By W. Somerset Maugham
“Lift not the painted veil which those who live call Life” -Shelley
W.Somerset Maugham has long been one of my favorite authors in part because he pulls together different streams of life into a composite that leaves you thinking far after the last word’s read. Another reason is during his lifetime Maugham traveled the east extensively and that philosophy always comes out in his novels in the most interesting ways.
The Painted Veil is a sort of reverse love affair where the main characters never really fall in love with each other. The veil hides the reality of our life from ourselves and others, we hide and don’t want to see the truth. Also, the veil’s painted compared to the white veil of a bride, a painted veil is a loss of innocence and purity. But as we shall see, all’s not lost in this study of life’s seeming destructive tendencies.
The story centers around British controlled Hong Kong in the mid-1920’s. Kitty Garstin, a debutant, waste away her youth and chances of marriage to countless young men who have asked for her hand. With the prospects of her younger less attractive sister marrying before her, Kitty’s mother force her hand to marry a bacteriologist named Walter Fane who professes his love for Kitty. As fate would have it, Kitty has an affair with Charlie Townsend an Assistant Colonial Secretary who is also married and promises to leave his wife which he hasn’t any intention of doing.
After two years of the lover’s illicit affair, Walter finds out the truth. Both Kitty and Charley think Walter too weak to say or do anything about the affair and for sure he won’t ask for a divorce for fear of losing his career. But Walter confronts Kitty about the affair. She learns from Walter that there is a cholera epidemic in the Chinese interior. Unless she accompanies him risking almost certain death he will divorce her leaving Kitty in social ruin. Or if Charlie agrees to marry her immediately and divorce his wife he will let her file for divorce on him.
Kitty rushes off to see Charlie knowing that he’ll absolutely want to leave his wife so they can be together but Charlie refuses. Kitty finally realizes Charlie’s true nature and returns home and finds her bags packed for mainland China and the cholera outbreak having realize Walter was correct about Charlie all along.
Kitty’s journey begins a series of self-realization for her about Charlie, Walter, her Mother and the father she hardly knew because he never figured financially well enough for his wife and two daughters. She’s helped in her awareness by a kindly deputy commissioner named Waddington. And through Waddington, she meets an order of french nuns who are helping out the dying and the children caught in the death grips of cholera at great risk to themselves. The mother superior agrees to let Kitty help with the children.
Remember the veil, we see the nuns with white veils as Kitty’s painted veil is definitely brightening. At this time we learn that Kitty is pregnant and doesn’t know if the father is Charlie or Walter. When Walter ask if she knows who the father is, tired of lying, she tells him the truth, she doesn’t know. Kitty also admits she could never love Walter and is on the road to self-realization while the veil over Walter begins to darken.
Another person Waddington introduces Kitty to is his Cantonese mistress. On their encounter, Kitty feels there is something she needs to learn from this woman. Upon leaving, she asks Waddington about this feeling and he gives her a cryptic answer…
“Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whiskey and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads to nowhither”.
Now we have a turning point in the novel. The question begs to be asked, did Walter bring Kitty to China knowing it would be a death sentence for his wife. We see Walter totally immersed in his work at great danger to himself, so was Walter’s plan for suicide by injecting himself with the bacteria, a certain death sentence? We are left pondering these questions as the nuns who are also selflessly helping with the epidemic seem pure in their intentions which have a positive influence on Kitty. Walter is beginning to look more sinister in his seeming humanitarian deeds, far from the white veil of the nuns.
Maugham leaves us with a hint. Walter is dying and his last words to Kitty are, “the dog it was that died”, a line from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” and this can also be seen as part of the plot for the novel. As Goldsmith’s Elegy is about a man who befriends a dog. After a while, the dog goes mad and bites his master. Instead of the master dying from the wound, the dog dies. And so it is with intentions hid behind a painted veil.
Kitty survives, returns to England and learns her mother has died. She reunites with her father and along with her child, they will make a new start. Before she leaves, Waddington leaves her with a bit more of the philosophy of the east, the Tao.
It is the Way and the Waygoer. It is the eternal road along which walk all beings, but no being made it, for itself is being. It is everything and nothing. From it all things spring, all things conform to it, and to it at last all things return. It is a square without angles, a sound which ears cannot hear, and an image without form. It is a vast net and though its meshes are as wide as the sea it lets nothing through. It is the sanctuary where all beings find refuge. It is nowhere, but without looking out of the window you may see it. Desire not to desire, it teaches, and leave all things to take their course. He that humbles himself shall be preserved entire. He that bends shall be made straight. Failure is the foundation of success and success is the lurking place of failure; but who can tell when the turning point will come? He who strives after tenderness can become even as a little child. Gentleness brings victory to him who attacks and safety to him who defends. Mighty is he who conquers himself.