Multiple Plots in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil
“When love and duty are one, there is grace within” is spoken by the Mother Superior and the pithy radiates through heroine Kitty Fane with meaning. It’s the line that alters Kitty’s feelings for her husband, Dr. Walter Fane. W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel is usually described as the spiritual journey of Kitty. The film stresses the love story between an emotionally distant British couple whose adultery taints their marriage. From another angle, the story is about 1926 China grappling with communism and colonialism. There’s a third story within, too, about the social customs and class conflict of a remote village suffering from a cholera epidemic. The 2006 film version of the novel stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, and Liev Schreiber. It is a well-acted rendition of the novel, (The 1934 film version starred Greta Garbo) and the cinematography showcasing the expansive China landscape, breathtaking.
The rings of plot create a rich text that I think are essential for creating art. It seems like a simple tale; a couple who cannot communicate discovers love for each other. Distracted by the physical charm of another man, Kitty has an affair for which her husband cannot forgive. They punish each other while they work in an infested village in rural China. The beauty of the region is the backdrop for husband and wife to fall in love. In the film, Kitty realizes her husband’s virtues are deep under his shy surface. This plot is a great one because it shows the emotional distance the couple crosses. Redemption is theirs because they forgive each other. The plot has a purpose and a satisfying conclusion.
The historical plot of the disorder in 1926 China is a plot that adds dramatic opportunities for the characters to move in the right direction. When the Nationalists attack Kitty in the city square, it forces her husband to act to save her. This action pushes his character away from introspection and toward her. Another instance occurs when the orphanage run by nuns accepts Kitty as a volunteer to work with the girls. Her husband sees Kitty’s happy demeanor and interaction with the children and his view of her alters. Kitty witnesses her husband’s work and interaction with the sick and cannot help but me impressed with his bravery and selflessness. The plot of the historical climate pushes and pulls the characters away and toward each other. The intermingling plots move the story forward. If you feel like your story is “stuck”, try adding outside elements to move it along.
Another plot coexists in The Painted Veil. It is the story of the people in the village. Their custom of burying their dead close to the river, spreads cholera and forces biologist Walter Fane to interact with the townspeople and local police who despise the Anglo. He is able to solve their epidemic which makes him a local hero. This alters the perceptions of everyone around him including his prejudiced wife. Another example occurs within the orphanage run by nuns. There’s a controversy here. Were the nuns at the orphanage exploiting or saving the orphan girls? Were they taking unwanted (paying the families as well) girls and “saving” them by converting them to Catholicism? Were the nuns instilling the virtue of industry by having them sew to earn money for the orphanage? Saved or exploited? You be the judge.
The Painted Veil is an extraordinary story balancing British propriety, unsaid passions, outburst, and redemption through the use of multiple plots. When you create, try weaving more than one plot into your story.