The Painted Veil – Integrity in Writing, the Power of Conversation, and Grief

Note: This post covers the same book as my vlog review, but I wanted to share some additional thoughts in written format as well, for those not interested in watching the longish video (understandably! 🙂 ).

“Love’s Labor’s Lost” – Or Not?

W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel centers around a young woman, Kitty Fane, who is unhappily married to her devoted but awkward husband Walter. Shortly after they move to Hong Kong, she meets charismatic, controlling, man-about-town Charlie Townsend, who finds Kitty to be both attractive and desparate enough to start a year-long affair. When Walter discovers the betrayal, he relocates himself and Kitty to the cholera-stricken village of Mei-tan-fu and promptly buries himself into the effort of administering to its suffering inhabitants. Angry and frightened, Kitty tries to scheme up ways she can get back to Hong Kong (and to Charlie), while becoming unconsciously more fascinated with Walter’s colleagues: Mr Waddington, a satirical British official, and two Catholic nuns, whose compassionate strength speaks to the spiritual struggles of Kitty in a way she has never realized before.

Being True to the Story

I have been looking for the word or phrase to sum up what I am trying to say, but I can only find one word: integrity.

Maugham was not a Christian himself, so while I found many Christian themes in the book, it is hard to speak of them as demonstrating “artistic integrity” since it is unlikely they reflected his own views. Still, he writes with incredible continuity and is true to his characters’ lives. Whether they act admirably or abominably, they behave in a way that is consistent with their values—and when they don’t, it’s an intentional, obvious disruption which leads them to a new realm of self-awareness.

Kitty’s spiritual journey is rife with hazards and failures, but there is an honesty in the narrative and a continuity in the way events unfold (and in how she reacts to them) which result in her becoming a better her. She never loses her identity as a passionate young woman, but she evolves so that those characteristics of herself—once used for wrong—can be used for right. I feel this sheds some light on the question of identity which I’ve been thinking about lately, or, at least, poses as a good example of how a person may change without losing who they are.

Why We Need Conversation More Than Ever

Throughout the book, Kitty “collects” conversations like you might collect seashells on the beach. They are not always good ones, but in the moment, and upon reflection, she begins to see a larger picture than the narrow one inside her brain. Conversation paired with action eventually reveals to her the truth about her husband Walter and her former, flawed understanding of what love is.

Today we are moving more and more towards atomic, asynchronous communication. Twitter has become every person’s vehicle to emit personal propaganda. (Twitter isn’t the only culprit, of course—Tumblr, Instagram, and LinkedIn are just a few more examples.) Much of it isn’t even an original thought: just a retweet of someone else’s thought from which you are to infer what the “retweeter” agreed with (if not the whole). We so willingly take on other people’s voices as if their speech is more true to our characters than our own. We quickly redirect our readers to other speakers, resting in those voices’ “authority” and experience primarily, ours remaining always secondary. This is not conversation.

Conversation—a good conversation, anyway—is something that doesn’t quite resemble any one person’s outlook entirely. It’s something everyone present builds together, mostly in speech but also in the silence. It forces you to drop the shields of propaganda, anonymity, and time, with the end result of having to listen to someone else between stating your piece. The better you listen, the more likely you are to come away stronger, whether you agree or not.

Kitty starts to find missing pieces of the puzzle of her life in conversations with Mr. Waddington and the Catholic nuns. True to life, it’s often the most unlikely people who can teach us something new.

Let Yourself Grieve

In the spoiler section of the video, I talked a lot about the Christian parallels I found in the protagonist’s redemption and reconciliation with another character. Maugham demonstrates through a particularly shocking plot twist that there is no one tragedy or event that can, on its own, change our hearts. We need repentance, redemption, and reconciliation: all three, to be complete.

Along similar lines, one thing I will just add to that is the importance of grief in healing. I often find myself wanting to “tough it out” when I’ve been through a painful experience, thinking that the pain in itself is sufficient emotion. But there’s a difference between pain and grief. Pain is receiving a hurt; grief is releasing it.

Kitty alternates between “shrugging it off” and feeling sorry for herself throughout the book, but I do not think she ever really grieves until the end of it. I speak with some experience when I say, this delays her healing and actually prolongs her vulnerability. Peace starts to appear within sight, or at least comprehension, when you finally let yourself mourn the loss and then, as a final resolution, bury it.


16 thoughts on “The Painted Veil – Integrity in Writing, the Power of Conversation, and Grief

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    pretty thorough analysis, it seemed to me… what i’ve read of Maugham makes me think of him as a pretty efficient scholar of the human condition. he was a good observer of others and had the sense to see from what wellsprings their actions sprang from… i might add that a person doesn’t have to be a Christian to have a sense of morality. imo, being moral is the best way for the species as whole to behave in order to provide a decent life for all, so it’s really a selfish habit of mind more than anything else…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Re: morality, I agree… in fact, some friends and I were discussing that very thing yesterday. 🙂 To some extent morality (IMO) arises from natural consequences of actions, and a desire to avoid certain consequences.

      I guess what surprised me was the form of the moral narrative Maugham used, which followed the Christian narrative (son -> father -> reconciliation). My assumption is he, either consciously or unconsciously, was writing with his British readership in mind and an audience who would quickly latch onto that from a religious/cultural background.


  2. Mudpuddle says:

    intentionality on Maugham’s part is certainly plausible; my impression, possibly erroneous, is that he was a bit devious… when i think about Maugham, i associate him with Graham Greene for some reason. If you haven’t read “Travels with my Aunt”, you might look for it; it’s very funny… there’s a great movie of it also…


      • I’m told Greene is worth reading (Joseph Pearce and Anthony Esolen, who often write on Catholic literature, have mentioned him), but I haven’t tried any of his work. Or rather, I picked one up in the library once and it didn’t spark my attention, so I moved on.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great review! – I concur with Mudpuddle, you should definitely read Greene. I’ve read quite a few of his books and find them excellent. My favorite is set during WWII and it’s entitled “An Affair To Remember.” The world Greene’s characters occupy is almost always a fallen one, and the mood of his work emphasizes the presence of sin and evil as a very real and palpable force. His Catholic influence shines through readily. Thus far I prefer Greene to Maugham, but it is purely because of the religious references, not their writing prowess. Have a good week.


    • That sounds really interesting! I admire the Catholics’ appreciation of (and contributions to) literature…Chesterton, Tolkien, and O’Connor I’m familiar with, and each a brilliant author in their own unique way.

      And yes, the photos are almost as if taken for this story! Mary Pickford was highly photogenic while reading. 🙂


  4. In its examination of the complexities of human relationships, this sounds a bit like Ida Elisabeth, a novel I’m (slowly) poking at — it’s about a woman who marries a man who turns out to be a man-child, something of a bum, so she leaves him to shack up with Mr. Right. But then the husband comes back into the picture, or so I’m told.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve only read The Painted Veil out of Maugham’s work & I loved his writing. I see Sigrid Undest was mentioned above. Kristin Lavransdatter is magnificent. I don’t think I could have handled it when I was an idealistic young mother but it was a powerful story!


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