Literally Laced with Allusions

Disclaimer: This is Rachel, not Mike. I can’t figure out how to change the name of who is posting. I am not a blogger. But I’m going to give it a try, because there is so much material to cover on each reading and so little class time to cover it.

As Mike has mentioned and as Zadie Smith herself mentions, On Beauty draws upon EM Forster’s Howards End. It also directly references Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” (see the previous post by Mike). The description of Levi doing laps in the pool during the anniversary party echoes Sheever’s short story “The Swimmer” ( and the name Kipps refers to a story by that name from HG Wells ( This novel is literally laced with allusions.

Beyond Forster and Scarry, the most obvious allusions woven through the text are to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, specifically They’re Eyes Were Watching GodTell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, and “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” Some of the references to Hurston abide on the surface: Kiki is from Eatonville, FL (home of Zora Neale Hurston) and the Belsey’s daughter is named Zora. Some of the other allusions reside slightly below the surface,such as the Haitian politics, and if you haven’t read Hurston’s anthropological works, you may have missed them: Tell My Horse chronicles Hurston’s anthropology work in Haiti and Jamaica.

On Beauty has been described as a follow-up to this anthropological work and many scholars argue that the “minor” Haitian characters are just as important for the development of the novel as any of the Belsely’s or the Kipps. I put minor in quotation marks, because Haitians make up a large number of characters and are the economy that allows the novel to work. They do the labor in Wellington and represent more than just plot devices in moving the story forward. They work for low pay as servants; Haitian art is the commodity that seals the upper-middle class position of the Kipps; Haitian laborers do menial jobs; and Haitian street vendors sell the faux designer handbags. The Haitians help Wellington’s upper-middle class maintain the illusion of affluence. Thus Smith connects on another level (beyond that of Levi and Carl) with Forster’s discussion of socio-economic class, which I’m sure we will discuss in more detail in the classroom. (Another connection to Tell My Horse is Michael’s fiance/wife is Jamaican).

While many have detailed the allusions to They’re Eyes Were Watching God and Tell My Horse, the most compelling connection comes in the characterization of Kiki and in Hurston’s short autobiographical piece “How It Feels to be Colored Me” ( Zora Neale Hurston’s pieces places humor and race and pride and slavery and femininity hand in hand. Smith places all of these in Kiki. When Kiki’s sadness over Howard’s betrayal with a skinny white woman wells up, we hear Kiki giving herself a rebuke for focusing on Claire’s color that reverberate Hurston’s lines, “BUT I AM NOT tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. …No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Kiki’s voice sounds very similar to the voice of Hurston’s in her autobiographical writing.

When discussing Wellington, the reader could substitute Smith’s words with Hurston’s; Hurston acknowledges, “I do not always feel colored. …I feel most colored when I am thrown up against a sharp white background. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” Kiki feels her color most when she navigates the streets of the town of Wellington and the halls of the academic Wellington.

Kiki also feels her color when in contrast with Howard, or rather when Howard is in contrast at home in the midst of his wife and children: “Sometimes it is the other way around. A white person is set down in our midst, but the contrast is just as sharp for me” (Hurston). Kiki’s blackness contrasts with Howard’s whiteness; they both are defining themselves based on the Other, in the same way the Hurston only came to realize she was black upon leaving her all black childhood home at the age of 14.

Both Kiki’s and Hurston’s blackness is felt in relation to whiteness, not a thing unto itself. Hence, “at certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time.” The cosmic Kiki – the one and only Kiki stands. She stands two hundred and fifty pounds allows her an even more youthful face (“A beautiful tough-girl’s face” 15), more voluptuous breasts (her enormous spellbinding bosom 47), and allows her to physically take up more space, shoving Howard metaphorically and physically into a chair to get out of her way (“Now she crossed the room and pushed him with such force that he was muscled into an adjacent rocking chair” 15).

Where Hurston directly references slavery, Smith only alludes to Kiki’s ancestral roots in slavery with referring to her as coming from “simple Florida country stock,” as well in the use of the word “simple” to describe Kiki’s lack of academic interests.

We are able to go through nearly every line of “How It Feels to be Colored Me” and draw connections to Zadie Smith’s characterization of Kiki Belsey; however, I’ll end my alignment by drawing our attention to Zora Neale Hurston’s sentence, “I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.” Throughout the text we read Kiki adorning herself with beads (necklaces, bracelets, earrings). Kiki’s body signals readers to the “eternal feminine” in the description of Kiki’s bosom: “The size was sexual and at the same time more than sexual: sex was only one small element in its symbolic range. …Her breasts gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting” (47). Smith writes Kiki’s body and personality to read as everything “eternal” feminine from sexual to motherly, from threatening to comforting. She carries upon her everything the world makes of women – from the Madonna to Malinche. Femininity is written on her body; she’s unable to escape it even if she wanted to. Even Claire notes that Kiki radiates “an essential female nature. …Full of something like genuine desire,” calling Kiki a “goddess in every way” (227). Men and other women recognize Kiki as what Hurston described as “the eternal feminine with its string of beads.”

As much as Forster’s and Scarry’s works inform On Beauty, the allusions to Zora Neale Hurston’s life and works flood Smith’s novel, informing everything from naming to Haitian politics to black feminine identity. Zadie Smith should have just named a character Zora, so that we readers didn’t miss the connection. Oh wait! She did.

End note: did you know Zadie Smith wrote a book of academic essays on writers, one of which was Zora Neale Hurston? She did. Besides her novels, Smith is also the author of the essay collection on writers, “Changing My Mind,” and a nonfiction book about writing, “Fail Better,” and edited an anthology of sex writing entitled “Piece of Flesh.”


Quick Thoughts on Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

Rachel and I elected to teach Howards End and On Beauty for self-evident reasons:  both

Zadie Smith
Dominique Nabokov (Source)

novels are exquisitely crafted in terms of plot, imagery, symbolism and character development, and, consequently, both novels are eminently readable and teachable.  Readers encounter in these novels sympathetic portraitures of humans struggling and often failing, in the words of Forster, to “only connect”.  The fact that all of us desire at times to connect and fail, like the characters, to do so, lends a universality to the themes of the novels that transcends the limitations of time and place (Edwardian England, the United States during the first decade of the 21st century).   Both novels move along a stylistic fault line where comedy and satire (Forster’s carefully crafted representation of middle class arrogance and folly, Smith’s accurate and barbed depictions of the inflated egos and meaningless chatter of academics and administrators) pushes against tragedy (the senseless death of Leonard Bast, the death of Carl Thomas’s poetic and scholastic aspirations) causing tremors and upheaval.

Zadie Smith acknowledges her indebtedness to E. M. Forster, and she pays homage to him by repurposing much of the structure of Howards End in On Beauty.  Her novel, however, is not a pastiche, or simple retreading of the path worn by E. M. Forster’s writing.  Although a reader familiar with Howards End will immediately recognize Smith’s indebtedness, On Beauty stands on its own.  One needn’t read Howards End (presumably many of Smith’s readers had not) to appreciate the merits of On Beauty.

Smith, to an even greater extent perhaps than Forster, dips into a vast reservoir of history, culture and academic theory.  Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps exemplify liberal and conservative positions in how they approach art, textuality, religion and even the question of affirmative action.  Karen Armstrong, a character who only appears in one brief section, provides the reader with a passionate, living examination of the Rembrandt paintings that is overlooked in Howard’s arid and pedantic theorizing.  In Smith’s writing, the paintings of Rembrandt and Haitian artists are vividly realized in ways that seem alien to her characters who make a living teaching about them.  There is also the liminality of the various characters – Howard, a white, British expatriate from a lower-class background who has married Kiki, a black American, and now works at Wellington College; Monty, a knighted, black, Caribbean-British intellectual who starts the novel in London, but moves with his family to Boston.  And then, of course, there are the young characters who struggle to define their identities – Levi, who embraces the cause of Haitians, even though he has really only learned about Haiti through a book, Carl, who shifts between hip-hop and classical music, the gritty streets of Boston and the refinement of Wellington, and Victoria, who moves from sexual relationship to sexual relationship in search of somebody who “sees” her as a person.  In all of this Smith moves seamlessly back and forth between geographic and ideological positions: London and Boston, Foucault and TuPac all find places in her world.

One of the cultural borrowings I have not addressed is Zadie Smith’s use of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just.  I’ve included a link to it here for anyone who might want to skim it.