Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham, is hard to read now, in our more post-colonial day.  It's the story of Kitty, a spoiled woman, who goes into plague-torn China and comes out a better, more empathic person.

Part of her growth comes in her reaction to the Chinese people.  At first, she thinks that they're all funny-looking and barbarous.  By the end of the novel, after caring for some of the plague victims in a convent, she learns that they're people too, and generally becomes less spoiled.  But the novel undercuts its own message.  Even as Kitty learns more about the Chinese, the novel gives us almost no Chinese people with any individuality at all.  Only two of them have names, and one of those (Colonel Yew) doesn't even have a speaking part.

Essentially, all of the Chinese people are in the novel to serve as catalysts for Kitty's personal growth.  The Europeans are nicely drawn individuals (Kitty's husband, the nuns in the convent, etc); only the Chinese are so treated like one big mass.

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