The Painted Veil
By: W. Somerset Maugham
Format/Source: Paperback; received as a birthday gift
Kitty Fane is the beautiful but shallow wife of Walter, a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong. Unsatisfied by her marriage, she starts an affair with charming, attractive and exciting Charles Townsend. But when Walter discovers her deception, he exacts a strange and terrible vengeance: Kitty must accompany him to his new posting in remote mainland China, where a cholera epidemic rages. First published to a storm of protest, The Painted Veil is a classic story of a woman’s spiritual awakening.
This book has been on my want-to-read list for a very long time, since I’ve seen the 2006 adaptation with Naomi Watts and Edward Norton (<3 that movie). I knew that the novel had a somewhat different tone compared to the movie, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I kept putting it off; needed to be in the mood to read it, you know. Anyway, I received a copy of this book from Rory, thus bumping this book up the priority list 😉 Contains massive spoilers ahead!
What can I say about this novel? The Painted Veil is, quite simply put, a brutal read in that it studies these seemingly disparate individuals and the relationships and feelings they bear, all of which will leave you with all sorts of feels. It undergoes an honest look on certain feelings and truths about the way we interact and use one another and it doesn’t shy away from the more uglier feelings and realities, however mean or depressing or discouraging they may be.
Kitty Fane is the central character in this novel who undergoes this extraordinary journey. When the reader is first introduced to her, she is a careless and selfish individual who does not really care about the people around her and is focused more on her own amusements and comforts. Normally I would feel rather =/ towards such a frivolous character but there is a lot more to Kitty than meets the eye. As the novel progressed, I felt rather bad for Kitty because she really was stuck in a sucky position and married Walter to get out of such a situation; it was the only thing she could do. Yes, she could have made more of an effort to be amiable with Walter (and same goes for him) but the things she’s been thinking and feeling about early in the novel is very much fitting from the experiences she’s had growing up.
It’s not until she and Walter move out to the Chinese interior that she undergoes her character journey, discovering much about herself, the decisions she’s made and the reality of life. It’s brief and the revelations come to her through simple acts of kindness, charity and interacting with people like Waddington and the Mother Superior but they are nonetheless profound. The revelations are also not as concrete as perhaps some might expect it to be; her eyes are open, she falls down the same traps a few times and her determination to not fall under the same mistakes again only really begins at the end of the novel. They are also very interesting when it is compared to Walter’s more unbending demeanor; while she and the reader gradually learn what a dedicated and kind man he is, he’s also a lot harder on himself and his view on matters a lot more rigid. While Kitty is able to ultimately learn from her mistakes, Walter is unable to look past them. And that’s one of the many differences both characters have.
I also felt sorry for Walter. Poor man was out of his league with Kitty and in a way I empathise with the sort of character he is: he’s more of the proper Englishman in terms of his behaviour, his more sensitive and passionate side hidden by his reserve and his scientific coolness. He’s also rather shy, which I think exasperated his emotions and his perspective when it came down to Kitty’s affair: he had put himself out there despite knowing that she did not love him and now that everything out in the open, he feels so foolish that he can never look past it. I think his death can be interpreted as his inability to look past his mistakes, that taking such a rigid line could lead to your death as opposed to your survival and evolution as a person. His last words are especially haunting, the last line to Goldsmith’s An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog. Even to the end he was so hard on himself (that’s my interpretation of why Walter chose that line)
Communication was also a major issue between the two characters. On one level it is the subject of the times; marriage then was not about equality and partnership but more of a social standing issue, not about love. The movie adaptation took a different approach to the Fanes’ marital issues, that gradual coming together and realisation of who each other was and what they brought to their marriage. In the novel however that divide between them seems to grow larger by the day, even after the veil had been pulled away and they saw each other for what they are and who they are. Initially it was Kitty who was not making any effort in their relationship but afterwards it was Walter who was unable to work with Kitty in looking ahead and what they were going to do after cholera epidemic was contained. They had missed that opportunity at one brief moment in the novel where they could have bridged that gap a little. It’s a very bleak outlook but it does emphasise the notion that these two characters just do not fit, were not meant to be in a relationship together.
Taking a step back, it seemed that all of the characters that populate this novel–Walter, Kitty, Waddington, even Townsend–are isolated to varying degrees, either due to their character/nature, their upbringing, their experiences, their expectations, they own sense of importance and selfishness. Even Kitty’s family are completely disconnected from each other, going through the motions because that’s what they are supposed to do. On some level it’s no wonder Kitty turned out the way she did. I wonder if the author was thinking about how each of us are rather lonely in that regard and how it’s our relationships with each other, our strive to live our lives and our abilities to the fullest, that sort of alleviates that sense of isolation.
I’m really impressed how well-rounded a character Kitty is. For the most part it does focus more on her negative characteristics but she is not a bad person and the learning curve that she goes under is poignant and important. I thought the ending was especially important–how she wanted to raise her daughter to not repeat the mistakes she had made and that it was important for women to be independent and have their own mind–and encompassing of what she had experienced. I thought it was also profound that, despite of everything–Walter, Townsend, all of the death and misery she saw–she still had hope for the future and for herself. She refuses to let her past mistakes define her and her life moving forward and that in itself was remarkable.
Also, can I just say that Charles Townsend is such a cad? I really hated that scene they had after she got back to Hong Kong, he’s such a vile character. I think I disagree with the Wikipedia explanation that she was seduced by him once more; it didn’t feel like a seduction, even as the paragraph focused on her feelings of desire.
I think I’ve missed a few points that intrigued me over the course of reading this novel but overall The Painted Veil is a fascinating study of human emotions and relationships. It’s not a happy story by any means–I think you have to be in a particular mood to read this novel–but it’s a very profound one. I’m happy to have finally read it and I’d highly recommend it 🙂