The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil Literary Elements



Setting and Context

England and Hong Kong in the 1920s

Narrator and Point of View

The novel is narrated in the third person, with Kitty as the focal character.

Tone and Mood

The tone is light but reflective, with a number of insights about the world and the human mind.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Kitty Fane is the central protagonist. There are no major antagonists, though Kitty has serious problems with Walter Fane and Charles Townsend, her husband and paramour.

Major Conflict

The primary conflicts are struggles with society and struggles with oneself. Kitty struggles against restrictive social norms that entrap her in marriage to Walter Fane, a man she dislikes; she also struggles to become a more compassionate and thoughtful person.


Kitty's reunion with her father brings together numerous tensions that have existed throughout the rest of the book: her difficult and exploitative relationships with men, the effect of her mother on her life, and her new growth after her time in Mei-tan-fu. She must confront her father and make him allow her to accompany him to the Bahamas in order to live out the growth she has attained, and forge a new life for her daughter.


During one of their rendezvous, Charles remarks to Kitty, "Well, you know, women are often under the impression that men are much more madly in love with them than they really are" (pg. 36). Though he quickly assures Kitty of his affections for her, this quote foreshadows Charles' reaction when Kitty asks him to marry her. Kitty turns out to be one of those unfortunate women under this deluded impression.




The novel makes an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith's "Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." Walter's last words are, "The dog it was that died," which is the last line from the poem. In this poem, a dog bites a well-respected society man, and everyone fears that the man will die. To the surprise of the town, it is actually the dog who dies. Alluding to this poem expresses Walter's shock that he will be the one to die; it may also imply that Kitty is not as upstanding as everyone thinks she is.


See Imagery section.


Paradoxically, Kitty - who is terrified of disease - seems to be courting it. Cholera is spread through uncooked food and unclean water, so Kitty is taking a huge risk by eating raw vegetables. However, she is so careless of her own wellbeing that she is indifferent towards this danger. She offers the salad to Walter as well, forcing him to share in the risk of death with her. Walter insisted that the situation in Mei-tan-fu would not be dangerous if they took the correct precautions, but Kitty is flinging all caution to the winds.


There are a number of parallels between Walter and Kitty's father. For instance, Kitty primarily values both of them for economic reasons, seeing them as a means of support rather than beloved family members.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

When Kitty and Charlie hear the noise on the verandah and see the knob turn, they hesitate for several minutes before peeking out to see whether anyone is around - but "There was not a soul [in sight]" (pg. 3). Because it uses the attribute of the soul to stand in for person, this quotation is an example of metonymy.


In the cholera-ridden city of Mei-tan-fu, Kitty personifies death by thinking of it as another resident of the city: "Death stood round like a gardener, taking lives like a gardener digging up potatoes" (pg. 116). This example of personification speaks to the closeness of death to the people living in the city.