the painted Veil

The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham 4.5 stars. A forbidden love affair. Analysis of gender roles. Philosophizing over the truth of a religious path in life. Criticism of class structure. Woohoo, I am THERE. This novel has it all. Before I get to the content and the societal critique this book presents, I need to say this book is beautiful. The words, the phrases, the descriptions and the character growth is amazing. Maugham is an artist and for nothing else, these are reasons to read this book. I now realize that my high school failed to assign me the really good classics and I somehow missed taking the right classes in college that would have given me the experience reading these books. How did I miss this book? Why did I never pick it up on my own? Years ago I read Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and while it was well written with interesting characters, it was not a book that I enjoyed. So it was only because of encouraging goodreads friends that I read The Painted Veil. This is a book that is not to be missed, If you enjoy audio books then I recommend listening to the BBC Productions audio version (not the Kate Reading version – I like Kate Reading, just not reading this book - -thank you Catie for that recommendation!)The story is framed in an interesting way, while the set up seems to be focused on love and marriage it is focused on (albeit in a subtle way) examining the role women have in society, their options and their choices. Guess what the moral of the story is? While remaining in the confines of traditional upper class society there are very limited choices for women. There are examples of women in this story – both unhappy and happy and fulfilled. The happy and fulfilled women are nuns who have dedicated themselves to the ministry of the sick and the poor, meaning they have completely exited from the traditional roles of wives and mothers and live apart from those expectations. The unhappy women are those that center their lives around the social structure of the upper class and the attainment of the best marriages for their daughters. The story begins with the main character Kitty who is a young lady by our modern standards but nearing the end of her ability to get a spouse due to her age. Kitty is beautiful, charming and raised to believe that her entire value lies in her looks and talents in making men want her. Kitty seems to believe in this as a valuable skill. Enter her last marriage option – a boring, unattractive research doctor Walter. Walter is portrayed as honorable and later in the story as the victim, but I didn’t buy in to that at all. Walter wants Kitty because of her charm and beauty and so he courts her and asks her to marry him. He does not know her and does not appreciate anything in her beyond her beauty. So we have a marriage now of two people enamored with Kitty’s appearance: Kitty and Walter. Sorry Walter, I can’t feel sorry for you or respect you. This book was published by Maugham in 1924-1925, it was serialized and published in a magazine. To me, this date time line is amazing. Maugham is making an amazing commentary that still stands as timely today: our value in life goes beyond appearance. Women’s value reaches beyond marriage. So thus far we have a typical set up – beautiful girl, boring well established man, a marriage and then the couple moves to Shanghai. The bulk of the story is set in both Shanghai and then a province of China. Kitty becomes further bored with her marriage, her husband often doesn’t notice her or pay attention to her. He is focused on his research and really, he married her to bed her - -right? His connection with her is tenuous and centered on what she can do for him carnally, nothing more. What is honorable about that? Eventually Kitty enters into an affair and her husband discovers her unfaithfulness. (not a spoiler) The rest of the story deals with Kitty attempting to atone for her crime, longing for her lost lover and learning that there is more to herself than her appearance. She gradually realizes there is more to life than just being a pretty girl on a man’s arm; and that there is more to life than being desired. Maugham very artfully, but subtlety contrasts Kitty with the older nuns who work in a rural orphanage. These woman are honorable, they have surrendered all worldly desires and they are not in the race to be a wife nor a beautiful decorative piece. Through knowing them, Kitty grows, is spiritually awakened and becomes a character that readers will want to know, to be friends with. She respects who the nuns are and what they have accomplished in life but she questions their surrender to a higher being and she questions the necessity of evolving as they have done while being dedicated to a religion. At the same time Kitty is spiritually awakened, but she further questions whether the Christian path the nuns have taken is the One path to spirituality. This questioning of religion and gender shocked me. Were mainstream published authors questioning gender and religion during the 1920s? I guess they were, but how the heck did I not know this? The story ends in a very satisfying and inspiring way. I highly recommend this story for everyone.