Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

I have recently finished listening to W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil on audio, and I had a fabulous time with it. Now, I do tend to enjoy books in a simpler, more visceral kind of way when I listen to them, so I can’t say what my reaction would have been if I’d read the book, but I’m pretty sure I would have liked it that way too.

Its charm comes from the simplicity of the tale — generally speaking it charts the course of a marriage — combined with the complexity of the characterization. It tells the story of Kitty, a foolish, vain, and inexperienced woman who panics when her younger sister marries well, and in response immediately becomes engaged to Walter, a man below her social ambitions but one who has asked her to marry him when other once-plentiful suitors have stopped appearing. After the marriage, they head off to Hong Kong where Walter works as a bacteriologist; here Kitty meets Charles Townsend, an attractive, flirtatious man who quickly seduces her. This is the point where the novel begins, with Kitty deeply in love with Charles and afraid that her husband has learned about the affair.

Once the truth has come out, Walter forces her to accompany him to a province in mainland China where a cholera epidemic is raging. His ostensible reason for traveling here is to put his medical training to use to help stop the epidemic, but Kitty fears – with justification – that the real reason is to ensure that she catches cholera, as a punishment for her unfaithfulness. Kitty is terrified of the new place, seeing things she earlier had no inkling of – poverty, death, bodily decay, political unrest. The sisters of a nearby convent invite her to visit them, and she soon begins to help them with their charity work, raising young girls cast off by a society that sees them as a burden.

So, as you can guess by now, the story is about Kitty’s growth from a selfish and inexperienced person to one who begins to look outside her own small concerns to see the larger world around her. She learns something of the true worth of her lover Charles and also of her husband, who, though he is ready to commit an indirect sort of murder, is not portrayed in the novel as a monster, but as a man who is passionate and foolish in love. The pleasure of the novel, for me, lies in following the twists and turns of Kitty’s growth, as she comes to realize exactly what she has done to her husband, her lover, and herself. Maugham sticks to Kitty’s point of view, so we see the world through her eyes and watch it open up for her.

Another pleasure to be found comes from the relationship of the novel to the novel’s prologue; in the prologue the narrator (or Maugham himself) tells the story of traveling in Italy and learning Italian from a young woman who uses Dante in their lessons. From Dante he learns of the story of a man who suspected his wife of having an affair and took her off to a place where she was bound to catch an illness and die. When she fails to die soon enough, he arranges to have her pushed out of a window. The narrator broods over this story for weeks until he decides to use it in a novel of his own. I won’t tell you the extent to which the plot of The Painted Veil follows the story from Dante, but the effect of the prologue is that you know, or suspect you know, the plot events that are coming, and you can observe how Maugham leads you toward the conclusion, hoping all the while that what you suspect is coming won’t come after all. There is something enjoyable about watching an author lead you towards a known – or suspected – conclusion.

As much as I enjoyed these aspects of the novel, though, I was bothered by the portrayal of China and the Chinese. The English colony in Hong Kong is guilty of a kind of racism that is disturbing – they simply don’t see China or the Chinese, as though they don’t exist except as a source of servants – but the novel makes clear the hideousness of this attitude and one of the things Kitty must learn is to see the humanity of the Chinese people. More bothersome for me was the way China became merely the backdrop for a tale of western spiritual growth. China in the novel is a place westerners travel to in order to learn something about their own spiritual emptiness, at which point, the lesson learned, they move on. It becomes a source of enlightenment, a place where, with the aid of its beautiful landscapes and mysterious ancient religious traditions, people are able to question who they are and what they are seeking in life. It’s important for what it can teach westerners, not for what it is in itself.

So ultimately I had mixed feelings about the novel. This, too, offers its own pleasures. In my experience so far, Maugham has not let me down (Of Human Bondage is a great novel), and I’m looking forward to reading more of his work in the future.

19 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

19 responses to “Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

  1. I haven’t read the book but the film version with Edward Norton is excellent. If Maughan is really that good with love and forgiveness and redemption I will have to give his books a try.

  2. I’m glad to hear you say that Maugham at least portrays the typical attitudes of the time towards China and the Chinese as something hideous. Sometimes it’s even more difficult to read the novels (or other books) of the era that aren’t at all bothered by it.

  3. I agree, Maugham doesn’t whitewash the superior colonial attitude away. But there has been a tradition of looking to the East — either Japan, China or India for spiritual growth. Even now a lot of Americans and Europeans still travel to India to learn yoga. “The Razor’s Edge” had Larry going to India to learn meditation in an ashram.

    There is a teaching in Zen Buddhism: When you are crossing the river, the raft shall bring you forth. But when you reach the edge of the river, left go of the raft.

    When something had fulfilled its purpose, we have to let it go to continue with our journey.

    Kitty’s experience in China taught her what she needed. After that, it was time for Kitty to move on, to go back to her life in England. But she will no longer be the same air-headed socialite that left.

    For Kitty, there was nothing left for her in China after Walter died. The Mother Superior said as much. Kitty doesn’t belong in China, not the way the Mother Superior and the nuns belong there.

    The way I read it, Kitty’s China experience was just one stage (out of many more to come) of Kitty’s growth.

    Now I deviate a little from China: One of the more memorable quotes I took from “The Painted Veil” is what the Mother Superior said to Kitty:

    “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.”

    When I read these lines, it reminded me a little of what the Bhagavad Gita says about Yoga in Action.

    I really love “The Painted Veil” — much more than I enjoyed “The Razor’s Edge”– if we compare them as Maugham books dealing with individual spiritual awakening. I found Kitty’s story more believable somehow.

    And Walter’s speech about how he never took what other husbands took for granted was heartbreaking: That what other husbands expect as a right (love and devotion from the wife), he was willing to receive as a favour.

    I have not watched the Edward Norton version of the film. But I imagined Norton saying these lines when I read them, and they felt powerful. :)

  4. Eva

    I was going to recommend the Edward Norton version of it too! I haven’t read the book, but the movie was pretty magical. :)

  5. I like Somerset Maugham a lot, and given the era that he was living in and the emphasis on colonialism (which was after all thought to be the politically correct thing to do in those days – helping poorer nations even if we don’t approve now of the way the West tried to help them) he did well to see beyond the horizons of his social vision. Sometimes I really wish I had a time machine and could zip off into the future to see how our own society’s attitudes will be surpassed and how history will judge us. This is a wonderful review, Dorothy – very sensitive and beautifully written.

  6. This sounds wonderful. As Dark Orpheus pointed out, it is sort of similar to Razor’s Edge at least in the spiritual awakening aspect. I want to read more Maugham. I will definitely have to read this one.

  7. I haven’t read this yet, but what a coincidence – I was talking about it to a friend, who has read it, this morning. She too recommended it. Another coincidence is that we both went to the talks on Dante together. It’s almost as though our antennae have been tuned.

  8. This sounds like an excellent book, and from what people have been commenting, it sounds like the film adaptation is great too. I know I have this book somewhere in the stacks and I really should read it.

  9. musingsfromthesofa

    If you can get hold of ‘On a Chinese Screen’ by Maugham, it does something to even the balance. It’s a collection of notes he made while travelling up the Yangtze river 1919-20 and I think it shows both his appreciation for the Chinese people, and his lack of sympathy with colonials.
    I love The Painted Veil, and am always glad that Kitty is given the chance to grow. Maugham is harsh on his women, I think.

  10. I’ve read the book and loved it. I’ve made notes and underlined many sections while reading. But I was disappointed with the film in that many of my favorite lines are left out. The film may be visually stunning in certain scenes, it fails to depict the soul of the book. I feel that on the whole, Maugham’s writings surpass their film adaptations. The Razor’s Edge is another example.

  11. Peg

    I don’t remember ever reading that prologue, so thanks for sharing that here.

    As to the movie, this is one of those cases in which the movie well-done with its visual appeal and performances is bound to send some new readers to the book, and that’s a good thing (of course).

  12. You describe this book so well. I’ve only read Up at the Villa, which I liked very much. This is one of the classics that my library has as an ebook, and I keep looking at it contemplating downloading it, but I also own the book and keep thinking I should read it instead. It’s interesting getting your perspectives on it as someone who listened rather than read it. Now I’m very curious to find out what happens to Kitty.

  13. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read any Maugham and clearly that is something I need to put right. The film is on my Amazon list, but very low down. I’ll move it up. Thanks for the prompt.

  14. Sylvia — thank you for the movie recommendation — I’ll have to check it out! And yes, I do think Maugham is good with forgiveness and redemption. You might enjoy this one.

    Emily — yes, indeed, it would be difficult to read a novel unaffected by the racism of the time. But Maugham is definitely more complicated than that.

    Dark Orpheus — yes, I agree that Kitty didn’t belong is China anymore, that it made sense for her to move on to new experiences. And yeah, it certainly is a long tradition of looking to the east for spiritual growth. I guess there’s something about that tradition that bothers me, though. Sometimes it seems like a stereotyped version of the east we get — wise spiritual people whose function is to teach the westerners what they need to know. Yes, China has much to teach westerners, but so often that’s its only role. And yes, Walter’s speeches are quite moving — what an odd character he is!

    Eva — oh, good to know! :)

    Litlove — I’ve had that thought too — what is it that we aren’t seeing?? We have no way of knowing though. You’re right — Maugham was impressive in the ways he could see that others of the time couldn’t.

    Stefanie — I’ve got The Razor’s Edge on my shelves; I’m looking forward to it even more now!

    BooksPlease — very cool! Everything does come together sometimes. You will simply have to read this book then. :)

    Iliana — I think you’d enjoy it; it’s most definitely worth digging out of the stacks!

    Musings — oh, interesting! I had no idea such a book exists. It would help me read The Painted Veil in a more sympathetic way I’m sure.

    Arti — maybe I should let a lot of time go by before I watch the movie, so I won’t be disappointed by those missing lines. I agree about books being better than the films — the films so often seem thin in comparison.

    Peg — oh, yes, if more people read the book that must be a good thing!

    Danielle — do you mean an audiobook or a book you read on screen? I definitely wouldn’t want to read it on a computer, but that’s just me … as an audiobook it’s wonderful.

    Ann — I’ve only discovered Maugham recently, and what a joy it’s been! As you can see from the commenters, he’s really wonderful.

  15. Oops, sorry, I meant one of those digital audio books you can download to your MP3 player. I would also not want to read it on a computer screen. I wonder if the edition you listened to is the same as my library has. Was the reader good?

  16. Hi, I’ve been reading your blog for a long time but I just felt compelled to comment on this post, because I am such a huge Somerset Maugham fan.
    I just finished reading a Maugham book called “The Explorer”, which is one of his earlier works that deals with the story of a man going to Africa to stop the local rebellions and slave trades. It’s a little hard to find, but it’s a great book and definitely worth the trouble of tracking down. I think it might show a slightly different view of foreign cultures than “The Painted Veil”, although I can definitely see some similarities between the two.

    Anyway, I’m not too eloquent about the books I read (I leave that to the book bloggers!), so I’ll just leave it at that. Maugham has some really great books like “Merry-Go-Round”, “Mrs. Craddock” and “The Magician”, which are definitely worth checking out if you enjoy his work. Thanks for the great write up on “The Painted Veil”!

  17. Danielle — I liked the reader, but then there are few I haven’t liked; I’m pretty easy to please that way.

    Sammi — thanks for commenting! I’m glad to hear of all those good Maugham books, all of which are new to me. Clearly I need to learn more about him!

  18. Pingback: The Painted Veil « Phantom

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