does not concern him, but due to his selfishness Howard decides to stop by the Kipps’ resident in England and thus make a fool out of himself.  He should have learned his lesson from this event, but unfortunately he does not.  His selfish actions continue to the end of the novel, when he betrays his entire family by having an affair with Victoria, who is hated by Zora, and is Jerome’s former love.  Howard has many chances to evolve into a better father and husband, but he fails to.  He chooses to continue his selfishness, until his family can no longer take it.             

Another characteristic that Howard faults at is his disbelief in the idea of ‘time is how you spend your love.’  Howard is not able to love.  His idea of love is a kind of selfish love for himself.  He says he loves his family and wife, “I love my family, Zoor,” but his actions does not follow his words (Smith 433).  Howard causes emotional pain to his wife when he cheats on her with Claire, thus forcing Kiki to leave the relationship.  But when she leaves, Howard begs for “a little more time” (Smith 398).  Kiki has always given him more time in the relationship.  She stayed with him for another year after the affair but his continued selfish love forced her to leave.  Howard’s beg for time can be seen as begging for forgiveness and love.  He again begs Zora for more time when she finds out about his affair with Victoria (Smith 433).  His relationships with females in his family are continuously strained due to his unlovingness towards them.  Howard asks for love from other people but he is not able to reciprocate.  His father, Harold, tries desperately to connect with Howard, asking him for more bonding time.  But Howard “just did not believe, as his father did, that time is how you spend your love” (Smith 302).  He could not give his father more time, so how could he expect other people to give what he cannot give.  At the end of the novel, Carlene’s note to Kiki reads, “there is such a shelter in each other” (Smith 431) is a good example of Howard’s emotions towards Kiki.  Howard has always seen Kiki as a shelter and home for him, but Kiki on the other hand has not felt the same way about Howard.  Howard expects love from his family but does not give out love.  This is a constant characteristic Howard has throughout the novel. 

 Howard’s personality is static throughout the novel.  He plays the game of trial and error, but does not learn from his mistakes.  He is not able to change negative characteristics about himself that is harmful to his family members.  There is no evolution in his personality.  Howard has many chances to learn from his mistakes and evolve to a better person, but does not take the risk to change.  In Biological evolution, a species that does not evolve to accommodate the changing environment will become extinct.  This is the same with Howard.  His extinction is near.  During his tenure presentation, the realization finally hits him that his end is here:

 In Wellington terms, he was already a dead man walking, with no book coming any time soon, surely heading for a messy divorce and on a sabbatical that looked suspiciously like the first step towards retirement (Smith 441). 

His failure in academia and personal relationships is only his to blame.  He brought about his own extinction.  When Howard does not evolve or learn from his mistakes, we can expect nothing less than failure or else it would go against the laws of Darwinian evolution.  In reality, Howard is already extinct from society even though he is not dead, “he had come to the end of the line” (Smith 442).             

Howard can be seen as a microscopicism of the workings in Darwinian evolution.  This leads me to question why Smith would write about such a static character.  How will it enlighten her reader to know that Howard did not change throughout the novel?  The ending of the novel is vague.  We are left unsure of the meaning of the ending with the phrase, “intimation of what is to come” (Smith 443).  Does Howard’s future show that he will eventually evolve for the better?  Even if he does evolve, will his change be useful?  Similar to the situation of rotten apples in his front yard, although he tries to change the situation by cooking with apples, the apples will continue to fall and litter his yard with rotten-ants-infested apples (Smith 435).  If he does evolve, it might be too late.      

Sources Cited: Smith, Zadie. On Beauty. Penguin Books. 2005


Anne Dalke's picture

Selfishness as a Goad Toward Change?


In a course so focused on the possibility of change, it's quite interesting to have you hone in on a static character, one who doesn't learn from his mistakes and so fails to "evolve" into a less selfish person. You give an excellent description of this aspect of Howard's personality, and your quotations about his being a "dead man walking," having "come to the end of the line," are right on the money.

As you circled back to this point again and again, I found myself taking up a counterpoint: maybe what you decry as Howard's selfishness is like the selfish gene you wrote about in your last paper: it's his attempt to save himself, to survive, to change. In one of his encounters with Victoria, he has a poignant realization about the difference between her, and him and Claire:

"two old friends...on the last lap of their lives..were switching lanes out of fear, just to see if it felt different, better, easier, to run in this new lane--scared as they were of carrying on for ever in the lane they were in. But [for] this girl...the future still seemed unbounded: a pleasure palace of choices, with infinite doors, in which only a fool would spend his time trapped in one room" (On Beauty, p. 335).

Maybe, instead of being the static person you describe, Howard is trying desperately to change, and it's Kiki who won't change. She says to him, after their last love-making, that she's done her "best to honour the past..but you want something more than that, something new. I can't be new" (p. 398).

What's interesting here, of course, is the question of where the standard for judgment comes from: what's the level @ which we can most interestingly perform an analysis of individual change? In the context of family, or in the movement away? Not in a social context @ all, but in terms of the self's awareness of a need for something new?