W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

Maugham’s writing flows beautifully, his style is suave and simple but it pulls you in and compels you to read. The Painted Veil is the story of Kitty Fane who married her husband Walter because she was mortified at the idea of her sister, Doris, beating her to the altar. Maybe she also sensed his sincerity but their temperaments couldn’t be more different. She lives like a butterfly flitting from one party or social event to another not thinking or examining herself or others. Walter is independent, a man of science, and socially awkward.

Their marriage brings her to Hong Kong where he’s working as a bacteriologist. At a dinner party she meets Charlie Townsend, a man coming up in the political arena. They’re strongly attracted to one another and share the same shallow, materialistic ideas of living. They become lovers. The way Maugham sets up the story with the handle turning and the door being locked– it’s simple but creates a vivid, suspenseful image and almost like a mystery book, the clues tell Kitty that Walter knows.

Walter decides to go into the heart of a cholera epidemic forcing his wife to come with him– unless Charlie’s wife will consent to divorce, then she can be free. Kitty clutches at the second idea because of her strong feelings for Charlie, but his ambitions are stronger and he turns his back on her. She begins to wonder what’s missing, why hadn’t she realized he was so contradictory and selfish? She feels foolish for  believing he cared for her. The real story is transformation. Kitty begins to discover who she really is, evolving into a better person, coming outside of herself in a realistic and human way; It’s not a sudden transformation, she stumbles.

Maugham reminds us that people alter; they don’t always remain the impression you’ve discerned. Having a static view of people is like Newton’s picture of space and then Einstein came and realized it’s dynamic– it bends and stretches, warps and curves based on what’s there. We are the same way, we alter based on our experiences and hopefully learn and evolve into better, more conscientious people towards those around us.

Memorable Quotes

The morning drew on and the sun touched the mist so that it shone whitely like the ghost of snow on a dying star. Though on the river it was light so that you could discern palely the lines of the crowded junks and the thick forest of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce. But suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim and massive bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand. It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race over the river. But the magician who built worked swiftly and now a fragment of colored wall crowned the bastion; in a moment of out the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs. Huge they seemed and you could make out no pattern; the order, if order there was, escaped you; wayward and extravagant, but of an unimaginable richness. This was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic and unsubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream.

I don’t understand anything. Life is so  strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.

I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.

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11 thoughts on “W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

  1. I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I watched the movie…. (Have you watched it? – I loved it, though I wouldn’t know how it compares with the book! If the book is better, omg, I REALLy need to read it quick!)…but then after reading one page didn’t think it would be that great so stopped. However, after reading your review, I am seriously reconsidering. Especially after reading those memorable quotes.

    I adore this one:

    “I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.”

    The perfect love story between characters with such depth…!

    1. I watched the movie after reading it, both are very good but I preferred the book. The movie was more hopeful towards the romance between Walter and Kitty and cuts out a lot of the story from his death onwards. It’s beautifully filmed and acted but I’d most definitely recommend reading it.

    2. I also loved the movie! I think Naomi Watts did a great job and it became even more special qhen I discovered she and Liev were a couple in real life. I should check the book though, everyone agrees that if you loved the movie, you’ll love the book as well.

    1. This was the first of his works I read. It’s fairly short and thankfully I started it on a Sunday and was able to read it on and off all day. It’s just one of those kinds of books you don’t want to put down– at least for me. :)

    1. It’s become one of my favorites as well. I’d first heard of Maugham through your blog so thank you, Elisa!! :)

  2. The quotes are great–especially the duck pond/sea one. This does sound like an interesting story, and well written as well.

    I really enjoyed your review, which was also well-written and interesting!

  3. I loved the novel although it did feel a tad contrived in places but still better than most of the stuff that has been printed since. I had no idea it was a film until I read the previous comments.

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