Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Legacy Department


Committee Chair/Advisor

Bushnell, Cameron F

Committee Member

Chapman , Wayne K

Committee Member

Naimou , Angela


In this thesis, I argue that Zadie Smith builds guidelines for reading within her novels On Beauty and White Teeth. These guidelines suggest that it is through reading aesthetically that we can fuse the neutral and the personal in order to come to a method of analysis that is critically fair. I suggest that Smith's desire for such methods is a result of her reductive critical reception in the wake of White Teeth's publication and that her texts provide interpretational cues that clarify her aesthetic approach; these cues are, more specifically, references to Elaine Scarry's "On Beauty and Being Just" and E. M. Forster's Howards End. From these cues, I conclude that Smith defines the aesthetic object experientially rather than by physical characteristics; in other words, we can identify the aesthetic object or experience primarily by what it does, or by how it affects us. Furthermore, the aesthetic experience as characterized by Smith is socially useful in that critical fairness results in interpersonal fairness, and this conception of the aesthetic is one also derived in part from Scarry. However, unlike Scarry, Smith does not suggest that the beautiful and the aesthetic are one and the same but rather seems to argue that they sometimes, but not always, coincide.

Smith demonstrates her aesthetic model through the aesthetic experiences of her characters. In On Beauty we see how successful encounters with the aesthetic require vulnerability, or willingness to be wounded; this vulnerability then yields to more "disinterested" discussion of how and why the aesthetic experience wounds. Thus, there is emotiveness followed by its suspension in order to assess the aesthetic experience. This kind of interaction with the aesthetic leads to fairer interactions generally; a man who iii treats a painting fairly by appreciating its aesthetic value, is likely to likewise treat people fairly by considering the importance of their aesthetic defenses of identity (such as clothing). In White Teeth, Smith demonstrates that the aesthetic experience is not limited to the experience of canonical art but can rather be extended to include the everyday performances of identity. Through this novel, Smith suggests that the accidental elements of presentation space (or context) often disturb the relationship between the form and content of performance, so that it is necessary to be aware of presentation at all times in order to avoid misreading of identity. Smith also suggests that by situating performances of identity in neutral or imagined spaces, we can mitigate the negative impact of presentational space by reducing the incidence of accident.

Finally, I propose that Smith's balancing of the personal and the neutral is a thematic kernel borrowed from Forster, and that this balancing furthermore situates Smith between two historically dominant aesthetic trends: the Kantian and the Romantic. Fittingly, Smith's effort to strike a balance between competing aesthetic claims is, in itself, an attempt to treat each of those claims with fairness.



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