W. Somerset Maugham’s novel the Painted Veil is today recognized as a 20th century classic. The novel itself takes its title from a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet that states, “Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life" (Maugham, ix)…
W. Somerset Maugham’s novel the Painted Veil is today recognized as a 20th century classic. The novel itself takes its title from a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet that states, “Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life" (Maugham, ix). One considers that both the sonnet and the title hold a great degree of insight into the novel’s inter-workings. Specifically, the novel follows a variety of characters through personal challenges and foibles that are revealed after removing the metaphorical ‘painted veil’. This recognition carries with it a number of direct questions for the novel. For instance, is the work a bildungsroman -- a novel of development – or is it merely a critique of human weaknesses? This essay argues that the novel functions to demonstrate that life is the continual negotiation between moments of development and human weakness, and as such the central theme is one of adaptation and change. Analysis Throughout the novel tremendous periods of change occurs, most notably in Kitty Fane’s life. The most notable developmental change in Kitty’s life occurs in direct relation to the specific places she lives and the people she encounters. One considers Kitty Fane’s life throughout the early stages of the novel as largely seeking a more firmly established identity or purpose. In the early stages of the novel Kitty’s weak identity is established as she faces pressure from her mother to marry. The text notes that, “Mrs. Garstin was a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious, and stupid woman" (Maugham, p. 19). This cruel and managing influence becomes a central area of concern in the novel as it drives much of Kitty’s decision-making. Not being able to recognize her mother’s social ambitions, Kitty rushes herself into an unhappy marriage with Walter Fane. Of course a notable shift in Kitty’s life occurs as she moves to Mei-tan-fu. Upon moving here, Kitty states, “I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas…and I think my soul hankers for the unknown” (Maugham, p. 153). This is a highly significant statement within the text as it indicates that Kitty has achieved a new purpose in life. To an extent the notion of this area as contributing to Kitty’s new purpose in life is directly attributed to her becoming involved with the French nuns; these individuals work with the poor and take care of the orphans in the area. One considers that throughout a great portion of Kitty’s life her actions have been motivated out of self-interest and her mother’s irrational expectations. Her move to Mei-tan-fu then has allowed her to remove herself from her dysfunctional and ineffective adulterous affair with Charlie Townsend, as well as discover and throw herself into a life-pursuit that extends beyond her immediate self-interests. These are both things that she could not achieve in London or in colonial Hong Kong. While Mei-tan-fu largely represents a period of awakening and stability for Kitty one recognizes that this peace is soon punctured by further moments of human weakness and strife. Despite Kitty’s new sense of purpose, her relationship with Walter is still recognized as containing considerable strife. Even Kitty’s newfound purpose and stability is not able to rectify the situation with Walter. It is not long before he gains cholera. It seems that to an extent Maugham implements Walter’s cholera as a sort of symbolic comment on the nature of their relationship as sick of dysfunctional. The text states, “I do not know what Walter has in that dark, twisted mind of his, but I’m shaking with terror. I think it may be that death will be really a release” (Maugham, p. 220). While Kitty is vague as to whose death would be a release it seems clear that the cholera in this instance functions outside of the direct realms of a plot device and more in terms of a symbolic comment on the nature of the relationship. From the perspective of the novel as one of development it seems ...
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15 Pages(3750 words)Literature review
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