The Painted Veil (or, Loveless in the Time of Cholera)

The Painted VeilThe Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read so many books about affairs tearing marriages apart. But could a passionate, torrid affair bring a husband and wife closer together? Could the affair be what allows them to finally love each other? This premise intrigues me. It turns out that it’s not the premise of The Painted Veil, though. I think I’d been misled by my hazy memories of the movie.

Kitty Fane is a ridiculous, vain woman—and she is the first to admit it. She only married Walter because her youth was fading and she couldn’t let her younger sister beat her to the altar. Walter sees right through her, but he doesn’t care. He can’t help it—he loves her. When she agrees to marry him and go to Hong Kong for his career as a bacteriologist, he’s thrilled.

He’s not so thrilled when he catches Kitty having an affair with the dashing Charlie. He offers Kitty an ultimatum: follow him deep into the jungles of China in the middle of a cholera epidemic, or get served. When Kitty protests, he makes what seems like a generous compromise: If Kitty can convince Charlie to divorce his wife, Walter will let Kitty divorce him. Then Kitty and Charlie will be free to marry each other and Walter will step aside. Kitty is sure that Charlie will agree to it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. The cholera epidemic it is.

Kitty and Walter get carried on chairs through the jungle into a remote community. The description of the landscape, the heat, and the dread is evocative. While I wasn’t too fond of Kitty, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She becomes reckless, eating raw salad despite the warnings. She wants to die—if only to spite Walter. While her husband doctors the sick, Kitty gets to know the customs officer and the French nuns, who marvel at her bravery for accompanying her husband on this dangerous mission.

I kept waiting for them to fall back in love, but, as I discovered, that’s not what this story ended up being about. These days, it’s common to believe that love is a choice. I heard Dr. Phil yell it to his audience one time: “Love is not a feeling. It’s a CHOICE!” Maugham would beg to differ. We can’t choose whom we love; if we could, wouldn’t everything be so much simpler? Everyone loves the wrong person. We love bad people even when good people are right there, offering themselves to us. Kitty understands, on a very deep level, that Charlie is a terrible person. She loves him anyway. Eventually she finds peace within herself, and she realizes she doesn’t love him anymore, and that is the greatest feeling of freedom and peace she has ever achieved. (Sadly, she is not able to hang onto it for long.)

At the same time, we can’t choose to love people even when they deserve it. Kitty learns that her husband is revered in these parts. He is a kind and brave doctor, sacrificing himself to save others in the midst of an epidemic. He adored Kitty and now she respects him, but it’s too late. She can’t love him and he has closed himself off to her. They’re both trapped.

The characters in The Painted Veil are not likable, so if you enjoy books with people you can root for, this isn’t it. There are also many racist and imperialist attitudes espoused by the characters, though I wouldn’t call the text itself racist. It’s clear that Kitty’s attitudes are unenlightened ones. She does work to become a more tolerant person, but she is nevertheless guided by her baser instincts. That is her (and maybe all of our) ultimate downfall.

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