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[199] Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham

bondage“He remembered the bitterness of his life at school, the humiliation which he had endured, the banter which had made him morbidly afraid of making himself ridiculous; and he remembered the loneliness he had felt since, faced with the world, the distillation and disappointment caused by the difference between what it promised to his active imagination and what it gave.” [280]

Of Human Bondage is a book that could have been written in half the number of pages. Readers are to peruse this exhaustive statement of liberty and spirituality with patience. W. Somerset Maugham calls this an autobiographical novel because fact and fiction are inextricably mingled. The emotions are his own, but not all the incidents are related as they happened, and some of them are transferred to his hero not from Maugham’s life but from that of persons with whom Maugham was intimate. The novel follows Philip Carey, a sensitive orphan born with a club-foot, finds himself in desperate need of passion and inspiration.

Throughout the novel Philip’s thoughts, musings, and concerns are abound and profound. His search for the meaning of life traces back to the impact of his mother’s death when he was eight. As he adjusts to life with his uncle and his uncle’s wife, a childless couple who knows nothing about rearing children, Philip’s experience of love is rather fraught. Despite his uncle’s indifference, aunt Louisa loves him as her own. His traumatic encounter in school at Tercanery has a lasting, cumulative effect on him. That he has been the subject of jeer on account of his club-foot and that he has been seldom treated with patience and forbearance have rendered him self-conscious and private. The unhappiness of his childhood fosters in him the power of self-analysis, a peculiar acumen in the dissection of feelings.

To his surprise he saw that she [aunt Louisa] was crying. He had a tender heart, and hated to see anyone miserable. [164]

As he abandons his studies to travel, first to Heidelberg and then to Paris, where he nourishes ambitions of becoming an artist. But it is a desire to make success of life which is at the base of his uncertainty about continuing his artistic career. There he becomes enlightened that Christianity is not the only way to goodness. As long as one makes use of his faculties, and avoids hurting other people, one justifies his goodness.

“He thought with melancholy of the distance that separated him from them, and thought bitterly how much he had wanted to do and how little done. It seemed to him that all those years, vanished beyond recall, had been utterly wasted.” [607]

When you are reconciled to the fact that each is for himself in the world you will ask less from your fellows. They will not disappoint you, and you will look upon them more charitably. Men seek but one thing in life—their pleasure.” [229]

After returning to London to study medicine, out of wounded vanity he becomes wildly infatuated with Mildred Rogers, the vulgar, tawdry waitress who comes in and leaves his life three times. Her cold rebuff and doses of indifference intrigue him. Even though he knows he cannot make her love him, he reflects upon his liaison with anger and puzzlement. The doomed affair changes the course of his life.

Of Human Bondage is a poignant depiction of unrequited love. Often one is misguided that the unrequited love is lashed on the hero by Mildred, who merely wants his attention and money, but his lack of love is far more rooted in his adolescent years. It seems that since his mother’s death Philip is left on his own in search of love. For the huge amount of people that he comes in contact with in Heidelberg, Paris, and London, very rarely does he cultivate close bondage with them, which is very ironic to the title that claims human bondage. All his life he has followed the ideals of other people—religious, artistic and love—who have instilled into him, and never followed the desires of his own heart. His course is always swayed by what he thinks he should do and never by what he wants with his whole soul to do.

It seems to Philip that he is swayed by every light emotion, as though he is a leaf in the world, and when passion seizes him he is powerless. He has no self-control. Even his happiness and contentedness toward the end are ambivalent, evident of the link between love and suffering that formed in his youth. It continues to bind him as he prepares for a comfortable, secure, and conventional future. Philosophical brilliance that irradiates from long, simmering passages on human nature makes the realism-rich novel more bearable to read.

He did not know what it was that passed from a man to a woman, from a woman to a man, and made one of them a slave: it was convenient to call it the sexual instinct; but if it was no more than that, he did not understand why it should occasion so vehement an attraction to one person rather than another. It was irresistible: the mind could not battle with it; friendship, gratitude, interest, had no power beside it. Because he had not attracted Mildred sexually, nothing that he did had any effect upon her. The idea revolted him; it made human nature beastly; and he felt suddenly that the hearts of men were full of dark places. [418]

678 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics edition
[Read/Skim/Toss]

24 Responses

  1. Maugham has a brilliant way of analyzing human behavior and motives, you meanwhile, can summarize books so eloquently that even though I was fairly ambivalent the first time around, I now feel inspired to read this again.

  2. W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is one of the best novels I have ever read. The language is simple. The narration is subtle. The characters are real and display emotions and feelings everyone can identify with. The power of novel becomes apparent when you are reading it. You choke up every once a while, you smile for hours after you have finished reading certain passages, and you comprehend your own self, your woes and possibilities, better through perspectives that novel provides.

    I’m inspired to read this book again and many of his other works, after reading your eloquent and thoughtful review.

  3. Goodness. I haven’t read this one myself but the page number is definitely intimidating. I’m glad you enjoyed it (even if it could have been written in half the pages!)

  4. I’ve read this novel a number of times. It certainly has captured my experience in life and also reflects much of what I’ve observed in other’s lives. I have, and many of my reading friends have, strong connections with this novel and common experience and emotions with its protagonist, as well. I think it’s one of the most astute works in English literature I know, and is undeniably one of the most poignant.

  5. What struck me about “Of Human Bondage” was that even though it’s a book in desperate technical need of editing, it ultimately manages to captivate the reader without it. Philip is an annoying character sometimes, but it usually doesn’t matter. I couldn’t even figure out why I thought “Of Human Bondage” was so brilliant, but it really is.

  6. Thank you for the insightful review! I read this not long ago, and I liked it much better after finishing, than I did while reading! That’s because I think I was so frustrated with Philip so often during the action of the story that I sometimes wanted to throw the book across the room–but afterward found that his story’s arc made sense, and Maugham’s observations of humanity had sunk in with me and made a big impression 🙂

  7. This book was one of my favorite reads of the past few years. Philip’s struggle to find himself felt so real to me, I couldn’t help but get drawn in, even as I was frustrated with his poor choices.

    I see you have Cakes and Ale lined up. It’s the only other Maugham I’ve read, and It’s quite a treat (but very different form Of Human Bondage).

  8. I’ve wanted to read this one for a while, but the size has put me off. I hope to at least read something by him (something a bit shorter), but I will get to this eventually.

  9. I actually just bought this book yesterday!! Really looking forward to reading it – I haven’t read any of Maugham’s work before.

  10. I see I’m in the minority here, but I disagree that it could have been written in half the pages. I think the winding road is necessary to this particular novel’s journey, and we modern readers are too accustomed (addicted?) to terse prose. I loved the subtlety and insight, and I don’t think it would have been arrived at in the same way if it had been edited down that far.

    That said, there are quite a few much shorter gems out there. Brideshead Revisited, for instance. Every novel is different.

  11. Christina:
    I come to terms with his art of describing, in minute details, man’s motives and thought process as I read through this book. It’s a work of the highest artistry. 🙂

  12. John:
    You nail it. Yes, the different movements and rhythms of a novel gives me much gratification that short story doesn’t provide. In almost every novel that i read there are parts that I like and enjoy more than others.

  13. lena:
    I can understand why this significant study of human motives and enlightenment has been read in the continuous generations. It’s work like this that separates literature from supermarket fiction. Read it. 🙂

  14. Greg S:
    Don’t you think very single character represents one or more human attributes in this novel? After Philip has interacted with each and one of them, it begins to dawn on him what he really wants in life and finds his place.

  15. Biblibio:
    yes, I find myself skimming few parts of it when it’s slow, then re-reading the passages to make sure I didn’t miss a significant advancement of the plot. But overall the novel keeps me intrigued and my own values in check.

  16. gentle reader:
    I *totally* understand what you mean by throwing the book across the room. Parts of it are so slow that at the time I didn’t see the point of their being part of the novel. But as I navigate through Philip Carey’s journey, it makes perfect sense that he uses digressive narrative to set up the dramatic confrontations between characters.

  17. Teresa:
    I think it’s almost necessary for Philip to go through all the hardship that he did in order to get in touch of who he really is. After his mother’s tragic early death, he felt there wasn’t any more love, and the length of the novel, with all these interactions with different characters, slowly got him out of his nutshell.

  18. Danielle:
    I’m sure you can read this if you have finished Les Miserables. 🙂

  19. Karen:
    I also strongly recommend The painted Veil. The dialogues are just full of tension. You have to read between the lines. 🙂

  20. Jenny:
    I tend to agree with you after I have finished the book, which at parts I have to re-read, put aside the book, and ponder at why Maugham inserted narratives that are seemingly digression at the first glance. As I navigate through Philip Carey’s journey, it makes perfect sense that he uses digressive narrative to set up the dramatic confrontations between characters.

  21. Very good point, Matt, about different characters and different human attributes; also, I agree very much with Jenny’s observation on the need for development of situations, that editing it down would rob it of the perspective and richness it offers the reader (and with your response to her). Good insights, both.

  22. […] [199] Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham […]

  23. […] of some books with daunting size: Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (541 pages) Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham (678 […]

  24. […] invidie pe cei care au facut-o. Si din acelasi motiv citesc cu aviditate si pofta orice recenzie despre ea (pe sistemul “cu cat stiu mai multe despre carte, cu atat imi doresc mai mult sa o […]

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