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The Painted Veil

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Eleanor Yung

on 22 October 2013

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Transcript of The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil
Summary
Kitty fears she has been caught having an affair with Charles Townsend in flagrante by her husband, Walter
She begins to wonder how to diffuse the situation if she is indeed confronted by Walter
The incident inspires her reflection upon Townsend and Walter --> introduction into her background
Flashback to her frivolous youth and the events leading up to her marrying Walter --> shedding light upon the reasons for her adultery
Themes
Demands of society - the trappings society places upon people, and the trappings that people place upon themselves because of society
1920s British colony - rigid, set ideals, certain male-female roles, treatment and dynamics
Social hierarchy, marriage, and appearances play a vital role
The eponymous 'painted veil' - upper class society that is centered around class and looks; human propensity towards delusion
Characters
Kitty:
Skittish: ‘It was so frightening that Kitty, her nerves failing her, opened her mouth to scream’, ‘quaking’, ‘she was crying’
Shallow/superficial: focuses on appearance - her criticism of Dorothy and Walter is based almost entirely on their looks (and partly because of her affair), e.g. 'she could never have been pretty with anything but the prettiness of youth', 'When Kitty began to think of him at all she was surprised that he should have such good features...', whilst not showing much understanding of personality --> hints at her being a poor judge of character (and hence giving inaccurate descriptions) and being emotionally stunted
Foolish, lacking foresight and preferring to live in the moment: she dances her youth away and fails to find a husband in seven years; does not plan ahead should Walter confront her about her affair
Techniques
In media res opening:
--> leaves part of the story a mystery, intrigues readers
--> pathway into an introduction to Kitty's background

Narrative structure:
Chapters 1-2 in the present; 3 is of Kitty's thoughts; 4 is a flashback to when Kitty first arrived in Hong Kong; 5 continues with the action in 1-2; 6, through Kitty noticing her mother's photograph, leads into a flashback of the events leading up to Kitty's marriage in 7-10
--> Fleshes out her character by introducing her upbringing and the social context, begins to shed light upon why she commits adultery; increases tension/intrigue as readers do not yet know what the consequences of her adultery will be (cliffhanger)
Chapters 1-10
Role and perception of women
Ultimate goal in life would be to get a good marriage - no chance of developing a career
Behind-the-scenes control/manipulation (at least with Mrs Garstin, and to an extent, Dorothy Townsend) - in some cases prove themselves more capable than men
Young, credulous women - playthings for men (reflected in the superficiality of the affair - focus is on appearances; Townsend is always keen to charm her but also treats her like a child - 'pretty little head' etc.)
Marriage
Gender dynamics
Women often treated as the traditionally weaker sex, reliant on, submissive to and defined (at least in social standing and at gatherings) by their husbands (both Mrs Garstin and Kitty, hence the former's desperation to push her husband to be a K.C.)
However this appears to be overturned in practice
Men (as a sign of masculinity) take the lead, ready to reassure a woman in distress (P.2-3) and act as the courageous party; women apparently unhappy with a man who does not take charge or provide for them
Social standing and reputation
Social standing defines the way one is viewed and treated e.g. 'Kitty wondered whether Mrs Townsend thought her a little common. She flushed,' (P.7) or 'she had understood that as the wife of the Government bacteriologist she was of no particular consequence' (P.8); high standing is seen as success
Desire for high social position and repute becomes a driving force and a cause of alienation - as seen with Mrs Garstin and her family
Questionable how important social standing is however - does it truly define a person or is it only perceived to?
The most vital thing for a woman - defines her standing and future
Embarrassment to be unmarried while others were: 'It wouldn't be very nice to be a bridesmaid at Doris's wedding...And then Doris as a married woman and herself single!...it would make her seem older. It would put her on the shelf.'
Often out of convenience and ambition (P.16-17) than love, and influenced by the older generation
The best marrying age would be 18 - beyond that a good marriage is hard to find - 'she warned her daughter...she would soon miss her market', 'with anger in her heart for the beautiful daughter who had missed her chances she set her standard a little lower' --> emphasis on youth, reflection of rigid society
Appearances vs reality
Mrs Garstin's pretense in all that she does (P.11-14), including dying her hair, 'the words she spoke had no connection to her thoughts', and most obvious in 'She wrapped sparkling Moselle in a napkin and thought guests took it for champagne' --> pride, desire for social approval, determined never to reveal any weakness
Kitty initially thinking she will still have time to make a match with an 'ideal' suitor
The Townsends (and their marriage) and Walter are not as they initially seem (or at least through Kitty's eyes - the unreliability of superficial first impressions)
Kitty (con't)
Selfish and even callous: 'She had never cared for Walter...' (P.10), 'she would fling the truth in his teeth' '"I hate Walter," she answered', 'took it for granted that he should love and cherish them' '"...you knew by now when a young man was in love with you"/"I wouldn't marry him if he were," said Kitty lightly.'
Proud, haughty and self-entitled: 'no one whose position and income were satisfactory asked her to marry him' (given that most men interested in her would not actually have been 'penniless') 'She thought herself as pretty as ever, prettier perhaps'
Walter Fane
The foil to Charles Townsend - without glib charm, quiet and intelligent (P.18: '[he] never talked of her and very little of himself', 'He was rather silent...but when he talked it was not stupidly'
To Kitty, he is detached and awkward (P.20: 'he had remained as aloof and impenetrable as ever', 'his conversation remained strangely impersonal') --> this characterisation changes as the story progress and Kitty's perception alters
Walked over by his wife - reflection of their tense, distant relationship, and Kitty's shallowness (though not yet the clearest as we have not yet seen them interact in the present timeline)
Charles Townsend
Dominant in the relationship - the masculine protector, confident and reassuring in a crisis (or so appears initially)
Impatient, easily bored, as soon revealed later on - Kitty to him is just a distraction, unable to conceal some of his true feelings - ‘he whispered irritably’
The superficial charmer: ‘He forced his lips to smile and his voice retained the gentle,persuasive tone the effect of which he was so fully conscious of’ (P.3), ‘“It was until you came in,” he answered’ (P.6)
Mrs Garstin
Shrewd, experienced, socially-attuned - 'she recognised...she could achieve success through him', 'set herself to cultivate the people who might be useful...' (P.12)
Ambitious, even audacious - pushes and nags her husband mercilessly to make him a K.C. and further her social ambitions, brought up her daughters to make advantageous marriages
Both controlling and self-controlled - she dominates the family (especially her passive husband), and also 'let no one in her immediate circle, which to her was the world, see how mortified she was the frustration of her hopes.'
Mrs Garstin (con't)
Callous and determined: 'she retorted that the proverb was the last refuge of the mentally destitute', 'she gave him no peace' (P.13), 'hard affability', '[gave] Kitty a piece of her very unpleasant mind'
'Stupid'? In a way, she sacrifices any chance for happiness, emotional or familial satisfaction for the pursuit of social ambition, which in turn is never quite fulfilled ('disappointments', 'frustration', 'exasperated')
In a way, shows the reason for Kitty's warped character - under the wing of such an emotionally stunted parent she too becomes devoted to appearances and casually callous
Echoes the 'painted veil' idea - the pursuit of the superficial without realising there might be more to life)
Mr Garstin
Practical: 'He was afraid that as a K.C. he would get no work...He suggested to her the possibility that his income would be halved...His misgivings were justified' - has no desires for social prestige
Reticent - suppress his disappointment and discontent (P.13-14)
Passive, unambitious: 'he had not the will to advance himself''
Henpecked and treated badly at home - 'it had always seemed perfectly natural that he should lead a dog's life in order to provide for them...the indifference they had felt for him was tinged with an exasperated contempt...He was a stranger to them' --> reflection of emotional repression, a detached family
Techniques
Unreliable narrator (Kitty)
Snobbish, spoiled and self-centered, which colours her descriptions (esp. of Walter and Doris) of which most may not be accurate
Reveals much about Kitty herself (especially her tendency to exaggerate)
Juxtaposes with her later transformation
Narrative interspersed with the personal thoughts/point-of views of characters (Mr and Mrs Garstin in Chapters 7-8) --> reflects their feelings towards the acts of others, sheds more light upon their characters and motives
Juxtaposition of characters: Kitty with Doris, Charles with Walter
Surroundings
The curio dealer's house where the affair was usually carried out - 'filthy little house', 'dark flight of stairs'
Sense of confinement --> apparently stuck in her marriage
Juxtaposition with the reasons many English women of the times had in trying to move to colonies like Hong Kong
Culture shock --> reflects upon Kitty's personality: love of aesthetics and a clean, upper-class lifestyle --> echoed in the despondence she feels later when Walter forces her to travel to inland China
Detachment within family/marriage
Familial detachment amongst the Garstins (P.14): '...he had always been silent at home, and no one in his family noticed a change in him. His daughters never looked upon him as anything but a source of income...It never occurred to them to ask themselves what were the feelings of the subdued little man', the matriarchal control (P.17), rivalry between sisters
Distance between Kitty and Walter: '...he had remained as aloof and impenetrable as ever', 'it had irked and bored her to her husband's caresses. SHe wanted to have nothing more to do with him'
Society which forces people into emotional repression and distance? Or is it because of personality?
Full transcript