The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham
Kitty is a young woman who got married for all the wrong reasons and doesn’t love her husband, Walter. She rushed to marry after realizing her younger sister might beat her down the aisle. Walter is a nice but boring man who takes his wife to Hong Kong in the 1920s where he works for his work as a bacteriologist. She quickly falls in love with a dashing married man named Charlie and they embark on an affair. When her husband discovers the relationship he gives Kitty two options: she can get divorced and married Charlie or she can travel with him into the midst of cholera outbreak in mainland China.
That whirlwind of events happens in the very beginning of the book. The vapid Kitty reminds me so much of Daisy Buchanan. She shares her selfishness and disenchantment with life. But while Daisy never really changes, Kitty’s transformation throughout the novel provides a poignant picture. Spending time with the nuns leads her to re-evaluate her life, but it doesn’t change who she is as a person. The story is realistic in that sense. She becomes more aware of who she is and what wrong with the choices she has made, but that doesn’t make her a better person overnight.
While living in the mainland Kitty and Walter meet Waddington, a British officer who has been living there for quite a while. His objective point of view and direct personality give the audience a unique view of the estranged couple. Waddington talks to Kitty about both Walter and Charles, opening her eyes to the real nature of both men.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the exploration of love. It refuses to follow logic, which is both its beauty and its tragedy. We so often fall in love with the person who is the worst for us and we can’t make ourselves love someone if we feel nothing for them. We see this over and over again through Kitty, Walter and even Waddington. Love defies common sense, which often has tragic results.
At first I was disappointed when Kitty returns to Hong Kong and seems to fall into her old patterns, but by the end I thought that whole section was beautifully handled. We needed to see Kitty back in that environment to see whether or not Walter’s death and her work with the French nuns changed her permanently or not. Her conversation at the very end of the novel with her father makes it clear that she realized how spoiled she was and that she wants to change, she also wants something better for her own child. She’s no longer content to live a sheltered existence in a big city being treated as someone’s property.
BOTTOM LINE: This story was just gorgeous. Kitty’s transformation and her slowly changing view of the world were beautifully conveyed. I know I’ll return to this one.
“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”
“One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one's soul.”
“She could not admit but that he had remarkable qualities, sometimes she thought that there was even in him a strange and unattractive greatness; it was curious then that she could not love him, but loved still a man whose worthlessness was now so clear to her.”