Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Painted Veil" by Somerset Maugham

I saw the 2006 movie “The Painted Veil” on TV some years ago and somehow couldn’t quite forget Edward Norton playing the always tense and melancholic Walter Fane, who actually has a sensitive and loving heart beneath what appears to be a cold and distant outer shell.

Recently in an online chat with other readers at Goodreads, I was asked to name my favorite movie which was adapted from a novel and I answered “The Painted Veil” just because I loved the movie very much as I remembered it. But I had never read the novel before. So I decided to read the novel. When I finished reading it, I felt the novel impresses me even more than the movie.

The novel moves me on several levels.

The most elementary, or shallow, layer, is in the theme of unrequited love. As hackneyed such a theme as it is, here within the storyline there still lurks something that disturbs the heart profoundly. Walter, being perfect as he is as a human being (although not in Kitty’s eyes, which makes it ironical), doesn’t mind giving without expecting return in his one-sided love relationship with Kitty. Well aware of Kitty’s shallowness of character, frivolity and fatuousness, he is willing to love and dote on her with all his heart. His love for Kitty is unconditional, until he finds out her infidelity, which shatters him with no hope for salvation. But because his fantasy of love is so pure and his devotion so unrestrained, he is, whether conscious of it or not, apt to meet with utter disappointment in the end. Sand castles are built to be erased. When he decides to go to cholera-stricken Mei-tan-fu in China, dragging Kitty along, he is determined to inflict on himself (and Kitty too, initially) the ultimate punishment.

As Kitty thought aloud in the novel, “Because he had dressed a doll in gorgeous robes and set her in a sanctuary to worship her, and then discovered that the doll was filled with sawdust, he could neither forgive himself nor her. His soul was lacerated. It was all make-believe that he had lived on, and when the truth shattered it, he thought reality itself was shattered. It was true enough, he would not forgive her because he could not forgive himself.”

What Walter stirs in me is not so much pity for him as sympathy with his helpless reliance on mirages of love for survival. It is his deadly weakness, to be sure. But isn’t there a part of us that tends to believe what we want to believe? The pathos of the story lies in Walter’s inability to free himself of his over-indulgence in fantasyland.

The second layer of the story is the gradual conversion process of Kitty Fane from the worthless, self-indulgent and frivolous woman to the independent-thinking and compassionate individual who is at last free from the values she was brought up to believe in. Indeed, Kitty is justified to blame her mother Mrs. Garstin for her tortuous learning curve in life. It was Mrs. Garstin who nudged her into marrying Walter just for the sake of material comfort and nothing else. In Mrs. Garstin’s mind, a woman would be foolish not to use her beauty as a bargaining chip in exchange for a qualified provider of means. This brings to mind Ruth, the supercilious mother of Rose, in the movie “Titanic”, who insists that Rose should marry into high society. In both cases, the mothers are too callous to even have a clue what disastrous consequences might result from their forcing their daughters into unhappy and loveless marriages.

In “The Painted Veil”, Kitty is lucky to come upon soul-cleansing encounters in Mei-tan-fu where she stares death in the face every day and witnesses the selfless kind acts of the French nuns, which at the same time moves her and shames her to the core about the worthless life she leads. Fortunate for her, her chance for salvation comes knocking on the door and her life is changed forever. Her only regret is the tragic loss of Walter to the pestilence.

The third layer, which is tied to the second, is the championing of the idea that women should strive to be free and independent individuals and learn not to rely on men, which idea, given the timeframe of the novel, is a bold concept. It is Kitty’s own painful life experiences that lead her to that awakening. She has come a long way indeed, after first being betrayed by the selfish and narcissistic Charlie Townsend, who she erroneously trusts to be the love of her life, then suffering the silent alienation by her husband Walter while adjusting to an isolated life in inhospitable Mei-tan-fu, then discovering that she’s with child, then losing Walter tragically to cholera and, lastly, subjecting herself once more to degradation at the seduction of Townsend.

In the last Chapter, Kitty said to her father: “Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.”

We all make mistakes in our lives, sometimes serious ones. Everyone deserves a second chance. Kitty is no exception.

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