Kitty Garstin cries out in shock, certain that someone just tried to open the door of the bedroom. Her male companion - Charles Townsend - assures her that it must be one of the Chinese servants, since Walter never comes back from the laboratory this early in the afternoon. However, the two are stunned to see the handles of the window shutters turn as well, as though someone is trying to open them from the outside. They freeze, and Kitty tries not to scream. After some time passes with no other disruption, Kitty asks Charlie where is hat is; he replies that he left it on the table downstairs—much to her consternation. Once again, he assures her that Walter could not possibly have come home. Kitty checks outside in the verandah, but there is no one there.
After Kitty and Charlie have dressed, she calls Walter's laboratory and learns that he has been out since the midday meal - which may mean that he was indeed the one to turn the knob. Kitty wonders what would happen if her husband discovered her affair. Walter is deeply in love with her, but he is a shy man and dislikes conflict. Charlie kisses her and says that any risk is worth it to be with her, then leaves to return to work.
Kitty sits on the verandah, pondering the risk she took bringing Charlie here. Still, she likes it better than the shabby shop backroom where they usually meet.
Kitty's thoughts turn to Charlie's wife, a dull but respectable woman named Dorothy. She is certain that Charlie is indifferent to his wife, and loves only Kitty. Kitty also thinks that Dorothy often looks down on her, which she finds ironic because Dorothy comes from a family that is very unimportant socially.
Kitty, a woman used to being at the height of society, was frustrated to realize that she had little social importance as the wife of the government bacteriologist. Her husband Walter is indifferent to his social position, but recalls a time when he awkwardly tried to reassure his wife when he saw how irritated she was about this.
Still on the verandah, Kitty wonders if it was Walter who turned the knobs that afternoon. When she goes into the living room, she notices a book with a little note on it; a friend had sent it with Mr. Fane, who said he was swinging by the house that afternoon. In a panic, Kitty interrogates the serving boy, who says that Walter Fane did indeed swing by the house after the midday meal.
She calls Charlie to tell him this terrible news, but he is too busy at work to talk. Kitty ponders her situation. Walter might think it odd, but not out of the question for Kitty to lock her bedroom door if she was taking a nap. However, Charlie's hat in the dining room table would be harder to explain away. And it was odd that the mysterious person on the verandah had tried to open her windows. Still, Kitty is secure in her love for Charlie, and decides that Walter can kick up a fuss if he wants. If Walter accuses her, she will be happy to fling the truth at him.
Kitty has long known that her marriage with Walter was a mistake. She glances at the pictures of her mother and father in the living room; he a little wizened man with tired eyes, and she a thin, angular, harsh woman. Kitty is not particularly close to either of them.
Mrs. Garstin is dismayed to realize that her only hope of achieving success is through her husband, and she pushes him relentlessly to success. She also strives to make advantageous connections by inviting important people to their home for dinner, but her tendency to cut corners in the effort to save the most money possible proves at odds with her political ambitions. Her husband never advances very far in his career. The two Garstin daughters have little affection for their father, seeing him primarily as a source of income.
Maugham plunges us into the center of the action with little explanation. We meet Kitty and Charles in the bedroom, and from their fearful reaction to an unknown presence outside, the reader can infer that their union is an illicit one. The mysterious turning of the knobs suggests an ominous and imposing presence, but the identity of this intruder is not yet revealed. Gradually, this section provides evidence that it was Walter, Kitty's husband, who turned the knobs.
Kitty is unhappily married to Walter, and currently conducting an affair with the dashing Charles Townsend. Maugham uses many different literary strategies to draw a complex picture of Kitty. Her terrified reaction to the turning of the knobs indicates that she has little courage or backbone, and her excessive concern with her social position indicates her shallowness. Moreover, acknowledging Walter's deep love for her but carrying out an affair with Charles suggests that she has little concern for the feelings of others.
Chapter 7, however, suggests that Kitty's shallowness is the result of her upbringing, rather than an innate character fault. Her mother, Mrs. Garstin, is a grasping and selfish woman who goaded on her husband in order to achieve her own goals; she was immensely frustrated by the fact that she could not achieve success on her own terms, but rather only through her husband. By identifying the root of problems in the inability of women to participate equally in society, Maugham infuses a proto-feminist outlook in the novel.
Kitty's condescending thoughts toward her lover's wife, Dorothy Townsend, also highlight her shallowness. She considers Dorothy to be old, a poor dresser, dull, and socially insignificant to boot. Kitty notes that Dorothy Townsend's father lives in a small house at Earl's Court, whereas Kitty's family lives in South Kensington. Though the modern reader is unlikely to know the significance of these particular locales, context clues suggest that South Kensington is the more fashionable place to live.
The title of the book comes from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley; "the painted veil" refers to the ephemeral veil of life. The poem also makes reference to a seeker who searches after truth a peace, but does not find them.