The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)
W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil is a sad and beautiful story of love, betrayal, growth, and forgiveness. The main character, Kitty Fane, is described on the back-cover as “beautiful but love-starved.” What the reader learns about her, though, is that she does not feel beautiful, nor does she understand that much of her personality and actions are defined by the fact that she has felt perpetually neglected and unimportant. Kitty’s mother, a domineering woman, bred Kitty not to be happy or independent, but to seek out a beneficial –powerful and wealthy- partner. Kitty fails in this endeavor and is married only after her younger, less attractive sister finds a husband – which leaves Kitty permanently scarred, envious, and self-deprecating. The story takes us on Kitty’s journey of self-discovery. She is forced by her husband to move into the heart of a Chinese cholera epidemic, after he discovers that she has been having an affair. The double-suicide attempt is not successful, but it is fruitful, in a way. By the end of the story, Kitty has learned self-worth and, while not entirely redeemed, we can begin to believe that she is on her way.
3 – Characters well developed
While not as strong as the prose, Maugham does have ability with characterization. The characters here are not as developed or engaging as those in his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, but that could partially be due to the fact that this novel is about one-third the length. Kitty Fane is the most interesting to watch, and while her revelatory growth can, at certain points, seem clichéd or forced, the overall journey is meaningful and believable. She makes steps forward, and takes steps back. Ultimately, watching her become a selfless, aware woman is rewarding, particularly as she started out completely selfish and self-doubtful. Kitty’s husband, Walter, is simultaneously the most interesting and underdeveloped character. There seemed to be so much to him, so much personality left unrevealed and while that was largely “the point,” it was also disappointing and left what should have been a momentous moment of the novel less-than paramount. The minor characters, including Kitty’s parents, the sisters of the convent, and Waddington, Walter’s compatriot in the thick of the Chinese epidemic, are extraordinarily well-wrought for minor characters. The best drawn of them all, though, is Charlie, Kitty’s lover. He is self-absorbed, cocky, indulgent, and rather stupid. All of these traits come across well, as does the fact that his charm and attractiveness could blind a lover to the less-savory aspects of his nature.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
As expected, the highest achievement for this novel is the prose and style. Maugham is a savant with language. His fluid prose carries the story along masterfully, as if the reader is a passenger on an Italian gondola, being steered across the Venetian Lagoon and up the Piave. Maugham also knows how to craft a story, which means mapping the language to the action. As tension mounts, so does the language and style. Dialogue complements the story and enhances many scenes as well.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.
While The Pained Veil is best known as a story about marriage and betrayal – love and adultery- it is, in fact, a story about family and about self. Much of Kitty Fane’s character is shaped by her relationship to her mother and father. She is damaged because she is misled, as a youth, to believe that she has no worth of her own, only that of her beauty and its potential to attract a mate. She is given no genuine encouragement to develop any skill of her own, or to cultivate any interests, thus, she has no individuality, no identity, no feelings of self-worth. While it would be easy, then, to excuse Kitty’s adulterous actions on her emotional underdevelopment, Maugham is careful not to do so or to let his readers come away with that impression. Kitty must grow up, and she does so painfully (albeit it rather quickly). She suffers hardship and while she never comes to love her husband, she does come to understand and respect him, and to ultimately see her own folly and misdeeds through his example of selflessness and goodness. The book says much about how we come to learn about ourselves through our interactions with others, and how important and necessary it is to have an identity of one’s own before it can be possible to respect or appreciate anyone else.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+, Adult
Interest: England, China, Science, Medicine, Adultery, Family, Cholera, Marriage, Self-Discovery, Growth, Literature
“A little smoke lost in the air, that was the life of man.”
“If nobody spoke unless he had something to say, the human race would very soon lose the use of speech.”
“One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.”
“As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue.”
“I always find it more difficult to say the things I mean than the things I don’t.”
“Charm and nothing but charm at last grows a little tiresome. It’s a relief then to deal with a man who isn’t quite so delightful but a little more sincere.”
“Women are often under the impression that men are much more madly in love with them than they really are.”