W. Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil

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The Painted Veil Summary

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The Painted Veil is a 1925 novel by British author W. Somerset Maugham, which was first serialized in Cosmopolitan and Nashs Magazine. It focuses on a young debutante named Kitty Garstin, who, after rejecting dozens of marriage proposals, finds herself marrying an eccentric doctor named Walter Fane. As Fane travels overseas to fight a cholera epidemic in a small Chinese village, the marriage deteriorates and Kitty becomes unfaithful. However, later events make Kitty regret her actions, as she discovers Walter’s selfless nature when it may be too late. Exploring themes of self-sacrifice and regret as it follows Kitty’s emotional journey, and heavily influenced by Maugham’s study of science and his work at a teaching hospital in London, The Painted Veil remains one of Maugham’s most widely read and acclaimed novels. It has been adapted to the screen three times: a 1934 version starring Greta Garbo; a loose adaptation in 1957 called The Seventh Sin; and the 2006 adaptation starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.

The story is told from Kitty’s perspective, a young woman who has spent her early youth enjoying her social life, despite her domineering mother’s attempt to find her the perfect husband. By the age of twenty-five, she’s declined dozens of marriage proposals. Her mother, worried that Kitty has missed her window, urges her daughter to accept a proposal from Dr. Walter Fane, a bacteriologist whom Kitty finds odd. Kitty, worried that her younger, less attractive sister Doris will get married before she does, accepts reluctantly. Kitty and Walter get married and depart for Hong Kong, where Walter has been stationed. Kitty is in a hurry to leave because Doris is going to have a much bigger wedding soon. As they settle in Hong Kong, Kitty meets Charlie Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary. He’s tall, handsome, and charming, and they begin an affair. Two years later, Walter observes his wife and Charlie together. The lovers suspect they’ve been discovered, but assume that Walter won’t intervene and Charlie vows to stand by Kitty. As Charlie is Walter’s superior in the division, he imagines that Walter will want to avoid scandal. Kitty realizes that her husband knows he’s being cheated on, and comes to despise him for his cowardice. However, she soon notices that he starts to behave differently towards her, as he watches her more closely.

One day, Walter gives Kitty an ultimatum. She will either accompany him to the Chinese mainland, where he must deal with a cholera epidemic, or he will divorce her. He says he’ll allow Kitty to divorce him if Dorothy Townsend also divorces Charlie, allowing Kitty and Charlie marry immediately. Kitty visits Charlie, but he refuses to leave his wife. Kitty realizes that Charlie has no desire to make any sacrifices for their relationship. When she arrives home, Walter has already packed for both of them, knowing Charlie would let her down. She decides she has no choice but to accompany Walter to China. . There, she meets Waddington, a British deputy commissioner who knows Charles well and paints an unflattering picture of him. He introduces her to the French nuns who care for the sick and orphaned children of the Cholera epidemic at great personal risk. Walter, meanwhile, is immersed in his attempts to manage the cholera epidemic. He is respected by everyone present because of his self-sacrifice and the kindness he shows towards the sick. Kitty, however, still struggles to find him attractive. She meets with the Mother Superior of the convent who puts Kitty to work caring for the older children, but keeps her away from the sick and dying. Kitty comes to view the Mother Superior as a mentor.

Kitty soon learns that she’s pregnant, and believes that Charles is the father. When Walter confronts her about this, she states that she doesn’t know, not wanting to lie to her husband anymore. Kitty has been transformed by her time in China, and has started to see herself as a different, more fulfilled person. However, tragedy strikes when Walter falls ill with cholera, possibly due to experimenting on himself to find a cure. Kitty cares for him on his deathbed, and he shares his last words with her. She returns to Hong Kong, where Dorothy Townsend opens her home to her. Kitty is now mistakenly seen as a heroine who willingly followed her late husband into danger. At the Townsend home, she’s seduced by Charles again and has sex with him, despite knowing he’s vain and shallow. She feels disgusted with herself, and finally tells him what she thinks of him. She returns to Britain, finding out en route that her mother has passed away. Her father, a successful lawyer, becomes Chief Justice of a small Caribbean colony, and she decides to accompany him there. Kitty vows to ensure that her child is brought up to be a good person and to avoid the mistakes she made.

William Somerset Maugham, known by the pen name W. Somerset Maugham, was a British playwright, novelist, and short story writer who was among the most popular writers of his era. Trained as a physician, he wrote as a hobby at first, but his first novel sold so rapidly that he left medicine to write full-time. He served with the Red Cross in the First World War, and worked in Switzerland and Russia with the British Secret Intelligence Service. Many of these experiences were worked into his writing. In his incredibly prolific writing career, he wrote twenty novels, over a dozen short story collections,  and over thirty plays.