“Painting While Rome Burns”: Ethics and Aesthetics in Pat Barker’s Life Class and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

Fiona Tolan, Liverpool John Moores University
Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall 2010), 375-393

This article examines recent novels by Pat Barker and Zadie Smith, two of the most prominent contemporary British women writers. Both Barker’s Life Class (2007) and Smith’s On Beauty (2005) engage in a debate on the value and purpose of art and beauty as the protagonists attempt to articulate their own individual statements of moral purpose. This article suggests that Smith demonstrates a liberal humanist belief in transcendent and transformative values, whereas Barker, in contrast, proves more wary of inscribing this same confident vision of art’s moral worth. Nevertheless, On Beauty demonstrates a level of caution towards fully endorsing its strongly liberal humanist impulse, whereas Barker’s novel, despite its instinctual disavowal of liberal humanism, also sustains a romantic vision of transcendent nature that goes some way to disrupting the largely postmodern impulse of the text. Ultimately, this article demonstrates that Smith, despite her acknowledgement and exploration of the limits of liberal humanism, concludes her novel with an image of art’s capacity to drive positive ethical choices, whereas Barker’s final informing image is one of humanity cast adrift after World War I, unanchored by moral codes or liberal certainties.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]