51 pages 1 hour read

Zadie Smith

On Beauty

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

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The Connection Between Internal and External Conflict

In On Beauty, characters struggle to navigate the connections between their internal and external conflicts. The characters parallel the reality of being human: projecting desires and anxieties onto others, avoiding personal responsibility, and seeking to discover their ever-changing identities.

Howard Belsey implodes his marriage with his own actions, but he struggles to connect how his external problems are a result of his internal problems. Howard’s life is constructed, in part, to avoid becoming like his father. Howard is ashamed of his upbringing and this manifests itself into his hyper-academic nature. Claire observes that Howard is incapable of loving anything but his subject of study. While this is not entirely true, it is accurate that Howard acts myopically on his passions and career. This enables him to feel distanced from the man his father is. Howard’s affairs with Claire and Victoria are also external manifestations of his internal struggle. In having sex with other women, Howard pretends that he has a new opportunity in life. At 57 years old, he is untenured, his children are all on their journeys to adulthood, and his wife is going through her own changes. Howard’s middle-age crisis finds solace in the bodies of women who are not his wife because it makes him feel attractive and hopeful for his future.