Review of Of Human Bondage by

Book cover for Of Human Bondage

Second review: August 2020

It has been nine years since I first read Of Human Bondage, so I felt very overdue to revisit a book that I dubbed in my first review “ripe for reading again and again.” Maybe I was a little scared that it wouldn’t hold up. Well, I am in a re-reading mood in this second half of pandemic-laden 2020, and Maugham fit the bill.

Trigger warnings in this book for: suicide, infant mortality (off page), mother dying in childbirth, emotional abuse.

This book holds up.

Everything I said in my first review is spot on, but this time with so much queer subtext! In particular, reading it now from the perspective of a homeowner who often worries about making her mortgage payments, I much better understand how Maugham has chosen to portray poverty and lack of money here. What I think is so memorable and classic about Of Human Bondage is how Maugham writes in a Romantic style yet undermines Romantic tropes in favour of a utilitarian pragmatism: love does not conquer all, and penury is stressful! Philip only truly obtains happiness when he casts aside his grandiose ambitions, which were only ever really half-formed anyway, in favour of enjoying what he has in the here and now. This is a long-winded (yet no less enjoyable for that fact) reminder to enjoy what we have instead of yearning after what we might have.

Mildred also weighs heavily on my mind this time around. I agree with past!me, who excused some of her behaviour and pitied her for her wretchedness. Whatever manipulative streak Mildred has in her she has learned, and even if she is prone to sloth and indolence, again, she was allowed to develop these things because she was always able to find someone like Philip to support her. Having grown up since first reading this book at 21, I can better understand Philip's slavish devotion, even though I’ve never had a romantic relationship myself. There are times in your life where you meet people and you give to them much more than you receive in return. Fortunately, the people in my life to whom I currently give return what I give a hundredfold (even if they don’t always realize it). Unfortunately for him, Philip never really grew up learning the social skills that helps one develop such friendships. His aunt and uncle provided a stable but certainly not stimulating home life, and his time at school and in Paris didn’t give him a chance to form any truly close bonds. Juxtapose this with Philip’s incredible friendship with Athelny and you’ll see how Maugham is illustrating the value of true connection between minds and hearts.

Truly, for a book that is about as full of sex outside of marriage as you can get in 1915, my asexual and aromantic self really noticed how Maugham values and prioritizes platonic relationships. Indeed, some of Philip’s friendships with men are so full and fruitful that people like Mildred briefly suspect he is “queer” (i.e., gay). And if that’s the subtext you want to pull from this for your headcanon, be my guest! (You’d certainly have New Historicist support in the sense that this novel is heavily autobiographical and Maugham was queer and had numerous relationships with men throughout his life.) However, I prefer to see this as Maugham reminding us that we can’t stumble through life looking for that One True Romantic Partner at the expense of other relationships. Throughout the book, Philip’s highest highs come not when he is with Mildred or even any of his other lovers but rather when he is among his friends.

For a 115-year-old book, Of Human Bondage remains a valuable glimpse into the mistakes we often make, the struggles to survive when money is tight, and why we should seek connection with our fellow humans. I’m very glad I re-read it and highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for something deep and broad, something a little bit sad but also, ultimately, reassuring.

First review: August 2011

Of Human Bondage looks daunting, but to be honest, it isn't all that daunting once you start reading it. Almost immediately I was reminded of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These two books are similar: a somewhat (but not entirely) autobiographical story that follows a young man from boyhood to adulthood as he struggles with his attitude toward religion, rejects becoming a priest, and experiments with being an artist. Aside from the divergence later in the plot, the major difference I found between the two is that Of Human Bondage was easier to read. I know that many people swear by James Joyce's characteristic style, but I prefer W. Somerset Maugham's more straightforward, declarative prose. That does not mean Maugham is incapable of poetry. Observe:

Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.

I love this quotation, probably because I identify with it so much! Preaching to the choir on Goodreads here, I know, but this is why I read. Books create entire new worlds for me to experience, sometimes as an escape or refuge but just as often for the novelty and enjoyment of being somewhere different. And yes, sometimes returning to "the real world" is a little disappointing. When I saw Maugham capture this sentiment so pithily, I began to suspect that Of Human Bondage and I would get along just fine.

It's curious how books like this can make us forget, or at least disregard, our foreknowledge of events—call it the strong form of suspension of disbelief. I knew, from reading the back cover, that Philip wasn't going into the priesthood, and that his time in Paris would be short. Nevertheless, during these respective episodes in Philip's life, I found myself desperately wishing for him to succeed. It didn't matter that I knew he was doomed; Maugham had managed to capture me and anchor me to the linearity of Philip's worldline. I forgot about what was going to happen and gave myself over entirely to what Philip was experiencing at that moment. Despite Joyce's fiery descriptions of Catholic visions of Hell, I never quite managed to sympathize with Stephen as he lost his faith. Philip's loss, on the other hand, is quite touching. At one point, when he's studying at Heidelberg and hanging out with an English Unitarian by the name of Weeks, Philip lets on that he believes non-Anglicans know their religions are false but somehow wilfully deceive themselves and others. Weeks convinces him this is not the case, and it precipitates a crisis of faith

"But why should you be right and all those fellows like St. Anselm and St. Augustine be wrong?"

"You mean that they were very clever and learned men, while you have grave doubts whether I am either?" asked Weeks.

"Yes," answered Philip uncertainly, for put in that way his question seemed impertinent.

"St. Augustine believed that the earth was flat and that the sun turned round it."

"I don't know what that proves."

"Why, it proves that you believe with your generation. Your saints lived in an age of faith, when it was practically impossible to disbelieve what to us is positively incredible."

"Then how d'you know that we have the truth now?"

"I don't."

Philip thought this over for a moment, then he said:

"I don't see why the things we believe absolutely now shouldn't be just as wrong as what they believed in the past."

"Neither do I."

"Then how can you believe anything at all?"

"I don't know."

Belief is a key part of Philip's journey of self-discovery as he flits from Heidelberg to London to Paris and then back to London. He is unable to stick with any one career; he proves to be a poor accountant and a lacklustre artist, so he returns to London and resolves to become a doctor. This is not his first choice, but he believes it will allow him to travel and see the beauty of the world—and it will provide income, something Philip will sorely need even once he reaches 21 years of age and can draw upon the small fortune of two thousand pounds left to him by his father. Money worries are a constant feature in Of Human Bondage, and Maugham is brutally realistic about what happens when one goes broke. Philip always believes something will work out in his favour, even as his finances slowly slip through his fingers.

The Parisian chapter of Philip's life is not my favourite part of this book, because it feels the most conventional when it comes to these types of narratives. Philip falls in with a crowd of gentlemen of similar status and mind, the kind of young men who are confident in their arrogance that they can recognize truth and beauty when they see it, that all the old masters except for their own list of exceptions are in fact overrated, that they will all one day do great things as soon as others recognize their greatness. This kind of airy, insubstantial boasting first appears in the character of Hayward when Philip is in Germany, but it is much more evident with Lawson, Clutton, and Cronshaw. We all go through this phase in life, where we talk about doing a lot but don't actually seem to be working toward that goal—and there's nothing wrong with this phase, provided you manage to escape it. Lawson and Philip seem to do this (the latter with advice from the old, bitter Cronshaw, who didn't get out in time). Clutton does not, and so he spends years spinning his wheels while Philip goes off to be a doctor.

Yet there is one redeeming feature of Philip's time in Paris, and that is the tragic tale of Fanny Price. Fanny befriends Philip, if you can call it that, offering him advice on how to improve his drawings even though she herself is hopeless at the art. She wears the same threadbare, mud-encrusted dress every day, and when Philip takes her out to lunch, she eats ravenously in a manner that disturbs him. Eventually, Philip arrives at her home too late to prevent her from committing suicide, and as he deals with the aftermath of this act, he learns just how bad off she was. Fanny was not just poor; she was starving. The brief moments of humanity between her and Philip were the only uplifting part of an otherwise oppressive life of poverty. But the full weight of this act only becomes apparent when Philip finds himself in a similar state and contemplates suicide as the only honourable way out.

One reason Of Human Bondage will leave an indelible impression in my mind is that it highlights the class differences that were very apparent at the turn of the twentieth century and are less apparent now. They still exist, but the twenty-first century is the great "everyone is equal" century, and we are told to subscribe to the myth that classism is dead and anyone can become rich if he or she works hard enough at it. My awareness of the extant stratification in society, and of my own privileged position in it, has been growing significantly of late. Of Human Bondage is just another in a long line of books contributing to this awareness—and indeed, this is why I recommend the works of Austen, Hardy, Dickens, et al, to my friends. The nadir of Philip's existence feels just as applicable to the present day as it would in his own time:

He cried a good deal. At first he was very angry with himself for this and ashamed, but he found it relieved him, and somehow made him feel less hungry. In the very early morning he suffered a good deal from cold. One night he went into his room to change his linen; he slipped in about three, when he was quite sure everyone would be asleep, and out again at five; he lay on the bed and its softness was enchanting; all his bones ached, and as he lay he revelled in the pleasure of it; it was so delicious that he did not want to go to sleep. He was growing used to want of food and did not feel very hungry, but only weak. Constantly now at the back of his mind was the 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 hold of him so that he would not be able to help himself. He kept on saying to himself that it would be absurd to commit suicide, since something must happen soon; he could not get over the impression that his situation was too preposterous to be taken quite seriously; it was like an illness which must be endured but from which he was bound to recover. Every night he swore that nothing would induce him to put up with such another and determined next morning to write to his uncle, or to Mr. Nixon, the solicitor, or to Lawson; but when the time came he could not bring himself to make the humiliating confession of his utter failure.

Then, just as Maugham is plumbing the depths of despondency, he throws everything into reverse. Philip goes for Sunday dinner to the Athelnys, and his friend Thorpe Athelny insists that Philip will stay with them until his situation improves:

"Betty," he said, when she came in. "Mr Carey's coming to live with us."

"Oh, that is nice," she said. "I'll go and get the bed ready."

She spoke in such a hearty, friendly tone, taking everything for granted, that Philip was deeply touched. He never expected people to be kind to him, and when they were it surprised and moved him. Now he could not prevent two large tears from rolling down his cheeks. The Athelnys discussed the arrangements and pretended not to notice to what a state his weakness had brought him. When Mrs. Athelny left them Philip leaned back in his chair, and looking out of the window laughed a little.

"It's not a very nice night to be out, is it?"

This is the most singularly heartwarming scene in the entire book. Philip's life has, up until this point, had its share of high and low points, but they have been rather procedural and standard for a young man finding his way through the world. His poverty is different—and its juxtaposition with this, an act of kindness and friendship, makes it all the more significant. The Athelnys are not beholden to Philip in any way; they just genuinely like him. Philip befriended Thorpe while he was a patient in the hospital, and now he is a family friend. Their kindness is a life preserver to Philip, and to the reader it's a signal that he is not just the uneconomical, infatuated loser that his relationship with Mildred makes him out to be.

I don't hate Mildred. I thought I did, at first, but hate is too crude an emotion to describe my reaction to her relationship with Philip. It's more accurate to say that I pity Mildred and lament Philip's blind infatuation. It is all too obvious to a bystander like myself that Mildred is bad road for Philip, that she is just going to take advantage of him until he collapses from exhaustion or until he rids himself of her for good. This is made explicit when Mildred falls for Philip's roommate, a fifth-year medical student named Griffiths. Still living with Philip, she breaks an engagement with him to visit Paris in favour of going out with Griffiths—and Philip, fool that he is, offers to pay for she and Griffiths to visit Paris instead. Yes, because that will make her love you, Philip. Bravo.

The way I write about it, and the way Maugham portrays their relationship, it feels somewhat soapy and shallow and melodramatic—but at the same time, it is scarily plausible. Philip is blind—first because of love, and then because of apathy and affection for the baby that Mildred has with her husband (who turned out to be married to someone else). This blindness makes it impossible for him to understand that Mildred, though she bears him no particular ill will, is indolent and utterly without scruples. She lives with him because he is, in her mind, a gentleman who can support her and her child—but she will not hesitate to leave him if this proves not to be the case. The fact that Philip refuses her offers of sexual favours confuses her, for she does not realize that Philip has moved beyond that point in the relationship. The changing way in which Philip regards Mildred is a useful metric for examining how much he has grown and matured: each time she reappears, he treats her somewhat differently, based both on his experiences with her in the past and on what has happened to him since she last left.

Philip's relationships with women in Of Human Bondage are various and complex. They almost defy description, some of them, but I will try despite my limited experience in this area. Of course, Philip's clubfoot presents him with some difficulties attracting women, but he manages to have several relationships nonetheless. It's possible Fanny Price was attracted to him romantically, but I interpret her interest as more practical than anything else—she saw in him a kindred spirit, a fellow artist who, like her, had few enough resources or prospects. Then there is Mildred, who flirts with him and enrages in him such a lust that he devises a plan to dominate her through indifference (that doesn't work out so well). Conversely, Norah loves Philip and treats him with affection and respect; Philip likes her well enough but, he casually admits, does not love her. This is a shame, because Norah was cool, and I wish she had showed up again (although that might have been awkward).

Maugham's refusal to surrender to something so trite as a romantic ending is peculiar but extremely gratifying. He is very frank about the way Philip's love for Mildred has warped his ability to form attachments to other women: he takes Norah's attention for what it is, but he is unable to return it in kind. Sally, the Athelnys' oldest daughter, develops feelings for Philip, but do the two of them fall head-over-heels in love and live happily-ever-after? No, and in fact Maugham makes it clear that Philip doesn't love Sally (as Philip understands love). We don't know if Sally loves him—and rightly so, for one never gets to know that about someone else. It's a matter of trust and faith as much any amount of certainty. Sally seems to be plenty enthusiastic about making love to Philip and affectionately calls him "an old silly", but then we get a passage like this:

Never a word of love passed between them. She seemed not to desire anything more than the companionship of those walks. Yet Philip was positive that she was glad to be with him. She puzzled him as much as she had done at the beginning. He did not begin to understand her conduct; but the more he knew her the fonder he grew of her; she was competent and self controlled, and there was a charming honesty in her: you felt that you could rely upon her in every circumstance.

Although the latest and least-developed relationship in Of Human Bondage, this is paradoxically the best and most profound of them all: it's messy and uncertain and ambiguous, just like real life. When Sally mentions off hand that her period is late, Philip resolves to abandon his dreams of travelling the world, accept an offer to become a partner in a practice in the south of England, and propose. He does this out of a sense of duty to Sally and her parents and not "true love"—yet when Sally reveals that she was mistaken, that she is not pregnant after all, Philip decides to propose anyway:

"I wonder if you'll marry me, Sally."

She did not move and there was no flicker of emotion on her face, but she did not look at him when she answered.

"If you like."

"Don't you want to?"

"Oh, of course I'd like to have a house of my own, and it's about time I was settling down."

He smiled a little. He knew her pretty well by now, and her manner did not surprise him.

"But don't you want to marry me?"

"There's no one else I would marry."

"Then that settles it."

"Mother and Dad will be surprised, won't they?"

"I'm so happy."

"I want my lunch," she said.

I confess I glanced at the last page before I started reading the book, and this exchange really confused me. (I felt like I had stumbled into that episode of Disney's The Weekenders where they see an existentialist play in which the answer to every question involves playing shuffleboard.) Once I finished the book and read the final page with the previous 699 behind me, everything fell into place. Its acceptance and endorsement of the quotidian and the mediocre is what makes Of Human Bondage an amazing book. I confess that I would be curious to see Philip and Sally thirty years on—has he had a change of heart, does he blame her for "holding him back" from travelling the world? (This is no doubt one reason it made me want to read Middlemarch again, for that book begins with the wedding and shows us what happens after.) While the idea that Philip and Sally "settle" for each other and Philip compromises his dreams might seem like a downer ending, I interpret its message differently. Philip doesn't "settle"; he merely finds happiness in a different avenue than what he had originally dreamed. It's a lesson not to let one's own dreams constrain one's field of choice, because there are many paths to contentment. I think, thanks to Sally's mistake, Philip finally forced himself to realize that his wanderlust is not the way to sate his need for truth and beauty. When she reveals she was mistaken, he has an opportunity to exit; he has no obligations to her whatsoever—but he doesn't, because his obligation was never the point. Of Human Bondage cautions us not to reject what might make us happy in favour of waiting to attain our wildest dreams.

This review is rather heavy on the quotations, I know, but I'm not sure of any other way to properly convey how Of Human Bondage encapsulates such a wide swath of the human experience. It is, to put it simply, amazing. Like Middlemarch and many of the other books on my "favourites" shelf, I will read it again to discover new insights and revelations. Unlike Philip, who sees no use in reading a book a second time, I know their secret. That's right, books, I'm on to you. I know how your unchanging text artfully conceals the fact that no two people ever experience you in exactly the same way, and that as a person grows and changes with the passage of time, the same text might suddenly offer up new lessons and messages (especially if you collect enough box-tops for the magic decoder ring). Of Human Bondage is that unfortunately rare combination of a "literary" work that is all-too-delightful to read and ripe for reading again and again.

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