How could I not love The Painted Veil? W. Somerset Maugham is a superb storyteller with a keen eye for human behavior and is at his best in this novel. Through his strangely likeable protagonist, Kitty Fane, Maugham wields a powerful story that triumphs the human capacity for change and redemption.
The Painted Veil opens as Kitty is deplorably caught in the act with her lover, the handsome, shallow government official, Charles Townsend. Over the next hundred or so pages, Kitty’s husband, serious bacteriologist Walter Fane, develops a plan to sever Kitty’s relationship with Townsend and take her away with him to Mei-tan-fu, a cholera-infected province of China, where he has volunteered himself to serve as a physician and researcher.
Uncomfortable as it was to witness Walter’s plan come to fruition, this section of the novel serves another purpose by providing the reader with background information about Kitty’s childhood and her courtship with Walter. Essentially, the beautiful Kitty was bred to wed and ultimately had to settle for a man she did not love due to fickleness and indecision during her period of “presentation.” Kitty’s mother is an ambitious woman whose aim it was to set her daughters up for a life of sophistication she herself was unable to obtain. When Kitty marries the unimpressive academic Walter Fane, she feels slighted, and her affair with Townsend offers her an escape from her disappointing reality.
All things considered, Kitty Fane should not be considered a sympathetic character. However, due to Maugham’s expert pacing and character development, Kitty’s behavior is perfectly logical. Kitty was brought up with the understanding that one’s marriage is the determinate of one’s self worth. And because Kitty’s match was not ideal—both romantically and fiscally—she demonstrates little loyalty to it.
However, what makes this novel great is Kitty’s ability to grow and change. Kitty’s self-confidence and sense of worth is destroyed by her actions. Yet surprisingly, she accepts responsibility for her actions and looks to improve circumstances for future generations of her family. I sympathized with Kitty at her lowest moments and rooted for her as she picked herself up and found a way to start over despite everything that had happened to her.
Overall, I really loved The Painted Veil, one of Maugham’s many classics. Due to the many favorable reviews of the movie adaptation I look forward to seeing it sometime soon.