The painted veil which those who live call life: The contrast between fantasy and real facts

Por Pedro José González.

We always have the desire of things. Many times, about things that we know that are actually impossible; other times about things which we hardly get; and finally, things that we can get only with the touch of a hand.

Maybe, the Kitty Fane that the author W. Somerset Maugham shows us in the first chapters of his novel could make us think that she is a woman who lives in a fantasy world. She was raised up by a mother who wanted her to become a lady with honors, in order to attract a man who would be her source of money— a valuable thing for many ones, especially during this century—.

 Kitty liked to play, in the broad sense of the word “play”: games, theatre, music, including (also) playing with men. Her mother wanted her to get married, but Kitty did not know what love was.

And then, she met Walter Fane. A kind, well-educated and meticulous man. A bacteriologist, an inconsequential aspect for the kind of person that he was. He falls in love with Kitty the first time he sees her. Unfortunately, even if he was a good man, he had the problem of being too generous.

   Kitty only got married with him to win her sister over and due to her mother´s . But she was not actually in love. She could see his gentle and educated manners, but also considered him boring.

When they move to Hong Kong, she meets Charles Townsend (and his wife, but she is not important at all). Charly was very attractive: a dashing man, with a good sense of humor.

Kitty and Charly started an affair, and Walter quickly realized this. But Walter did not bother at all. He accepted a job at a little town in the depths of China call Mein Tan Fu, which had a cholera infection and whose doctor had died. Under these circumstances, he told Kitty that she would have to go with him under the threat of calling action for adultery.

And here, in my opinion, is when the story makes a break. Kitty, at Mein Tan Fu, has realizations about life and “real life”: that not everything is a game and that there are people who do not have time to think about that. People were dying “like flies” in this little town, and the work Walter had to do was very difficult and dangerous.

Here Kitty met a few people that influenced her way of thinking: Mr. Waddington, Mother Superior, and other nuns. They were used to living in complete austerity, showed compassion, kindness, and charity with others.

While she was working with the nuns at the convent, she was able to draw “the curtain” on  her fantasy life and began to realize about real life things: even people who live in the hardest conditions can be happy.

So —as happens when we carry out good actions and share happiness—Kitty’s relationship with Walter improved. She did not love him in a romantic way (what love means is a topic for another essay), but she started to have affection for him.  

While Kitty was working with the nuns, she had a decompensation. She thought that it was cholera, but it wasn’t. The nuns helped her realize that she was pregnant. The real problem was: Who was the father of the baby? According to the dates, everything indicated that the baby was not Walter´s. Nevertheless, when he found out the truth, he did not care.

Some time went by and Walter got sick with cholera. He finally died. Kitty cared about him, felt a lot of pain, but realized that she had never loved him the way he wanted to be loved, even though they had started to have a better relationship.

At this point of the story, one would think that all the things that happened helped Kitty become a better person, or at least, that she would see the most significant aspects of life, in a new light. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Kitty met again Charlie Townsend in Hong Kong and some things happened again. She felt guilty, dirty, and did it anyways. Did she learn anything at all? Maybe not.

In the end, she went back to London. She received a letter from her sister Doris, stating that her mother had died. When she joined her father, he informed her that he had won a job at the Bahamas and wanted to go alone. Here, Kitty could appreciate that her parents’ marriage has been a strange thing. They didn’t love each other in the way we call “love”, or maybe, they didn’t love each other at all. But they had affection: the affection of a life together while constructing a family. It was the same thing that Kitty had for Walter at the end: affection.

Somerset Maugham’s story is delightful. People must learn to distinguish fantasy —or our temporary desires— from real life, the hard facts of it. The author of this commentary believes that this is a perfect book for our times. Nowadays, we are living a similar situation: many people are losing family and friends. It’s difficult to realize that the loss of someone is forever, and the things you wish to share with them, cannot be done anymore.

Pedro José González