The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham

Note: I’m calling this a review, but it’s really more of a response, and I am responding specifically to the ending. So there are huge spoilers for The Painted Veil if you haven’t read the novel. I also talk about the ending of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Consider yourselves warned.

PaintedVeilWhen I took piano lessons as a child, my teacher assigned me a piece that strung together several renditions of a simple tune as different composers might have interpreted it. Here is how Beethoven would have handled; here is Mozart’s version; here it’s done in the spirit of Brahms. I kept coming back to that idea when I was reading The Painted Veil. The storyline is simple. How would Jane Austen have written it? E. M. Forster? Edith Wharton? Flaubert? But when I finished it, I realized that the author whose version of this story I would be most interested to read was Kate Chopin.

Chopin, you will recall, wrote The Awakening more than a quarter of a century before Maugham published The Painted Veil (1899 and 1925, respectively) and their takes on the adulterous wife couldn’t be more different. Chopin sympathizes with her protagonist, Edna Pontellier; she shows Edna’s affair with Robert Lebrun to be positive for Edna in many ways, and she depicts without judgment Edna’s adultery (and her subsequent suicide, when the affair ends).

The Painted Veil, by contrast, never lets us see Kitty happy. It begins in the moment that Kitty is found out:

She gave a startled cry.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room he saw her face on a sudden distraught with terror.

“Some one just tried the door.”

“Well, perhaps it was the amah, or one of the boys.”

“They never come at this time. They know I always sleep after tiffin.”

“Who else could it be?”

“Walter,” she whispered, her lips trembling.

We’re told in the course of the novel that Kitty’s affair with Charlie Townsend made her happy, but we never get to see her happiness. We see the emptiness that leads to the affair, and we see the unhappiness that unfolds once she is discovered, but the joy that she felt from being in love is only a rumor.

There were things I loved about this novel, which I could hardly put down. The prose is exquisite:

Dawn was breaking now, and here and there a Chinese was taking down the shutters of his shop. In its dark recesses, by the light of a taper, a woman was washing her hands and face. In a tea-house at a corner a group of men were eating an early meal. The gray, cold light of the rising day sidled along the narrow lanes like a thief. There was a pale mist on the river and the masts of the crowded junks loomed through it like the laces of a phantom army. It was chilly as they crossed and Kitty huddled herself up in her gay and colored shawl. They walked up the hill and they were above the mist. The sun shone from an unclouded sky. It shone as though this were a day like another and nothing had happened to distinguish it from its fellows.

Maugham’s dialogue is also excellent; it sounds natural and each character is distinct. And again, I could hardly put it down; I really cared about what was happening to Kitty and I really wanted to know how her story would end.

But on the other hand, I took issue with Maugham’s handling of his characters and, in particular, with the punitive fate that he gives Kitty: widowed, pregnant, and off to the Bahamas to keep house for a father who has shown her precious little affection at any point in her life. The ending of the novel, to me, felt heavy-handed and moralistic; a writer trying to make a point at the expense of his character.

Maugham is quick to pronounce judgment on Kitty. From the first pages of the novel she is revealed to be shallow, silly, flip, foolish. She is spoiled and selfish. Her beauty is the only virtue Maugham is willing to concede her. (And even at that, he takes pains to point out that her chin is “too square” and her nose “too big.”) She fails to capitalize on the first blush of her youth and so is forced to marry Walter Fane “in a panic,” just escaping the dire fate of marrying after her plain younger sister.

Let’s talk about Walter for a moment. He is no prize himself.*  Yes, he seems to be intelligent and skilled at his profession, and yes, he thinks he loves Kitty. But what does he love her for? The same silly affectations that Maugham condemns. Walter loves Kitty because she’s pretty, because she dances with him, because she is “easy to talk to.” He is no more in love with her than Townsend is. How could he be? He knows virtually nothing about her. And he treats her no better than Townsend does. Townsend lies about his feelings for her, but at least he gives her some happiness; Walter is distant and silent and hard to comprehend even when proposing. 

Maugham is writing about a society that was bad for everyone: bad for the women, who are raised to be shallow and frivolous and dependent; bad for the men, who have to spend all their time making the money to support their wives and daughters. But Maugham’s sympathy seems too heavily weighted toward the men, and let’s face, it’s the men who hold the cards here. The men don’t have to vamp and simper in hopes of attracting a proposal; the men have options other than making a good match. And the men aren’t taught from an early age that their only possible achievement is to be attractive and light-hearted and amusing enough to capture a suitor. The men get to choose. Maugham seems to realize this — he gives Kitty a speech at the end about raising her daughter to be “fearless and frank” — but he also blames Kitty for the fact that her father has no feelings for her. Wouldn’t that be as much Kitty’s father’s fault as her own? Similarly, isn’t Walter partly to blame for the breakdown of their marriage, seeing as how he doesn’t seem to actually talk to Kitty all that much?

I like that Kitty grows enough through this short novel to gain some self-awareness. She recognizes and deeply regrets the mistakes that she made, beginning with marrying Walter in the first place and ending with the unwise affair with Townsend. But it would have been nice if someone in the novel had been clear-eyed enough to realize that Kitty was sinned against as well as sinning. “I’ve been terribly punished,” she says near the end of the novel, and it’s impossible to disagree. She claims to feel hope and courage as she prepares to move to the Bahamas, and yet I did not quite believe it. Or perhaps I simply cannot get behind a novel which ends with its central character vowing to “follow the path that . . . those dear nuns at the convent followed so humbly.”

Yes! Women should be more like cloistered nuns! That will solve all of society’s problems! I’m not rolling my eyes at all! I’m not denying that the nuns in this book seem like good people, but I still don’t think that “take nuns as your model” is good advice for the average woman, and certainly not a woman like Kitty, who seems to enjoy clothes and dancing and romance.

How would Kate Chopin have told this story? Well, I don’t love the way Chopin handled Edna Pontellier either; I don’t think I could spend ten minutes with Edna, and I thought that suicide was an awfully irresponsible response to the end of a love affair. (She has a kid! If you read The Awakening in college, read it again after you have children and see if your perspective changes. Mine certainly did.) But I do like that Chopin takes Edna’s emotions seriously, recognizes the affair’s importance to Edna, and doesn’t pile all the blame for an unhappy marriage on Edna. I wish that Maugham could have shown Kitty some similar compassion. Yes, she’s spoiled and foolish; and yes, it’s good that by the end of the book she recognizes that. But it bothers me that none of the male characters — not even Townsend! — have a similar epiphany, and I can’t help but feel that Maugham punishes her too harshly for buying into a worldview that Walter and her father also accept without reservation.

* Nor is Townsend. Nor Waddington. Were any of these people well-raised? The only exception I can think of is the Mother Superior.

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