Of Human Bondage / W. Somerset Maugham

In a novel that has autobiographical overtones to his own life, Of Human Bondage is considered by many critics to be Maugham’s masterpiece. It is easy to understand why this book has remained popular since its publication in 1915. The story is told in a matter-of-fact manner, insuring that it is not a challenging read, despite its philosophical overtones. What will probably deter today’s reader is the book’s length. It requires a commitment of time and persistence to complete.

Throughout, the focus of the story remains on Philip Carey. It follows him from the time he becomes an orphan at age nine into his thirties when he finally achieves a medical degree. This is after a series of setbacks in his life that leave him at times close to penury. I took an instant liking to Philip; this is important to the story’s success since he is front and center on every page. The insecurities he exhibits while growing into adulthood will surely resonate with readers who have experienced the same feelings.

The story is told in chronological order, with the early chapters focusing on the cold disposition of his self-centered uncle, a clergyman, who has taken him in following the death of his mother. When Philip is sent away to school, he is mocked because of having a clubfoot and an inability to take part in sports. When setting forth into adult life, he wrestles with finding a career that suits and engages him. He moves from an apprenticeship at an accounting firm in London to relocating to Paris in pursuit of his aspirations to become an artist. In this too he fails, realizing that at best he would be a second-rate painter. In the end, he decides to pursue a medical degree, feeling it will provide him the income needed to fulfill his dream of traveling the world while still young.

While the movie adaptations of the novel focus on Philip’s obsessive love for Mildred, a heartless women who takes advantage of his support without returning his affection, this is only one of the book’s many storylines. Here, Maugham addresses the many different forms of human bondage humankind is shackled with: the bondage to others, to one’s job, the need for money, religious dogma, and even one’s own dreams. The author cleverly weaves these themes into the daily events taking place in Philip’s life.

I was reminded of Charles Dickens’ novels when reading Of Human Bondage. A good number of its side characters could have been created by Dickens; especially the Athelny family. However, Maugham’s story is far more daring in the topics he tackles. Atheism, prostitution, unwedded pregnancy, abortion, all are touched upon in this opus. It also shuns Dickens’ sentimentality. While at times I questioned the novel’s inability to steer a straight line, by its conclusion I realized what mattered wasn’t Philip’s ultimate success, but rather the knowledge he accumulated along the way.

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