‘The Painted veil’ By Somerset Maugham: When Suffering Leads To Evolution

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Following the recommendations of my reading fellows but also out of longing for the British writing of the beginning of the 20th century, I spent my weekend in the company of a beautiful book, which I do not hesitate to recommend: ”The Painted Veil”.

About the author

William Somerset Maugham was a British playwright, novelist, and short-story writer, born in Paris in 1965, and died 91 years later in Nice, France. He spoke French before learning English, which, critics said, led to a purity of style. Orphaned before the age of 10, he was raised by an uncle and had a childhood lacking love, as evoked in the novel with strong autobiographical accents, “Of Human Bondage”. Although he became a doctor, he did not give up cultivating his vocation as a writer, publishing in 1897 his first novel, “Liza of Lambeth”. It sold out so quickly that Somerset Maugham gave up the medical profession and devoted himself to writing. During World War I, he first served the Red Cross and was later recruited by the British Secret Service. Among his best-known literary works I mention “Of Human Bondage”, “The Portrait of a Gentleman”, “The Razor’s Edge”, “The Painted Veil”.

About the book

“The Painted Veil” is the first book I read by Somerset Maugham, but it certainly won’t be the last. If I had to guess, I would have bet on the fact that this beautiful narration written in the third person belongs to a woman, not a man. I would have lost! And this only reinforces the fact that Somerset Maugham is able to lay on paper and convey a great sensitivity to the reader.

Although, at first, the novel seems to make the reader experience the emotional turmoil of a love trio happening in a British colony in China, it turns out that we are actually dealing with a Bildungsroman whose action is compressed in just a few weeks. The evolution concerns the beautiful but superficial Kitty, Walter’s young wife. Walter is the bacteriologist of the Government detached from London in colonial China. Kitty finds aut with disappointment that her social status, for which she had a cult inspired by her mother’s opportunism, is insignificant within the colony. This is because “the social position is decided by the husband’s occupation” and the research work that Walter does with professionalism and dedication is not reflected in notoriety and social appreciation.

Thus, Kitty, fed up with the conjugal routine and with a blasé husband unable to offer her amusement, and of whom she feels, rather, disgusted, will throw herself unreservedly and without precautions into the arms of the seductive Charlie, deputy colonial secretary at Ching Yan. Walter will discover the affair of the two lovers and this discovery will shake the emotional foundations of the young couple. For Walter, however, the suffering will take place in another emotional register, a deep one, because he loves his wife enormously and his spiritual amplitude and his intelligence are those of a truly gifted man.

The novel makes you love or hate the characters painted with great skill by the author, none of them being neglected. I was struck by the fact that absolutely all the characters will be defined, from the moment they are introduced to the reader, by their eyes and their way of watching around them, Somerset Maugham having, obviously, a weakness in this respect but also a great capacity to analyze physiognomic features in accordance with personality features.

The emotional drama presented is reinforced by the drama caused by the cholera epidemic that spreads death all over, at every single step, due to Walter’s suicidal involvement in the study of the deadly disease.

Kitty’s path of maturation from the young “stupid, evil and unlikeable” to the woman capable of philosophical reflections on life and death is as emotional as it is spectacular and it denotes the psychological finesse that the author is capable of. Physically, this road is marked, not by chance, by “the monument of a virtuous widow or a gifted scholar”. I leave it to you to discern the symbol.

Are we humans inclined to carelessly treat the love of those around us, out of habit and out of the belief that we deserve that love? Do we value love and devotion at fair value, only when we are in danger of losing them?

Does the victory of mind mean the ability to control our instincts (symbolized, in the text, by the “animal” within us) when those instincts are born out of immorality? Is this a perpetual conflict of human beings – reason versus instinct?

Somerset Maugham will help you ask such questions and find answers from different perspectives. Ah, and let’s not forget! The ending of the book is sublime!

If you want to know what Walter’s detachment hides (repulsion or suppressed suffering springing from love) or if the young couple overpassed the adultery and survived cholera, make yourself a cup of black tea and lie down comfortably in an armchair , immersing yourself in “The Painted Veil”. The book is Lust For Flying.

To the author:

Dear Sir, I loved or hated your characters, cause none of them let me emotionless. And the emotion is the very spirit of the book. Thank you for revealing it to me!

 Quotes (translation from Romanian edition):

  • “If nobody spoke unless he had something to say, the human race would very soon lose the use of speech.”
  • “One cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.”
  • “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.”
  • “If it is necessary sometimes to lie to others, it is always despicable to lie to oneself.”
  • “…the human race, like 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.”
  • “Wounded vanity can make a woman more vindictive than a lioness robbed of her cubs.”
  • “A little smoke lost in the air, that was the life of a man.”
  • “There is only one way to win hearts and that is to make oneself like unto those of whom one would be loved.”

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