The epigraph, chosen by S. Maugham himself can practically account for the title of the book. But really, what does “The Painted Veil” mean?
There can be probably several answers to this question, but in my opinion, that painted veil is the lives of the main characters – they are also multicoloured, full of events, mistakes and so on. But it’s the most general meaning, actually another explanation can be found.
Kitty, the most interesting character of the book, was rather a shallow person at the beginning of the whole story, she was a filistine without proper education. The relations within the family were also artificial, and that atmosphere formed Kitty’s character practically in her childhood. That insincerity had great influence on her nature and so finally at the age of 20 she was what she was. And it was naturally not her fault.
So I can practically say that she had some sort of veil before her eyes, just like ones women usually wore. But of course, it was no material thing, it was a veil, that concealed real world from Kitty, and though it was “painted”, the paints were also artificial, unreal, and instead of real things she saw only paints and nothing more. She wore it when she got married to Walter, she wore it when she began those love affairs with Charlie, and even when she went to Mei-tan-Fu. But it seems to me that even on her way there the veil was lifted, raised up for a while, but then dropped down till the moment when Kitty, as we all remember, saw probably her first real thing — the dead Chinese beggar. It was a revelation for her, it was a shock, a tremendous astonishment and naturally a horrible thing at the same time. Since that moment the veil never dropped down, it was probably blown away with further events in the Chinese province – she encountered all possible kinds of difficulties – beginning with objective circumstances: cholera, ill people, the danger of getting infected, and after all her first experience of work at the convent. And among mental tortures were naturally her relations with Walter, still tense and obscure relations, and finally the death of her husband, which caused great fits of remorse and the feeling of unredeemed conjugal fault. All these things practically ruined her, and the only way-out of that situation was going home, back to her family, just like a prodigal “daughter”, to take refuge there.
But even here the “painted veil” in its first meaning brings up new difficulties.
And here one more fact, concerning the manner of Maugham as a writer, is worth mentioning. In the beginning he wanted to draw our attention to the painted veil of human life according to his ordinary, skeptical way, he wanted to stop the narration here, but then wrote the continuation, what we call now “a happy end”.