When Marriage becomes Romance
More often than not love at first sight turns out to be infatuation with an illusion that quickly turns sour or ends in utter disillusionment, like Elizabeth Bennet's brief romance with the handsome, charming, and totally unscrupulous Mr. Wickham in Pride & Prejudice. More rarely an initial dislike or indifference is transformed by closer intimacy into a deep and abiding love and affection as Elizabeth eventually found with Mr. Darcy. A similar transformation is portrayed in The Painted Veil, a 2006 movie starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton based on a novel by Somerset Maugham.
Until recently marriage has been a physical and social necessity for most women and love, a luxury to be pursued in dreams or secret rendezvous away from public view. Kitty's wedding to Dr. Walter Fane was destined to be precisely such a marriage of necessity. Kitty was a pretty but aging socialite with an empty head and trivial interests under pressure to marry and leave the shelter and support of her parents. Resigned to an unfulfilling marriage to a stiff and awkward stranger, she accepted the proposal of Dr. Fane, who sought to marry quickly and carry his bride with him back to his assignment in Shanghai during the 1920s.
Kitty quickly became bored of a reclusive life with an introverted physician among the British upper class in China, until she met and began an elicit affair with Walter's friend Charilie Townsend, a handsome, married British diplomat responsible for governing the region. Inexperienced Kitty thought herself in love and believed Charlie was too, until Walter discovered their affair and threatened her with divorce. When Kitty asked Charlie to divorce his own wife and marry her, she quickly discovered that his affections were limited to the time they spent in bed together.
In order to escape the public disgrace of his wife's conduct and to punish her for her betrayal, Walter accepted a dangerous assignment as medical officer in a rural Chinese village stricken by cholera. Dragging Kitty along with him, he transported her to a land far from the modern world with even less outlet for her restlessness and her need for trivial amusement. Walter plunged himself into the midst of an unfolding medical tragedy, risking his life every day to nurse dying patients and discover means to stop the spread of the disease. In doing so he won the admiration of the local population, but became more and more estranged from his own wife.
Finally Kitty could bear the pain of isolation and boredom no more. She set forth into the disease-ridden town and offered her services at a local Catholic convent run by English missionaries. Encountering disease, danger and death for the first time in her life, she felt the total inadequacy and meaninglessness of her own existence. At the same time, she began to see her husband in a different light, as a man of strength, courage and innate goodness. Goodness was not a quality she had ever prized in a man before, but here in the face of life's most extreme challenges, she came to deeply admire and respect her husband and yearn for reconciliation with him. Fane noticed the change in her and admired her courage in venturing out among the sick.
Gradually the barriers of indifference, resentment, and distrust dissolved and they discovered a depth of mutual admiration and affection neither had believed possible for them. In spite of the horrible circumstances, they enjoyed a few moments of intense delight together. Then as the epidemic spread, Fane came down with cholera and eventually died in his wife's loving arms.
Kitty returned to London where she gave birth to a son. A few years later, walking in the city she encounters Charlie Townsend. For a moment Charlie's hopes are kindled of another romantic encounter, before he realizes his hope is futile. Kitty is no longer the silly, meaningless spoiled girl he had known in Shanghai. She has experienced life, discovered true goodness and felt what it is to truly love.