Of Human Bondage

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*Please note that the following review contains spoilers

Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ is an exceptional novel. A semi-autobiographical bildungsroman focusing on the emotional and intellectual development of Philip Carey, ‘Of Human Bondage’ easily qualifies as a classic. Philip Carey is orphaned at the age of nine, and falls under the guardianship of his uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, and his wife. The novel explores Philip’s emotional and intellectual development from his childhood and school career to his years as a student of diverse disciplines. Philip initially studies languages in Germany, and following an attempt at chartered accountancy in London, considers the prospect of becoming a painter. While Phillip’s two years in Paris as an art student are far from fruitless, he feels that he can never be more than a second-rate painter. Returning to London, Philip ultimately decides to embark upon a career of medicine.

The novel so far introduces us to several superbly drawn and utterly believable characters whose lives have traversed Philip’s in some way, such as the masters at Kings school, the complacent self-satisfied Vicar, his loving and fragile wife Louisa Carey, Miss. Wilkinson, the disagreeable yet pitiable Fanny Price, Hayward, Cronshaw etc. However, never have Philip’s thoughts and feelings been so strongly and compulsively fixated on one object as when he meets Mildred Rogers- an anaemic waitress and the devouring, all-consuming love of Phillip’s life. Mildred Rogers has to be one the most vicious characters in all of fiction. She is indifferent to Phillip, and insensible to his attentions and desperate entreaties for her love. Loving him is something out of her power. Yet, she is not above benefiting from his generosity, humiliating him, abasing him, making him grovel before her, and using him to the utmost. Philip’s love is not blind. He sees her for what she is, but a sort of inexorable force constantly draws him towards her. Every time she enters his life and wreaks havoc, he is helpless before her:

“He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her…..He hated her, he despised her, he loved her with all his heart”.

This sort of attachment may seem uncanny and bizarre, but is very convincingly depicted in the novel. You feel for Philip, his self-destructive love for Mildred may be exasperating but you never want to blame him. He loves her inspite of her and inspite of himself. This relationship is one form of bondage Philip eventually manages to extricate himself from. Another force dominating the early part of his life, which Philip also perceives as a form of bondage is religion. His religious education begins at home in Blackstable and is augmented by what he learns at King’ School. Philip suffers from a clubfoot. His faith is first somewhat shaken when as a child he ardently prays that his clubfoot may be miraculously cured, so that he can run around and play like the other boys. His foot remains as it was. However, his real spiritual inquiry begins through his conversations with Weeks and Hayward in Germany. Some of Philip’s concerns will probably find an echo in the private thoughts of many theists of different faiths: what of non-believers? So much of faith seems a matter of chance, the role of fear in the retention of faith etc. At core, however, Philip is unable to believe in the existence of God. To Philip suffering, loss, success and happiness all seem to be so indiscriminately apportioned and he observes that the ‘rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore’. Attending this is his conviction in the meaninglessness of life which he regards as a liberating force:

“Suddenly he realised that he had also lost that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did . Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in him.”

‘Of Human Bondage’ in some ways reminded me of another very different novel: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The context which informs the strong nihilism underpinning this novel is the communist order existing in Czechoslovakia. In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being” Kundera presents the lightness/weight dichotomy, first postulated by Parmenides in the sixth Century B.C. whereby one acquires a state of lightness by divesting actions or life experiences of any deeper meaning or resonance. These actions are purportedly just the product of an individual’s exercise of his own volition, and have no place or special significance within the larger scheme of things or a “super-imposed grand narrative”. During the Cold War, in the Eastern block the most trivial and minor events were automatically invested with tremendous meaning by being positioned within the exhausted and impoverished State narrative, or being viewed as auguring a predicted turn in the larger dynamics at play. Of course, because the State ‘grand narrative’ was very much at odds with the economic and social realities encountered under Communist rule, this perfunctory or mechanical mode of imbuing events with broader significance had the effect of inducing extreme weariness. It had the effect of rendering life “pervasively, oppressively meaningful” (1). The cynicism and weariness generated by the imposition of a communist order was not confined to matters directly involving the state, but infused all aspects of life. As one critic John Bayley articulates:

‘The only escape from the congealed political kitsch of the regime is into the lightness of total irresponsibility… the regime corrupts totally the private consciousness of the citizens….Communism in practice cannot conquer the private life, but it makes it light and meaningless, weightless and cynical.’ (2)

Yet the response ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ evoked in me was radically different to that generated by ‘Of Human Bondage’. The former novel filled me with a sense of bleakness. For all it’s brilliance a sense of morbidity permeated every page. Kundera’s himself appears to be one of those supremely cynical citizens (or former citizens), whose private consciousness has been corrupted. His vision repelled me and I found myself totally recoiling from the actions of some of his characters. With ‘Of Human Bondage’ you can agree, disagree or have a mixed response to the novel’s underlying philosophy, but you never cease to like Philip. He is a very nice person. Sensitive and thoughtful, the overriding quality you associate with him is kindness. He hurts Norah Nesbit by leaving her for Mildred, but he is never actuated by malice. While your own perspective may diverge from his you never lose sight of the fact that his questions are legitimately grounded, emanate from his own experiences, and don’t have easy answers. A disavowal of faith and belief that he is only responsible to himself, does not induce any difference in the way Philip conducts himself towards others. Philip is of the view that while he no longer believes, he cannot divorce himself from Christian ethics, and that this implicitly informs some of his behaviour. His friend and, to some extent, mentor Cronshaw has a different theory. Cronshaw maintains that whatever good people do, is ultimately for their own pleasure. Taking up pain and hardship with a view to achieving certain results, is merely delayed gratification. He states:

‘It is pleasure that lurks in the practice of every one of your virtues. Man performs actions because they are good for him and when they are good for other people as well they are thought virtuous: If he finds pleasure in giving alms he is charitable; if he finds pleasure in helping others he is benevolent, if he find pleasure in working for society he is public spirited; but it is for your private pleasure that you give twopence to a beggar as much as it is for my private pleasure that I drink another whisky and soda. I, less of a humbug than you, neither applaud myself for my pleasure nor demand your admiration.’

On the face of it, Cronshaw’s argument is sound enough. Ultimately we do things for our own satisfaction. Our ‘pleasure’ in performing a particular service may just be avoiding the guilt or potential regret of not doing it. But obviously numerous complex and even contradictory variables will enter into a decision to do or refrain from doing a particular thing. What is to be gained from reducing these variables and the competing motives which underlie them, and bringing them all under the overarching umbrella of ‘pleasure’? That we do things for our own pleasure may even seem like a trite statement of fact. It’s more interesting to ask why certain things or acts of kindness commonly confer pleasure (on both the recipient and the giver) . The answer seems inextricably linked with some concept of innate morality.

‘Of Human Bondage’ is beautifully written. The prose is sophisticated and expressive without ever sounding verbose. Maugham is aiming at the direct expression of Philip’s thoughts and experiences, and the writing retains a simple elegance. Amongst Maugham’s chief strengths is his understanding of people and his insight into their psychological make-up, and one of the outstanding features of ‘Of Human Bondage’ is just how effectively the diverse characters which populate it are rendered. All of them have something interesting to impart, and you have absolutely no doubt that they were at least partially drawn from real life. Maugham is known to have referred to himself as being ‘in the very first row of the second-raters’. I think he was being modest in the extreme. There is nothing second rate about ‘Of Human Bondage’.©

(1)Terry Eagleton, ‘Estrangement and Irony’, Salmagundi, 73 (Winter 1987)
(2)John Bayley, ‘Fictive Lightness, Fictive Weight’, Salmagundi, no. 73 (Winter 1987)