The Painted Veil
is a fascinating character study, simply presented and wonderfully concise (at a little over 200 pages). It is the story of pretty, selfish, vacuous Kitty Fane, who marries a man she doesn't love and suffers the consequences.
Kitty’s husband is Dr. Walter Fane, a bacteriologist posted in Hong Kong. He is a researcher and a highly intelligent man, but shy and socially inept. His love for Kitty is an overwhelming passion that drives him to overlook her flaws and marry her against his better judgment.
In Hong Kong, Kitty has an affair with Charles Townsend, assistant colonial secretary and a married man. When Walter finds out, he presents her with a shocking ultimatum – either Townsend must agree to divorce his wife and marry Kitty, or Kitty must accompany Walter to the interior of China (Mei-tan-fu) where a cholera epidemic is raging. Of course, Walter has already sized-up Townsend and knows he will never sacrifice his career. But poor, silly Kitty is taken completely by surprise.
In Mei-tan-fu, Walter works day and night among the dying villagers, struggling to control the epidemic. Kitty is desperately unhappy, alone and frightened by Walter’s distance and coldness. She is convinced that he brought her there hoping she would contract cholera and die. She doesn’t see that Walter is just as miserable and probably doesn’t care what happens to either of them.
But Kitty is not entirely alone. With the help of the British consul, and the French nuns who care for the orphans and the sick, Kitty begins to grow as a person and to discover some interesting things about her husband and herself.
The parting words to Kitty from the Mother Superior, capture a central theme of the book:Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.
It explains why Walter drives himself but reaps no satisfaction from his good work, and why Kitty’s progress is only incremental in the end. Love of duty has no place for selfishness or self-regard. Contentment comes when you are at peace with yourself and your circumstances.