The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil Summary and Analysis of Chapters 38-48


Chapter 38

Kitty goes for a walk with Waddington, and sees the body of a man who died of cholera. They walk on into the hills and see more pleasant scenes, such as a boy with a water buffalo. Waddington explains how puzzled he is that Kitty has followed her husband into the cholera epidemic. At first he thought she might have been a tough nurse, then that the two of them must have been madly in love, but clearly neither of these is true. Waddington is also puzzled as to why Walter is here: unlike the missionaries, Walter does not care for humankind. Kitty jokes with Waddington, but cannot bring herself to tell him the truth. They pass the corpse of the man on their way back into the town, and Waddington comments that death makes everything look very trivial.

Chapter 39

Waddington comes bearing a message from the nuns - they have invited Kitty to visit their convent. The nuns are French, and have lived in Mei-tan-fu for many years, taking care of female orphans. They will never return to their home country, and many of them have died in China. Kitty decides that she would like to meet these women.

Chapter 40

As she walks through the streets to the convent, Kitty is stunned by the disorder of the city, which is caused by the epidemic – trash is everywhere, and people rush by each other without speaking. Kitty is greeted at the convent by a friendly and red-cheeked nun named Sister St. Joseph, who chats happily with Waddington.

Chapter 41

The Mother Superior comes out to meet Kitty. She is an austere and impressive woman in middle age, who has a deep peace about her and seems to be used to being obeyed. She chats lightly with Waddington and Kitty about all sorts of things. This majestic woman impresses Kitty, but also makes her feel a bit like an awkward schoolgirl.

Chapter 42

The nuns give Kitty a tour of the convent. They show her the orphans whom they have trained to do embroidery, though they will not show her the infirmary (which has been taken over by sick soldiers). During the tour, a group of tiny children crowd around the Mother Superior, embracing her closely. Kitty is disgusted at the features of these Chinese children, but the Mother Superior greets them with love and warmth. She explains to Kitty that these are not true orphans, but useless girls who have been abandoned by their parents here. As they cross the courtyard, Kitty sees several bundled forms and realizes that these are yet more victims of the plague. Even in this peaceful place, cholera still rages.

Chapter 43

The group continues on to the chapel, a gaudily decorated little room, before showing Kitty the infant room. The Mother Superior comments that Kitty’s husband Walter often visits the infants and is very tender with them. The nuns reiterate their praise for Walter, who has been a bulwark against the disease. On her way home, Kitty finds herself weeping.

Chapter 44

Kitty has been deeply moved by her visit to the convent. She is amazed by the peace of this simple life of hard work, and wonders how the nuns can retain such calm in such a horrible place. She is also both flattered and discomforted by their praise of Walter. She begins to realize what a good and decent man her husband is, especially in comparison with the duplicitous Charles Townsend.

Chapter 45

Most of all, Kitty is awed by the peaceful aura of the nuns despite the horrors that they endure. She thinks again of the majestic, impressive Mother Superior, and how her air of authority did not prevent the children from hugging her. Still, despite their cordiality, Kitty felt as though there is a deep gulf between her and them. She feels suddenly very alone.

Chapter 46

When Walter comes back that night, Kitty asks him what they will do if they survive the epidemic. Walter replies that he doesn’t know. Kitty apologizes for her thoughtless affair with Charles, and though she knows Walter will never forgive her for it, she asks him if they can at least be friends. Kitty has reevaluated her live in light of the many lives lost around her. Walter responds icily. Kitty decides that she will go to work in the convent. Walter harshly says that he doubts such hard work will amuse her for very long.

Chapter 47

Kitty looks at her husband reading and thinks about the great gulf that has come between them. She explains that she was foolish and shallow before because that was all she was taught to be; she had never meant to hurt him. Walter wearily says he doesn’t blame her. Kitty is frustrated. Walter had never really known her, though he was in love with her. She wonders if he is suffering from a broken heart.

Chapter 48

The next day, Kitty goes to the convent. The Mother Superior greets her with tears in her eyes, and explains that one of the sisters died from cholera the night before; not only have they lost a dear companion, it is not clear how they will accomplish all the work they have to do. Kitty offers her services in the convent, and though the Mother Superior says that Kitty should spend time with her husband, Kitty insists on volunteering at the convent. Eventually, the Mother Superior agrees, though she tells Kitty that she will never find peace in the convent, but only in her own soul.


Seeing body of man who died from cholera is a pivotal moment for Kitty. The death she has long feared in Mei-tan-fu becomes real to her, and she begins to realize how small her foibles and fights are in comparison to human mortality. The time is ripe for her to achieve greater levels of growth.

Kitty is deeply impressed by the nuns, particularly the Mother Superior. Maugham describes her appearance and character at great length: she is an austere and majestic woman whose strength of character and depth of wisdom keep the convent running smoothly.

Kitty's visit to the nuns prompts her to apologize to her husband at last for her affair, and ask him if it would be possible for them to be friends. Walter, however, is still extremely angry with her, and unlike Kitty he cannot look past the incident. Kitty is able to move past her hurt and disappointment at her unhappy marriage with Walter and her loss of Charles, but Walter is still hung up on his wife's infidelity.

Determined to learn more about the peace of the nuns' lives, and despite Walter's disapproval and mockery, Kitty decides to volunteer her time at the convent. She is rather surprised to see the Mother Superior in tears following the death of one of her companions, but this makes it clear that the nuns are not otherworldly beings, but ordinary women who have chosen to live extraordinary lives. Even someone like Kitty can attain the peace they share.