Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Painted Veil

Kitty is a beautiful young woman, raised by her shallow and socially aggressive mother to be equally shallow and ambitious. In spite of her beauty, Kitty finds herself unmarried at the age of 25 and losing her place as her mother's beloved when her much younger and less attractive sister, Doris, becomes engaged to a baron. Embarrassed by her sister's superior match, desperate to leave the disappointed glare of her mother and panicked that another decent offer won't come her way, she says "yes" to Walter Fane, a bacteriologist working in Hong Kong, whom she barely knows.

They marry and she accompanies him to Hong Kong where she finds herself bored, ambivalent and unmoved by her husband's love for her. Quickly, she falls in love and begins an affair with Charles Townsend, a handsome, suave politician who, like her, views life as a shallow thing to be lived as selfishly as possible. When Walter discovers their relationship, he coldly gives her an ultimatum: accompany him to inland China where there is a cholera outbreak or he will cause a scandal and divorce her (this was written in 1925 when an affair such as this would, indeed, be an actual scandal) unless Townsend will agree to divorce his own wife and marry her within the week.

Predictably, to all except Kitty, Townsend's true colors appear and he disappoints her. Disillusioned and actually afraid of her husband who she believes only wants to kill her, she travels inland and her deeper, more understanding, more aware life begins.

The title comes from the English poet, Shelly's, sonnet, "Lift Not The Painted Veil Which Those Who Live/Call Life." I love the multiple layers found throughout the book that stem from its title. There are several descriptions of reflections on water, camouflaging the death and disease of the village condemned by cholera with scenes of light and beauty. As Kitty is a front-row witness to death, she observes the veil that lifts when life leaves a body several times. Most poetically is her own veil, lifted to experience a life so different from the superficial one she had expected.

I hate that I wanted the Hollywood ending (apparently...there actually IS a Hollywood ending. The book was made into a movie and I hear it gave the story the satisfying ending I didn't even know I wanted until it didn't happen). Seriously, why do I feel disappointed? Maugham writes a fantastic portrayal of a shallow woman developing into something more. I suppose I wanted her progress to have an effect beyond her own awareness. I wanted it to fix her marriage, alter her relationship with her sister and parents, and finish the relationship with her adulterous lover for the right reasons. Eventually, Maugham allows those things to happen but not at a pace which allows Kitty to avoid loss, pain and humility. Once again...why do I feel disappointed? Those consequences are truths and I appreciate and respect truth. Maugham unflinchingly writes Kitty's growth as a woman as it would have realistically happened.

But, it's a gritty reality.

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