In the early part of the novel, Charles and Kitty often meet for their romantic rendezvous in a curio shop, a small dusty place filled with items from all over China. The curio shop is symbolic of the tawdry and false nature of their affair: like a jewel in a curio shop, it turns out to be "fake."
Coffin Leaving the City (Symbol)
In Chapter 30, the entrance of Kitty and Walter into the city of Mei-tan-fu occurs at the same time as a funeral procession leaves it, which suggests that the only way out of the city may be in a coffin. The coffin is a symbol for death. It may also foreshadow the actual or symbolic deaths of certain characters.
The Tao (Motif)
Waddington first suggests the existence of the Tao to Kitty, characterizing it as the way that leads nowhither. After Walter's death, he explains the Tao further - it is the way that is no way, it is everywhere and nowhere. It was only become comprehensible when one has given up dualities. Later, on her way back to Hong Kong, Kitty finds herself on her own way or Tao of equanimity, following the way through southern China and meditating on both her losses and her peace.
The Hydrocephalic Child (Symbol)
Kitty enjoys her work at the convent and quickly bond with the children there - all save one, a hydrocephalic child who appears to suffer from mental retardation. This child follows Kitty around, constantly seeking her attention. Finally, Kitty brings herself to speak to the child gently and embrace it, whereupon it wanders away from her.
This disabled child is a symbol for Kitty's own worst qualities - her shallowness, selfishness, and ignorance. She must learn to accept and embrace these worst parts of herself, just as she must learn to embrace this child, if she is going to be able to move on.
The Veil (Allegory)
Throughout the novel, Kitty makes references to a veil that seems to cover ordinary life; she seeks a way beyond this veil so that she can experience life as it was truly meant to be lived, in the peaceful and productive way that the nuns live it.
The veil is an allegory for the superficial mundane world, which we must move past if we are to achieve true growth.
The Painted Veil Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Painted Veil is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.