02 August 2009

The Painted Veil

The Home-coming

: W. Somerset Maugham

Pages: 213
Publishers: Random House
Year Of Publishing: 1925

What do you do when you can't get over a lover who is clearly not worth it, has let you down and has behaved callously? Alternatively, can virtue alone in a husband compensate for passion? Is it duty towards others rather than a self-serving desire that lends our lives dignity and strength? These are some of the profound questions that Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil raises. Set in the late 19th century, the novel's action takes place in both England and primarily China -which the British had invaded at the time.

Kitty, as a beautiful, young girl is used to a lot of attention since childhood. Along with her pushy mother, everyone imagines that Kitty would get herself a great match in marriage. However, things don't go as expected, and she doesn't find any of her suitors good enough. She gets desperate when her younger sister -- never considered a looker -- gets married to a prosperous Duke! Panic-stricken, Kitty hastily agrees to marry Walter - a staid and simple bacteriologist who falls madly in love with her. She accompanies him to China and tries to adjust to her new role as his wife.

Kitty -  frivolous and a bit shallow - quickly starts to feel bored with Walter.  Yearning for romance, she's exasperated with his silences and general indifference to everything around him. This is when she meets Charles Townshend, a charming, high-ranking government officer. Charles is everything that Walter is not, and Kitty finds him completely irresistible. Both quickly get into an extra-martial affair.

When Walter finds out, he is overcome with anger. Kitty - though disturbed by the discovery - considers it a blessing as she might now be able to divorce her husband and marry Charles.  Walter announces his decision to go to cholera affected town, Mei-Tan Fu to control the epidemic and he wants Kitty to come along. The latter is shocked. "I'm not going, Walter. It's monstrous to even ask," she says. But Walter's mind is made. He won't let her divorce him and will instead press charges of adultery on her and Charles. He gives her a chance though. If Charles can divorce his wife Dorothy and marry her, then he will let her go.

Kitty runs to Charles with the total belief that he would marry her, but is stunned to find that he isn't willing to sacrifice anything for her sake. He gently but firmly refuses to divorce his wife. Despondent and depressed, Kitty has no option but to join Walter. She's terrified at the prospect of going to a cholera-ridden town and when she reaches the place, her worst fears come true. She sees death all around her, the heat gets to her and she's left with very little company as Walter refuses to speak to her. Kitty is still desperately in love with her former lover, Charles. She makes every attempt in her mind to hate him, contorting his features and imagining him to be an ugly man. In her mind, she fully understands that Charles is nothing but a cad who cares for no one else but himself. And yet, because she is unable to get over him, her heart sinks with a feeling of despair.

Their kindly neighbour, Waddington, astutely gauges that something is wrong with the couple and becomes a good friend to Kitty. To escape her boredom, she visits the Convent, run by French nuns and is amazed at their sense of duty and commitment. Besides giving shelter to orphans and educating them, the convent is also in the midst of treating cholera patients. Her own husband single-mindedly works at improving the situation at the place and becomes somewhat of a hero for the women and children at the Convent.

The book is about Kitty's journey – from being a flighty girl fed on fantasy to someone who comes face to face with the real world. Her unbridled passion for Charles and her wistful state seem trivial when compared to the deaths she sees around her. She's already started to see herself as worthless when compared to the people around her –all of whom take pride in their duty towards others.


Kitty starts to understand her husband better but she still can't love him. She is exasperated thinking of how Walter continues to punish her when there are so many graver things before them. "Does he have no sense of proportion,” she wonders.
So finally when Walter succumbs to cholera and dies, she feels a tinge of sadness but is also relieved.

Kitty by now has had her spiritual awakening. Her revelation comes about in the last scene of the novel during her conversation with her father. Her mother has just died and the father takes this as an opportunity to announce that he is moving to another city on account of a promotion. For long, the father was neglected by the mother and daughters and Kitty comes to realize that he actually hated them. But when Kitty pleads with him to take her, he can't refuse. This is where she realizes how people constantly put their duty above their own feelings and this was what she was never able to do.

Maugham portrays Kitty's character with a rare sensitivity. She's weak-willed and naive but she knows it. She desperately holds on to her romantic notions and when they are all shattered, her recovery from it is rather painful. But in the end, the hurt cleanses and makes her look at life with mature, empathetic eyes.

Somerset Maugham's writing is simple, elegant with several deeply moving and profound passages. When Kitty in her distressed state converses with the Mother Supreme at the convent, the latter calmly tells her, "You know, my dear child, that one cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one's soul'
Fortunately, Kitty gets close to finding her peace by the end of story.
-Sandhya Iyer

PS: It's wonderful how one discovers certain gems in literature through movies. I happened to see the literary adaptation by John Curran - made in 2006 - over the weekend and was deeply moved by the experience. Obviously then, I wasted no time in buying Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil to see how differently the filmmakers had interpreted the story. There are many changes, but both the book and the film are exquisite works in themselves. And I'm glad I saw the film first because the book offered me a kind of back story to all the characters and made it a much more fulfilling experience.

Movie verses the book

There are several changes that have been introduced in the film. While Maugham's book is mainly about Kitty and her journey towards self-discovery, the film is about both Walter and Kitty and how these two people with nothing in common live together. In the book, Walter's character is an important one but not as much as it is in the film. In the movie, Walter - played brilliantly by Edward Norton - has a definite and smoldering presence.

The film essentially focusses on these two people - their hurried marriage, betrayal and then a vengeful revenge that Walter unleashes on Kitty. The very first scene makes it clear that Walter - who we know was very much in love with his wife - is in an unforgiving, determined mode. Kitty, on her part, is too depressed to have parted on a sour note with her lover Charles. The dreary life she sees ahead fills her heart with horror. It seems impossible that these two people should ever make a connection with each other again, but they do. Unlike the book, where Kitty - even though she starts understanding her husband better - never really accepts Walter, the film gives more screen -time and space to the relationship to develop.

One of the best portions of the film is when Kitty goes to meet Charles Townsend in his office. The book describes this scene with splendid irony. Charles is reintroduced in the book when Kitty reluctantly agrees to stay at his place after Walter's death for a few days. This is done at the behest of Charles's wife, Dorothy. He once again tries to seduce her with gentle, loving words. Her physical desire for Charles gets the better of her, and they make love. But Kitty quickly recovers. She sees him for what he is. Vain, manipulative and self-seeking. She realizes how hollow his words are. She takes a stand, decides to move out of the city and start life afresh.


Abhishek Bandekar said...

A fascinating and insightful review/analysis. I haven't read the book, but am a great fan of the film. Reading the book, I'm sure, will surely enhance your appraisal of the film, which in itself was a spell-binding study of human frailty and the 'grace' that is achieved in our fickle existence by way of duty and selflessness. The film was lauded for its adaptation, and reading your fine piece, I can see why.

Looking forward to read the book. Maugham is even otherwise such a simple yet profound writer. In fact, its wonderful how the filmmakers actually chose to adapt one of his lesser known works.

Sash said...

A lyrical pice there Sandy. I haven't read this particular one of Maugham, however, i understand he was deeply sensitised to human relationships.

The story seems amazingly simple yet beautifully narrated. your review makes me want to pick up the book right away.

Gouri Dange said...

yes, your reviews want me to go read much more than i am reading or have read. shades of scarlett in kitty? tho of course she came later, kitty came first, i think

sandhya said...

Incidentally, this is the poem from which the title of the book was taken ..by Shelley...

"Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it—he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not."

sandhya said...

Gouri: The Kitty comparisson to Scarler O hara is interesting. Both are in love with an 'idea' of a man. It's an illusion they are chasing...
Also, both are equally callous and selfish till reality hits them. But I see Scarlet as a more fictional character - an almost mythic one compared to Kitty -who I feel is a far more real character.

Alexander said...

I could hardly add something to Sandhya's review of the book, in any case I have to re-read it first since it's been few years since I last read it and some incidents are somewhat forgotten. Funny that, it happens often with Maugham's books, plots may pale with the time but the characters remain as vivid as ever.

Anyway, I've watched the movie last night and was completely spellbound by it. As far as I can remember the book, the movie follows it more or less closely, whateve changes were made, they seem to fit the story quite nicely. The cast is fantastic. Since his star shined brightly for the first time in 'Primal fear' I have always been fascinated by Edward Norton's acting; he certainly can do it and does it brilliantly here. Naomi Watts was a very plesant surprise. I can't remember to have seen her in any other movie but here she is amazing, so natural and convincing in her transformation from rather silly and superficial girl into a woman that commands respect. I was slightly disappointed only by Charlie Townsend. He should have been more dashing, in terms of both appearance and acting. Waddington, another completely unknown actor to me whose name I've forgotten, is just perfect; I've liked the character in the book very much anyway. Mother Superior is also very fine (great speech about the love affair with God!). The screenplay, I think, projects Maugham's characters in an excellent way and the cast, on the whole, does a superb job conveying lots of shades and nuances.

Last but not least, the exotic sets are beautiful and the so is the music, the piano parts (much as I despise Lang Lang) especially. Of course it is very different experience from the book but by no means less moving. I am already quite curious to see the much earlier version (1934, I think) with Herbert Marshall and Greta Garbo.

Certainly 'The Painted Veil' with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts is worth watching. Even more than once.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Great you saw the film! I'm glad I saw the film first, because the book offered me a nice back story to Kitty's character and you also get a better sense of Charles Townshend's character in the book.

Also, Walter is actually not such a powerful character in the novel, in the film he has a smouldering presence.

What did you make of Townshend's character? The film has too little of him. In the book, however, there are several telling scenes involving Kitty and Charles. Maugham emphasises his self-serving attitude and relative callousness towards Kitty by having a scene where Charles convinces her to join Walter to the cholera affected town. He insists nothing will happen to her if she takes precautions.

Unlike in the film, where Kitty firmly snubs him in the last scene, in the book, she falls for Charles once again.
I found some merit in Maugham's treatment of Kitty in the sense he realises how hard it is for human beings to give up on temptation even when they know they're doing the wrong thing. However, I found that whole episode where she moves into Townshend's home because his wife invites her, a tad stretched out and unconvincingly.

Did you see Charles as wholly negative?

Alexander said...

You've got me in the narrow corner of the ring, Sandhya. I really need refresh my recollections of the book.

But as far as I remember, in the end Kitty yielded to Charles immediately after her return from the epidemy spot. That's makes it somewhat more believable and more unbelievable at the same time. But maybe it is more the former than the latter, since immediately after the death of Walter she might well have been peculiarly vulnerable. In the movie years passed before they meet again and it was fine that she snubbed him; it would have been rather improbable to go to bed with him again. And it was a great finale:

'Who's that, mommy?'
'No one important, darling.'

I don't see Charles as negative character at all. He is too human for that; just another lecherous man who has achieved a position of some eminence and clutches to it. As far as I can remember he is treated sympathetically by Maugham, as he usually treats human weaknesses (and there are good many of them, are there?). The actor in the movie seemed to me to lack a little confidence in himself as a person of importance and apparent Don Juan. But it wasn't a big deal and perhaps it was better not to have much of him.

I think I read somewhere that Edward Norton insisted on the novel being changed into a screenplay where Walter is more central character and the focus is not only on Kitty but on their relationship. I rather like the idea. It works wonderfully in the movie. And it gave Mr Norton more opportunity for spectacular acting.

As far as I recall my disappointment with the novel was chiefly concerned with the final scene with Kitty and her father which seemed odd to me and not entirely in character with Kitty's new self. Perhaps there, and in the earlier episode with Charlie and his wife you mentioned, Maugham's sense for dramatic incident failed him.

It is interesting, when you come to think of it, that Maugham should be one of the most filmed auhtors of all time. I have always thought of his books not as great plots and stories but mainly as fascinating studies of human character; that's something, I should think, rather hard to make convincing in a movie. But he always had story as well, even if not so great most of the times. Perhaps I should see more movies based on his books. 'The Painted Veil' was definitely great, changed in a skilfull way but no so much and beautiful in its own, rather different than the novel, way.

I remember watching once 'The Razor's Edge' from the mid 1940s, filmed immediately after the publishing of the novel. It was very close to the book but has nothing of its depth, despite some very fine actors and actresses. The novel has a great story but the main thing certainly is how it affects the characters. And that the movie failed to do, to my mind at least. But that's another story.

Sandhya Iyer said...

That last scene where Kitty talks to her father I found to be a rather important one in fact. Feel free to disagree with me, but the way I saw it, her father's ability to put duty above his own liking, stirs and completely awakens her soul. The virtuosity and selflessness she saw earlier in Walter and Sister Superior, now she sees in her own father towards her. It heightens her sense of regret, but it also finally puts her at ease. There is spiritual clensing in the act of sacrifice and selflessness, and this realisation hits Kitty hardest in the last scene. It's in this truly awakened state that she seeks redemption.

Alexander said...

I really need to re-read this novel! I will do so immediately after finishing 'Pride and Prejudice', if I can see at all afterwards of course. Your point about the last scene is compelling; I am eager to check out how it would agree/disagree with my feelings about it. We'll come back to this discussion soon.

Alexander said...


I am curious what you think about Walter's last words. I have just found this 'Elegy' by Goldsmith. It's very funny. For my part it seems to me that Walter demonstrated on his dead bed a sense of humour of rare charm : 'The dog it was that died' must be a reference to his own death when he brought Kitty to this horrible place to cause HER death. As far as I could understand, the poem is about a dog and a benign missionary who were great friends until the dog bit him; all people were horrified, but then miracle happened: the missionary lived and the dog it was that died. -:)

Sandhya Iyer said...

Wow, Did Walter really say that in the end! I always thought Walter never really wanted his wife to die. Yes, he wanted to punish her, but there was still a trace of contemptuous affection for her in, I would think :-) Maybe I am confusing the book with the film. But at least in the film, there is ample evidence that he doesn't wish her to be dead.

Alexander said...

Oh, yes, he even confessed that to her - although in his laconic manner: 'At first' - when she asked him if that had been the idea of her comming here. I am not sure though who it was that he was more anxious to kill: her or himself.

No, the movie was quite different. Walter was much more human there, and his last words, as far as I remember, were 'I'm sorry'. He certainly didn't want her dead and their reunion was nicely done. And retaining his death saved the movie from too much melodrama.

It is somewhat funny in the book, if a scene of someone dying from cholera can be funny at all, that she didn't get the meaning of his words and thought he was just being delirious. It was Waddington later who told her that it is the last line of Goldsmith's 'Elegy'. But there is nothing about her reflections about the quote.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Yeah, that's the thing. Walter's character in the book is not as 'defined' as the one in the film. He is almost a peripheral character. But that line is strange indeed. Why would he say that when he's dying? It sounds a bit funny as you say.

Alexander said...

I've just watched the movie again, and I've enjoyed it a great deal again, so I have to correct myself about Walter's last words: 'Forgive me' he said, not 'I'm sorry' as I said before.

It's funny thing to compare books and movies - and a bit stupid as well since both mediums are totally different. For my part to say that I like the movie more than the book, it must have been a very bad book indeed. The book, it seems to me, gives much greater freedom to the reader than the movie does to the one who watches it. But the movie has a far greater power to create visual illusion than the book. Fancy comparing both.

For all who care, here is the complete 'An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog' by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774), with the last line of which Walter chose to finish his earthly stay in an uncommonly sardonic manner. (I tell you, he wanted the Chinese cholera jungles to do the trick with Kitty!)

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene'er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp, and hound,
And curs of low degree.

The dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad, and bit the man.

Around from all the neighboring streets,
The wondering neighbors ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied;
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

P. S. Thank you very much for Shelley, Sandhya. As a sign of my gratitude, I offer you a mad dog.-:)

P. P. S. Next question in our 'Maugham Title Trivia': Where does 'Cakes and Ale' come from?

Anonymous said...

shall some one tell me about the conflict between two kinds of love:the spiritual and the romantic one.

Unknown said...

I fell that when the movie had Walter and Kitty make love while in the jungle changed the whole point of the book. I was very disappointed to see that they reconciled even for that one night. I don't believe Walter would ever forgive her enough to have that happen. I think it also somehow lessens Kitty's "growth". It just ruined the movie for me.

Unknown said...

Hello Sandy,
I have just "discovered" your blog and your review...
it is really fascinating and impressive to read your opinion about the book as well as film...I have seen the film and you have given me an inspiration to read the book:)
Anyway, let me Thank you for your time, your, ideas, way of describing and explaning...everything I highly appreciate and above all, such a way of learning English for me:)
Wishing you, Sandy, all the best, have an enjoyable time to read and share:)

Unknown said...

Hello everyone,
I have just seen the film on I-player and have a rather different review...
Here we go...
As Kitty descends the stairs at home she is watched by Walter and she delivers her mother a very artificial smile as she passes her.
Both Walter and Kitty begin their marriage on an equal footing.
Kitty marries Walter only to escape her mother...Walter admits knowing this later in the film.
Walter doesn't 'love' Kitty...He desires her.
Kitty has an affair with Charles because he understands her.
At the Chinese play he is witty and profound and it strikes her chord...Sitting beside her in the theatre he describes the actors gestures and Kitty recognises herself. Look at her face...she is afraid. Then as a roguish charmer he admits he is a sham and the tension is gone. They laugh. She falls in love with that.
There is a reference to this later when at their neighbours having a drink whilst the Chinese girl dances.
'She says I am a good man.'
Kitty replies, 'When did a woman ever love a man for his virtue?'
She then seduces Walter because she has a more mature view of where they are at and thinks it will relieve some tension...indeed it does.
He becomes less petty though still very critical. She tells him that she never liked his his virtuous trips round Venice etc...that she never pretended that she did...and he is still chippy with comments like, 'You certainly didn't.'
He is still in the mode of...He should never expected her to be up to him.
She however is big enough to ignore this. She just carries on telling him her preferences for life.
This paves the way for a big breakthrough.
When they are sitting together in the evening on more amicable terms Kitty is making windmills for the nunnery. She says that she is useless at the nunnery and he says he is useless shutting off the towns water.
'At last we have something in common', Kitty says as she blows her windmill around. Walter looks at her windmill turn.
At last they have found something in common. The next scene in the film is of the giant bamboo waterwheel inspired by his wife.
He can see at last past his thwarted desire. I repeat...desire not love.
Kitty still doesn't love him at all.
Then Walter hears her play the Satie piano piece at the convent.
She chose to play this as further seduction and he hears it as a reminder of his warm feeling for her.
Kitty asks why Walter didn't break the door down on Charles and her...It was his bravery not his virtue that she was starved of.
'Too proud', or something he replies.
'I'm not so sure of that', is her reply and she looks half hopeful now.
Then comes his chance to show it when he rescues just in time from the nationals who have cornered her. END OF PART 1. TOO LONG APPARENTLY. PART 2 TO FOLLOW

Unknown said...

'Too proud', or something he replies.
'I'm not so sure of that', is her reply and she looks half hopeful now.
Then comes his chance to show it when he rescues just in time from the nationals who have cornered her.
Now her love begins.
Walters love only begins when she tells him she is pregnant and doesn't know who the father is.
He is forced to be less self obsessed. Slowly he says to her, 'Well it doesn't matter now', and its not cholera he's talking about.
Slowly he puts his arms around her. He does love her now.
Kitty doesn't finally love him until her last meeting with the Mother Superior.
The mother shuns duty. Says that she herself fell for god naively in a state of passion...This echoes Kitty and Charles. The Mother Superior says they are out of love now...She sits with god on the sofa in silence now.
She tell Kitty that it is only when you combine duty with love that you find a state of grace...Kitty recognises this. She has done her duty to Walter and she has also enjoyed his show of bravery in the alley. She is ready to love him now, and she does. Proves it to them both. Happy ever after? No
He is buried quickly as he would have wanted and he is gone.
She goes back to the she in the hill and tries to stop the maid putting his things away. She doesn't want him gone. But finally she gives in. She realises that we come and then we go.
In the florist she has moved on...and back to where she was. Just as we all do.
'Do you like flowers mummy?'
'It seems silly growing them and then they die'.
This is a quote from her hated mother being repeated by Kitty...reverting to her history...and a reference to her marriage as well.
Kitty and Walter both learned how to love and loose. Of course she told Townsend to piss off.
And then when he dies

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