Can We Change
I recently attended a literary lunch sponsored by Literary Affairs during which my favorite UCLA literature professor, Lynn Batten, deciphered The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham. The book discussion became heated about whether or not the main character, Kitty Fane, actually changed over the course of the novel. At the beginning of each year many of us take stock and try to tweak our lives, but how much do we need to modify before we feel like we’ve successfully changed?
5th Avenue Books
I love discussing classics because I know the book, by definition, is a worthwhile read. I carry a list of classics I’m going to read in the near future, so if I’m visiting a used bookstore I can look for it. I found The Painted Veil at 5th Avenue Books in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. The store is huge, over 40,000 books, and designed to make it easy to meander around. The staff had the right touch of leaving me alone to discover and helping me find books.
I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of W. Somerset Maugham’s writing, now including The Painted Veil. Kitty Fane, the main character, is a beautiful and shallow woman who expected to marry well. In reaction to her younger sister’s engagement, Kitty hurriedly marries Walter Fane, a medical researcher working for the civil service in Hong Kong. She doesn’t love him; she doesn’t even respect him. When he discovers that she is having an affair with the biggest cad in the colony, his love for her changes to hatred. Walter tells Kitty that he knows of her affair and aptly describes her, “I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you.” In reaction to the affair, Waler takes an assignment deep in China in the midst of a cholera outbreak.
Kitty Starts to Change – Spoiler Alert but only the most obvious facts
Without any options, Kitty is forced to accompany Walter to an area offering only a good chance of death and no society or gaiety. Yet it is in this desperate situation that Kitty starts to change her values. After weeks of grueling travel, Kitty and Walter arrive at their run down bungalow. Kitty sleeps fitfully and wakes to see the dawn break from her porch, “in a moment, out of the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs . . .of an unimaginable richness. This was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter . . .it was the fabric of a dream. The tears ran down Kitty’s face and she gazed . . . Here was Beauty.” Just a few weeks out of British colonial society and Kitty sees beauty in something other than dresses and hairstyles.
Kitty meets the Mother Superior of the convent that cares for orphaned children and the sick. Kitty describes the Mother Superior as having a beauty that grew with her age due to her character of Christian charity. Kitty volunteers to work at the convent. Initially she feels nothing but distaste for the dirty, needy children, but she reminds herself of the “soft look which had transfigured so beautifully the countenance of the Mother Superior when . . . she had stood surrounded by those ugly little things, and she would not allow herself to surrender to her instinct.’ Kitty begins to find value in purposeful work, a sea change from her days of lunching, shopping and committing adultery in Hong Kong.
The Mother Superior praises Kitty for the generosity of her husband in all that he has done to help the convent. Kitty begins to see Walter through mature eyes and has “only contempt for herself because once she had felt contempt for Walter.” Kitty realizes that her affair was with a man as shallow as she, a man who does not have the qualities of her husband. She wants Walter to forgive her, not for her sake, she still feels no affection for him, “but for his own; for she felt that this alone could give him peace of mind.” Walter, rather than Kitty, catches cholera and dies.
Does Kitty Really Change? A Clue to the Reader’s Life View
While Kitty did not wish for Walter’s death and if a word from her would bring him back to life she would say it, as a widow she can’t help feeling a sense of freedom. However, she was in the back country of China, pregnant, and a widow. She travels to Hong Kong with the intent to return to her parents in London. It is here that she backslides and makes familiar mistakes. And here is the controversy, does this reversion to old habits mean she didn’t change or at least didn’t change enough? At the time that is what she thinks:
“Swine,” she flung at her reflection. “Swine.” Then, letting her face fall on her arms, she wept bitterly. Shame, shame! She did not know what had come over her. It was horrible . . . She had thought herself changed, she had thought herself strong, she thought she had returned to Hong Kong a woman who possessed herself; new ideas flitted about her heart like little yellow butterflies in the sunshine and she had hoped to be so much better in the future . . . She had thought herself free from lust and vile passions, free to live the clean and healthy life of the spirit . . . Weak, weak! It was hopeless, it was no good to try.
I find that Kitty did change and I do believe in turning over a new leaf. Kitty experienced a difficult trial and saw beauty and value in the people who battled hardship. The Kitty who left for the Chinese countryside wouldn’t have noticed the life of the Chinese around her because she looked right through them, they didn’t even exist for her. She would not have spent two minutes with a person like the Mother Superior. She held her husband in contempt as a weak fool. Real change isn’t a 180 turn or even a straight trajectory, change is full of backsliding. The issue becomes how do you respond to the mistake? Do you see it and try again? Or do you rationalize it and continue in your old ways? Kitty realizes what she had done. She leaves Hong Kong immediately and on talking with her father in London describes how she wants to raise her daughter (Kitty is convinced she will give birth to a girl): “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 what 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.”
Prof. Batten believes that how the reader interprets Kitty turns on the reader’s view on life, is that view hopeful or full of despair? I chose hope, always.