The Painted Veil is
the story of a shallow young woman who is changed for the better by
hardship. Kitty Garstin comes from an upper-middle-class London family.
Her dreadful mother, disappointed in her husband’s limited career, puts
her hopes on Kitty, the prettier of her two daughters, marrying well.
But Kitty gets to age 25 without a suitable husband prospect, and then
panics and marries a shy bacteriologist temporarily home from his job
in Hong Kong. Walter takes her to Hong Kong; Kitty realizes right away
that the marriage was a mistake. She has an affair with British
colonial official whom she mistakenly thinks returns her devotion.
Walter’s revenge is to take Kitty along when he goes to an inland
Chinese town to fight a cholera epidemic. There Kitty is affected by
contact with both the misery all around and the serenity and
selflessness of a group of French nuns. Cholera claims Walter’s life,
and Kitty returns to England determined to care for her widowed father
and learn what love really means.
Maugham clearly intended to show Kitty’s personal growth, but it’s unclear how much blame he puts on her. A woman’s options in the 1920s were few. Kitty was the victim of her ambitious mother; of the husband who saw her as more of a doll than a human person; and of the much-older lover who misled her. A pregnant Kitty makes a feminist statement at the end: “I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan't make the mistakes I've made. When I look back upon the girl I was I hate myself. But I never had a chance … I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed of herself . . . “
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