Book Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Posted on

IMG_20131209_094440Every so often I come across a book that is so immense in scope and depth, so poignant in thought and meaning, that it leaves a mark on me that never goes away. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham is one such book.

Of Human Bondage is what is called a bildungsroman; a novel about the moral and philosophical development of the main character. It tells the story of Philip Carey, a boy born in Victorian era England with a clubfoot. His mother dies when he is very young and he never knew his father, so his care is transferred to his Uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable. He is a stern and callous man who disapproves of Philip’s decisions throughout his life. The story begins when Philip is seven and ends when he is 30 years old, and throughout the story we see him grow from a boy into a man with a career. Along the way he goes through many struggles and discovers the beauty and futility of life.

Philip suffers through his youth as he is constantly teased about his clubfoot, and he is always ashamed and trying to hide it from people. This is a core element of his character as it has a great effect on the way he behaves. In his adulthood he ponders what effect it had on him and wonders how different his life might have been if he never had it. He never does become fully comfortable with his clubfoot, and even at one point undergoes an operation to correct it.

The novel is essentially the story of W. Somerset Maugham’s life, and he wrote it to deal with some personal issues that he was facing at the time. While the protagonist has a clubfoot, Maugham had a stutter and he struggled with it in much the same way that Philip struggled with his deformity. But what strikes me the most about this book, and is the main plot element of the novel, is Philip’s relationship with the androgynous Mildred Miller.

Philip meets Mildred at a coffee shop in London when he begins studying to become a doctor, and poor Philip is completely smitten by her for what reason even he cannot understand. She is described as having greenish skin, anemic, flat chested, and thin lipped. Mildred does not sound like an attractive woman at all, and her attitude towards him is always cold. At one point when they are together, Mildred is changing her clothes and her full body is revealed to him. He smiles and says, “I wonder what I see in you.” She replies, “Well that’s a nice thing to say to a woman.”

Philip goes to every extent to win her over and professes his love for her even though she doesn’t return it. He loves her but doesn’t know why, and he can’t stop himself even though he knows he shouldn’t and tells himself over and over that it’s wrong to go on like that. It is a doomed love affair that forever alters the course of his life, and even though she is bad for him in every way he comes back to her several times. He loves her, and at the same time hates her, and the attraction is some remarkably compelling reading. One has to wonder who Maugham’s Mildred was in real life, and what she did to him.

Of Human Bondage is a beautiful novel about life and everything in it. The entire scope of human emotion and experience is contained in this book. Family, friendship, love, loss, death, work, poverty, travel, art and culture; it’s all in here. There are many times in the book when I really wanted to grab Philip by the shoulders, shake him like a maraca and shout “Get it together Phil!” But his struggles and experiences are what life is all about. He makes some truly questionable decisions, especially concerning his relationship with Mildred, but how many of us can honestly look back on our lives and think we did everything right? You have to fall to get back up, and when we rise we emerge stronger and more resilient than ever before. Philip, while weak and spineless at times, redeems himself in the end. Things get very bad for Philip Carey late in the book, but he is thankful to have people looking out for him and he sticks with it even though it looks like his entire life has fallen apart around him and he will never become the man he wants to be. He shows us the value of perseverance and dedication when, at long last, he does succeed.

Some of his revelations about the futility and beauty of life and human nature are truly inspiring. He is at times completely miserable and hopeless, and at other times exploding with joy and happiness. For example, take this passage from after he finds out about the death of an old friend:

“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 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.”

While he has many liberating sequences like that in later portions of the book, there are many times of great suffering.At his lowest point he is broke and starving. When his landlady offers him a free hot meal, Philip refuses out of shame.

“When she left the room Philip threw himself on his bed. He had to clench his fists in order to prevent himself from crying.”

And then later:

“Constantly now at the back of his mind he thought of doing away with himself, but he used all the strength he had not to dwell on it, because he was afraid the temptation would get a hold of him so that he would not be able to help himself.”

Such desperation, hopelessness and loneliness are contained in this book, but in the end Philip triumphs. Of Human Bondage is a brilliant tribute to the human spirit.

The only bad thing I can say about this novel is that is very long, but that isn’t really that bad considering how great the writing is. The printing I have is 611 pages, and they are long pages. The book is probably around 300,000 words. There were a few points when I groaned at its utter length, but finishing this book was rewarding and left me with a chill because so deep was the mark that it made. The struggles of Philip Carey are the struggles of all mankind, and I felt like I could relate to him on many levels.

It is hard for me to fully describe how deeply this book has affected me. I was at first daunted by its length, but was quickly swept away by Maugham’s prose and the compelling life of Philip Carey. Of Human Bondage is regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written, and deservedly so. It illuminates the human heart.

Advertisements

One thought on “Book Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

    Book Review: Moby Dick by Herman Melville « C.R. Riddell said:
    February 13, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    […] it to me along with a list of other classic literature. (That list includes Of Human Bondage. Check out my review.) Had it never been recommended to me, I probably never would have attempted reading Moby Dick […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s