The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil Themes

Love and Desire

The nature of love is one of the primary themes of the novel. At the beginning, Kitty does not love her husband Walter, but is instead enamored with the dashing politician Charles Townsend. When Charles heartlessly abandons her, she accepts Walter's demand to follow him into the cholera epidemic in Mainland China.

Kitty never comes to love her husband Walter, but she does find admirable qualities in him and wishes to be his friend. She also eventually overcomes her love for Charles, which was vain and oppressed her. In The Painted Veil, love is not always a good thing; Kitty's love for Charles is said to have degraded her (pg. 148). It is Kitty's love for her unborn child that pushes her to become a better person.

Social Position

Kitty's mother is extremely concerned with social position; she even refuses lawyers and doctors as potential suitors for her daughter, because they are not aristocracy. Kitty adopts her mother's unhealthy vanity, preferring light chatter and superficiality to substance.

Eventually, Kitty learns to question her emphasis on social position when she becomes close with the nuns of Mei-tan-fu, whose Mother Superior has renounced a life of power and prestige to minister to orphans. Kitty begins to realize that what one does with one's life is much more important than one's social position.

Family Dysfunction

The Painted Veil contains a number of dysfunctional families. Kitty and Walter are poorly matched and hate each other; Mrs. Garstin relentlessly prods Mr. Garstin to greater achievements in his career and his daughters view him only as a source of income; and Charles is repeatedly unfaithful to his wife Dorothy.

The novel suggests that problems within the family will carry over to other generations. Kitty is deeply affected by her mother's cold treatment of her father, and eventually finds her final redemption in creating a relationship with him, thus undoing all of the unhealthy messages she was taught as a child.


Though this theme is not explicitly addressed in the novel, it runs through it. For Kitty and the other British characters, the Chinese natives are not really people but scenery. The epidemic in Mei-tan-fu is tragic, but it only has weight for the white characters when their own lives are threatened. The nuns are remarkable because they actually see the Chinese children as full people.

East and West

The values of the East and West are frequently held in opposition. After meeting Waddington's paramour, the Manchu woman, Kitty notes the alien and exotic nature of her beauty and way of life. Kitty sees life in China lived on a different plane: one that values the things of the spirit, whereas British life values material things.


At the beginning of the novel, Kitty Fane was a shallow society woman whose main concerns were her standing in society and her adulterous relationship with the shallow Charles Townsend. By the end of the novel, she has developed a greater sense of compassion and prioritizes her search for peace over social concerns. Kitty’s growth as a character is made possible both by her difficult circumstances (the time she spent in the cholera-ridden city of Mei-tan-fu, the loss of her mother and husband, and her pregnancy) and by the time she spends with the nuns, who spend their lives in work and prayer. Kitty realizes how short life is, and she decides to treat both herself and others in a more fair fashion.

The Importance of Work

Kitty’s growth as a character is fueled by her work at the convent, where she takes care of the older children. She volunteers there six days per week, and she does not take time off for illness, pregnancy, or mourning. Rather than exhausting her, this work refreshes her spirit and allows her a source of self-affirmation that does not rely on other’s opinions of her. At the end of the novel, she vows to raise her daughter in the same way, teaching her to work and make her own way in the world rather than depending on a man to do it all for her. This suggests that work for women is an important way of making the world a more pleasant place for both sexes.