Catie's Reviews > The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
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May 08, 12

bookshelves: classics, read-in-2012, audio
Recommended to Catie by: Tatiana
Read from April 24 to May 03, 2012

There’s something so affecting about tragedy created by social mores – tragedy that only exists because it’s born in a certain place and a certain time. While reading this book I just kept thinking, what if? What if women were allowed to seek their own status and power and weren’t completely dependent on that of their husbands? What if girls weren’t isolated but allowed to travel and gain experience or an education? What if marriage were optional? What if divorce were a simple thing? But I guess even the possible solutions to these hypotheticals wouldn’t remove all the sadness from this book. What if we weren’t all born with a severely limited worldview? would be a better question, but of course that’s just a permanent part of the human condition.

Kitty Fane, in many respects, has the worldview of a small child, and that is her tragedy. She was bred to make an advantageous marriage – to finally realize all of her mother’s long repressed ambitions. She was raised in a narrow, cosseted, ridiculously skewed environment and so became narrow, cosseted, and ridiculously skewed. Kitty doesn’t want to be married, but after several seasons out and no husband, the pressure to choose someone increases. Desperate to appease her mother and beat her younger sister to the altar, she accepts the hand of quiet, intellectual bacteriologist Walter who seems to have genuine feeling for her, even though he barely knows her.

Kitty is foolish, selfish, immature, and closed-minded. She doesn’t love Walter – in fact – he bores and irritates her. Once in Walter’s assigned post of Hong Kong, she begins an affair with the charming and middle aged (not to mention, married) Charles Townsend. And that’s where this book opens: a bedroom, a locked door, two lovers, and a humiliated husband.

I admit that I loved Kitty from the beginning, even though her choices were maddening. She’s weak-willed and horribly naïve, but she does have the good sense to realize when she’s been wrong. And she has the courage to try to change herself, even though she doesn’t always succeed. Maugham doesn’t reform her completely and I think she’s all the more sympathetic for that. She fights against her own barriers: against her weakness and selfishness and outright disgust of the Chinese, but she never becomes a perfect, enlightened adult.

I think that one of the hallmarks of adulthood is that moment when you feel like you’ve become stable: when you finally feel like you’ve learned a few things. You finally feel mature. And then something comes along and casually knocks you off your feet and you realize that you still don’t know a damn thing. Kitty experiences that completely, and I think it’s a huge testament to how much maturity she gains that she picks herself up, brushes herself off, and keeps on going. Her mistakes in this book actually made me love her even more, because she doesn’t let them define her.

Nor is Walter portrayed as the simple, wounded hero. This story really is about Kitty and Kitty’s journey toward maturity but Walter is by no means a side character. It frankly amazed me just how vivid and three-dimensional he felt, given that he’s barely in the novel at all! Maugham was able to paint Walter so completely in brief, concentrated scenes (“It was the dog that died.” Talk about a punch in the face!). But of course, Walter is a quiet person: he speaks in actions or silences and rarely ever with words. Although, his one major speech in the book, where he basically tells Kitty exactly where she can go, is very satisfying:

"I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you. It's comic when I think how hard I tried to be amused by the things that amused you and how anxious I was to hide from you that I wasn't ignorant and vulgar and scandal-mongering and stupid. I knew how frightened you were of intelligence and I did everything I could to make you think me as big a fool as the rest of the men you knew. I knew that you'd only married me for convenience. I loved you so much, I didn't care."

He’s shy and self-contained with little to no charm. He’s sensitive and passionate, but when wronged that passion becomes an ugly thing. He becomes cold and he can’t forgive. He’s far from the meek fool that Charles Townsend assumes he is and he’s also not the sweet loving husband that Kitty thought she married.

However, Walter’s love for Kitty is just as naïve as her love for Charles Townsend, and in the end it is she (not he – “the dog”) who has the resiliency and bravery to forgive and try to move forward. When set against the wildness of rural China and the indiscriminate brutality of cholera, their doomed relationship becomes even more of a pointless tragedy.

Tatiana challenged me to read this book and I’m so glad she did!

Also seen on The Readventurer.
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Reading Progress

04/27/2012 page 101
42.0% 2 comments

Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Meghan (new)

Meghan Shaffer I absolutely loved the movie! Have you seen it? I haven't read the book. I wonder how they compare.


message 2: by Reynje (new) - added it

Reynje Can't wait to hear your thoughts on this Catie :) Such a powerful book..


Catie Yeah, it was. I am definitely going to write a review. Working on it now!


message 4: by Laura (new)

Laura Great review, Catie! Have you ever seen/read Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas ? Your first sentence regarding tragedy brought on by social mores reminded me of it right away. It's VERY VERY bleak, though, so if you're in the mood for happy and hopeful, this would be the complete and utter opposite.


Catie Oh gosh, looks like I missed your comment from way back Meghan. Sorry! Yes, I have seen the movie and I really liked it. It was a while ago though so I'm completely sure anymore how much they compare. I think that the book is much more focused on Kitty though.

I haven't read that Laura! But I do love bleak (most of the time). I'll have to check it out.


message 6: by Nataliya (new) - added it

Nataliya Wonderful review, Catie! It made me want to pick up this book.


message 7: by Reynje (new) - added it

Reynje Catie, this review is so brilliant! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Incidentally, have you watched the film? It would make for an interesting book vs movie given the way the ending is treated in the film..


Aly (Fantasy4eva) i second that. brilliant review!

i was actually going to watch the movie a few days back since it seemed like something i would love. but then got distracted by other things. what is better, the book or movie. and is the movie really good?

oh and is it safe to watch the movie first or will it be a good idea to read the book first?

i will try and get a copy of this asap now. thanks!


Catie Thanks you guys!

I have seen the movie but it was quite a while ago, when it first came out. (view spoiler)

Aly, you can watch the movie first if you like - this isn't one of those books that will be spoiled for you if you know what's going to happen.

It would be cool to do a Book Vs. Movie! I am still (still!) working on the Breakfast at Tiffany's one but maybe after that!


message 10: by Sandra (new)

Sandra I haven't seen the film nor read the book. I do like Somerset Maugham's writing. Fantastic review, a joy to read and insights that will make reading the book a richer experience. Cheers!


Catie Thanks Sandra! What have you read from Maugham? This was my first and I'd love to read more.


message 12: by Sandra (new)

Sandra I've read Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge. It was many years ago, too many to admit to! I remember loving them. The Razor's Edge was made into a film back in the eighties and was excellent. I need to revisit an old love.


Regina I cannot stop thinking about this book and I feel like nothing compares since I finished it. In the end though, I did not have fond feelings for Walter at all. Hopefully I will have time to write a review. :) I thought the conclusion of the story was very inspiring and I was so impressed with Kitty's thoughts and desires.


Catie I'm so glad that I recommended it then! Hooray!

About Walter, I think that his foolishness was just as much encouraged by their society as hers. Maybe I didn't like him, but I felt like I understood him. In the end, he realizes what he's done. That line "it was the dog that died" still gets me!


Regina Catie, I agree. I guess one could say we still have the same issue now, only there is no need to be married to carry it out. Women tend to be valued or judged by their looks over anything else. But despite the fact that it was a societal thing, I don't have sympathy for it. I know I am cold. :) But he did too grow from what he had done and despite my coldness, I will acknowledge that.

I feel like jumping into another Maugham book, the only thing holding me back is my experience with Of Human Bondage.


Catie Everyone raves about The Razor's Edge!


Tatiana Catie wrote: "Everyone raves about The Razor's Edge!"

It's a good one. Also, The Moon And Sixpence. Of Human Bondage did nothing for me.


Regina I read Of Human Bondage when I was 18 or 19, I think it mentally scarred me. :)

I will look at both of those -- thank you.


Benjamin «Maugham doesn’t reform her completely and I think she’s all the more sympathetic for that.»
Maugham doesn’t reform her because he was not a science fiction writer. That’s his point of view – this woman (even if she understand that her love to Townsend senseless and completely ridiculous) couldn’t fall in love with good man – her husband and only because Walter doesn’t represent the high hierarchy status and don’t look like an alpha-male.
I can clearly see in this novel the struggle in the woman’s mind between her consciousnesses and her nature instincts. One tells her that that monkey-like acting man Townsend – must be her husband/lover (or whatever), the other ( voice of the mind) tells her – your husband is already good enough for you and probably – the best of what you could get.
«What if women were allowed to seek their own status and power and weren’t completely dependent on that of their husbands? What if girls weren’t isolated but allowed to travel and gain experience or an education? What if marriage were optional? What if divorce were a simple thing? But I guess even the possible solutions to these hypotheticals wouldn’t remove all the sadness from this book. What if we weren’t all born with a severely limited worldview? would be a better question, but of course that’s just a permanent part of the human condition.»
That’s just a bla-bla-bla – don’t’ forget you are talking about Maugham’s novel – Kitty is not very smart and obviously doesn’t want to earn the money by herself.
«What if women were allowed to seek their own status and power and weren’t completely dependent on that of their husbands?»
What if the men was able to switch-off the dreadful, exhausting, extremely boring attraction to sex?
Poor Walter would finally become happy with his bacteriology ( as we all with favorite occupation). And wouldn’t feel anything to such as ungrateful creature as Kitty… or Sally…or anybody else with silly name.
That’s the truth – not only woman bored with man. Man also tired from woman. ( Just my subjective personal opinion. Sorry for hostility if you find it here)


message 20: by Eva (new) - rated it 4 stars

Eva Johnson I loved your review of this surprisingly profound novel. Thank you!


Catie Thanks!


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