The Painted Veil (1925)

Image result for the painted veil book cover vintage

Author: W. Somerset Maugham

Finished Reading on 7/29/17

 

I had an inkling for a long time that I would like Maugham’s writing and I certainly wasn’t disappointed when I did read his work for the first time. He will be one of those authors that I continually come back to like Amy Tan, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I know it’s a crude way to evaluate a piece of literature but I have two 1-10 scales on which I rate books for my convenience so that I can remember at a glance what I thought of their quality. The first is how much I appreciated the book, this would deal with the more literary criticism side of things. The second is how much I enjoyed the book regardless of literary merit. This book received a 10 and a 10 whereas the average score for both categories is a 7. I’ve rarely given books below a 5 because I usually choose books that I know I’m going to appreciate and enjoy anyways and if I don’t, I will stop reading them. So, the scale is a bit skewed I suppose.

 

First of all, I was won over by Maugham’s writing style. He is efficient but not bland. He is emotive without gushing. He makes crisp, vivid descriptions and moves on. He chooses carefully what exactly in a scene or a moment he wants to describe. This selectiveness gives the reading a realistic quality for in life, we don’t pay attention to every detail, do we? Something here or there catches our eyes and it is only when we focus greatly do we take everything in. I might be making a toasted sandwich and the melting of the cheese rather than the burning of the bread captures my senses for a moment before I take the sandwich from the stove and eat it. All writers must practice this art, but Maugham does it exceptionally well. His images really impress themselves upon your mental eye. Beyond the details, his characters’ feelings, thoughts, and expressions come alive on the pages. Not only can you see them in your mind’s eye, you feel as if you know them, as if they too have been a part of your life.

 

Of the story itself I thought it was a blessed inversion of The Awakening by Kate Chopin which is a novel I deplore with everything in me. The Painted Veil, set in Hong Kong and the Chinese countryside, begins with the adulterous relationship between Kitty, the main character, and a married man, Charles. This moment, at the very beginning of the novel, is Kitty’s low point. From there she grows in maturity, character and true independence. Kitty’s husband finds out about her affair and forces her to see her lover for what he truly is and then takes her away into a little rural, Chinese village. Her husband does not forgive her but Kitty begins to see how silly her dalliance was, how she had always been blessed with a good man though she isn’t attracted to him and that she had been foolish to be so deceived in Charles, a man who would never sacrifice anything in his comfortable life to marry her. While Kitty tries to reconcile her relationship with her husband she begins working in a convent and it is there that she learns that there is something more in life than the flirtations, luxuries and trivialities of which her life had previously consisted of.

 

Kitty doesn’t shrug off her motherly duties (she is pregnant at the end of the novel and determined to raise her child well) or does she run off into affairs to find her freedom. Rather she finds her freedom in a mature and strong character which seeks to do some good, regardless of what situation you find yourself in, rather than trying to suck as much comfort as you can out of life. Her feminism is pure because in the end it isn’t about her relationship status or her womanly duties, it is about who she is and her character not what she does.

 

I absolutely think this is piece, though written by a man (and if we as women say that we can write from a man’s perspective then we must be gracious toward men writing from a female perspective), is a phenomenal piece of feminist literature. Women don’t need some sort of sexual “awakening” to find themselves. We don’t need to chase after men, hoping they will define us and give our lives meaning. What women and men and every human needs is a “spiritual” awakening. A sense that there is something out there greater than ourselves to live for, a vision of living the good life by doing good for others and being the kind of person who has such a purpose. So ultimately, this book isn’t just about womanhood, it’s about the decision that every human faces in their own heart.

 

Quotes:

 

Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.

 

I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.

 

Though her [the Mother Superior] conversation was interwoven with her religion, Kitty felt that this was natural to her and that no effort was made to influence the heretic.

 

A little smoke lost in the air, that was the life of man.

 

I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.

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