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Class and Race in Zadie Smith’s Novel On Beauty

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In the first paragraph of this article on Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty, it talks about where and when she was born to give context to her writing. Born in the 1970’s in England gives her an interesting non-American perspective on issues like race and class. This is a story about a culturally diverse political climate in the town of Wellington which hosts a college (non Ivy League) with the same name. Amazingly, this story appeals to people from all political backgrounds left and right in different ways.

The second paragraph goes deeper into the stories plot by telling us that it follows two connected families in a fictional college town outside Boston, Massachusetts. The student body tend to be extremely arrogant and entitled, similar to our Harvard or Yale students. Smith interestingly spent time at Harvard as a Radcliffe which brought her to America in the first place. This gave her insight and inspiration to write On Beauty after her debut hit, White Teeth.

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In the next few paragraphs we learn that one of the main characters Howard, a white upper class liberal man from working class London, has an enemy called Monty Kipps who is coincidentally moving to the same town of Wellington that Howard lives in. Monty and Howard may be quite different in personality, Monty being a conservative Christian and Howard being a liberal atheist, but they both share the desire to hide where they come from and their true roots. Both of the men’s takes on society leave the reader interested after each page and keeps the argument fresh because of their backgrounds.

The issues at Wellington aren’t so one dimensional as one might assume though. Both arguments made by Howard and Monty are taken by people who have quite high stakes in the outcome of their arguments. Wellington is known to be a racial melting pot as well, but things are never as simple as they seem. There are many different perspectives amongst the Wellington residence but there seems to be a common undertone, white and rich.

Both men are quite strong and passionate in their differences. Each of them find it extremely difficult to connect or relate to anything outside their politics/academia. Monty is a go getter and is not afraid to fuel the fire, as we see when he announces his move to Wellington in a local newspaper with his declaration to remove the “liberal” from “liberal arts” which automatically gets under Howard’s skin.

In Monty and Howard we can see absolute ridiculous and reprehensible behavior. “Stuck in their own way” is a great and accurate phrase to use to describe the two scholars. We see their hypocrisy in their everyday lives compared to their politics, this holds true beyond the novel and is one of Smith’s central points in this story.
But not all is so stressful and unbearable as it may seem. Kiki, Howard’s African American wife from Florida, often brings balance and peace to the story of two academic rivals. She brings the issues home rather than keeping them in the school, giving them a more domestic and personal tone. She has a feminist outlook on the world and seeks to anchor her husband’s fiery personality.

Overall we can see that Smith drastically connects the issues of class and race. The entire story can seem to be dominated by Howard and Monty’s continuous feuding but underneath the politics and fights they have, lays Kiki and her children struggling to fit in this academic white upper class world. Kiki often feels out of place in the town and never seems to properly connect, like her Husband and Monty. Her children wish to connect more with their black heritage but feel unable to because they are not surrounded by people like them, so they try their best to blend into the white society they have grown up with. Ultimately Smith is criticizing the academic culture, tying it to a struggle between class and race which, in Smith’s eyes, are always connected to each other and to education itself.

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