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.

Analyzing The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham – Love, Death, and Christian Parallels

Maugham’s The Painted Veil is a sordid yet strangely beautiful 1920s novel about betrayal and loyalty during a cholera epidemic. It was so excellent, I wanted to share my thoughts before my reactions grew stale (hence the lofi / technical difficulties). In spite of its dated-ness, I do recommend this book overall – it’s definitely joined my top 10 novels of all time.

Nota bene: While I usually read up on an author before or during reading their books for the first time, I actually went into the novel (and my review) knowing nothing about Maugham, let alone his religious views. It turns out he was an agnostic and did not believe in God. Perhaps then the religious themes that stood out so strongly to me were, from his perspective, limited to this novel. Still, I feel the interpretation is a valid one, based on the quotes cited (and others).