51 pages 1 hour read

Zadie Smith

On Beauty

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

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Symbols & Motifs

Wellington College

Wellington College is both a setting and a motif. It is a symbolic environment that idealizes open discourse and free thinking. Smith advocates for the university as a beautiful space. And yet, Smith also criticizes the limits of modern universities. Wellington is full of inconsistencies. It is a space in which academics are ruthlessly undermined by their peers, where free speech is at once advocated for and repressed, and where students and faculty alike treat their privileged space as a right of superiority. Wellington is a place of drama, and it creates an identity for many characters in this novel.


Paintings are symbols of beauty and connection in this novel. Howard’s studies of Rembrandt are focused on the metaphors of light and beauty that raise human consciousness. Carlene’s painting of the goddess Erzulie is a symbol of strong Black womanhood, a symbol that connects Carlene and Kiki. Paintings are an ultimate symbol of beauty because they represent all that is complicated and interesting about people. The Erzulie painting is symbolic because it connects Kiki and Carlene and thwarts many of the characters’ set fallacies about race, politics, and identity.