Of Human Bondage: W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life. “

W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, is an intense character study of Philip Carey from his unhappy childhood through his life as a young man. The book is labelled a bildungsroman, and in this case, the label is a reductive. Of Human Bondage had been in my to-read list for years, and this wonderful book makes my Best-of-Year list.

Philip’s life does not begin well. He is born with a club foot, a deformity which shapes his entire life. His father, a London doctor, spent above his means and died unexpectedly, leaving a widow, pretty Helen and his small son just a tiny amount of money. When Philip is 9, his mother dies and he’s left in the care of his paternal uncle, William Carey, a Vicar and his wife, Louisa. William and Louisa are a childless couple, and life at the vicarage is dull and restrictive. While Aunt Louisa loves Philip and tries to do her best for the boy, life at the vicarage is built around the selfishness and self-importance of the vicar. William Carey earns just 300 pounds a year, not a great deal, so he is the one who eats an egg while his wife nibbles nervously at bread and butter. The pompous, miserable, querulous vicar is the one who goes on holiday while Louisa stays home. If Philip is a ‘good boy’ he may get the top of his uncle’s boiled egg. With the household built around the idea that the vicar is the most important creature in the house, the addition of a small, lonely, unhappy boy is not easy. The vicar, who did not approve of Philip’s parents, intends that Philip should enter the church. Shipped off to boarding school, Philip, due to his club foot, suffers great torments at the hands of the other boys. It’s at boarding school, Philip finally finds a friend, but it’s a friendship based in Philip’s deep insecurities and need for love.

When he’s a young man, Philip refuses to try for an Oxford scholarship and instead, using his small inheritance, goes to Germany. He’s desperate to ‘live’ and escape the suffocating life in the vicarage. His aunt’s sad, dreary existence seems to be an incentive to gain experience abroad. Philip returns home and studies accounting but decides that is not for him, and so, possessing a little artistic talent, he moves to Paris to study Art. Eventually realizing that he will never be a great artist, he returns to England and begins his training as a doctor. Philip meets a cockney waitress named Mildred and she becomes the bête noire of his life.

Our lives are defined by our experiences and our choices and so it is with Philip. He obsessively pursues the dreadful Mildred, and she treats him abominably. She drifts in and out of Philip’s life, using him shamelessly, and each time she returns and leaves, her degrading treatment of Philip is worse and worse. She is a horrid creature; she understands Philip in terms of how she can manipulate him, but she sees his code of behaviour, his ‘niceness’ as weakness. Philip falls as low as a human being can go in terms of money, and it’s only when he hits rock bottom that he begins to surface.

It’s through Philip’s interactions with Mildred we see how relationships fill a need. Philip has nothing in common with Mildred, but think of a key and a lock, they ‘fit’ together, and while even Philip recognises that the awful passion he has for Mildred is self-destructive, he can’t stop.

He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.

So enough of the plot, but onto some of the significant people Philip meets. He has a sexual relationship with an older woman in his uncle’s home and after her successful conquest, he abandons her without hesitation. He meets a repellent young female art student in Paris, and fails to see her deep poverty until it is too late. He meets a fellow artist who gives him a rug saying it explains the meaning of life, and through his hospital work, he befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelny–a man of grandiose ideas who has a large, lively family.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over the entire ‘bondage’ idea. Philip is hostage to many things: his deformity, religion, money, sexual desire and his need for love. Philip tries to find freedom, the illusory idea of freedom, by leaving the stifling atmosphere of the vicarage, but he carries his human limitations with him to Germany and later Paris. He experiences many failures and disappointments while observing the failures of others who also seek freedom, fame or the meaning of life. Maugham addresses the idea of what it means to be ‘free’ and this is the question that haunts Philip until the novel’s conclusion. Freedom isn’t ‘out there,’–it’s not a geographical location–it’s metaphysical and Philip must overcome his emotional and mental hurdles in order to achieve freedom of the mind. Only then does he have a shot at happiness.

There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

8 responses to “Of Human Bondage: W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

  1. I read this several years now but never wrote a review because I just could not articulate how much I loved it. I recall thinking that it painted a damning portrait of life before the welfare state, with everyone having to fend for themselves, trying to find work and shelter and scrimping together their pennies just to get a bit to eat. I can’t really remember Mildred being awful, but I do remember Philip treating her very cruelly, too, to the point that I wondered if Maugham might be a bit of a misogynist. I’ve read other books by him which kind of confirms my opinion.

  2. This seems to be a book that really got to you. I have only seen the film with Bette Davis playing Mildred and really liked it. Interesting that Philip comes to a zen ( or Stoic) world view.

  3. I’m a Maugham fan. Mildred used and abused Philip IMO. Not comfortable w Philip unless she could manipulate him. Every time he took her back I thought, “NO!”

  4. i’ve had this book on my wishlist for several years, never really certain I wanted to read it. You’ve changed all that with your review. Definitely going to buy a copy now

  5. Jonathan

    Yeah, it’s been on my TBR list for years too. It does sound good.

  6. Thank you for the summary and synthesis. Very compelling, reminds me of Quasimodo’s harsh life but somehow he kept a pure, forgiving heart.

  7. Must get to this, been on my shelf for ages. Haven’t read much Maugham but have really liked the ones I have (Ashenden, Cakes & Ale).

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