Book Review: Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham

It was perhaps inevitable that I would eventually read this book, for at least two reasons.  On the one hand, the book is one that appears often, and has occurred especially often in my recent readings about lashon hara, the Jewish idea of evil speech, in the way that the protagonist of the story is mercilessly teased for his club foot throughout his youth.  As someone whose painful early years with bullying and abuse lives with me even still and likely always will, this painful personal understanding of such harm would have led me eventually to explore the book itself.  In addition to that, the book has appeared several times in my correspondence with my mom, who has drawn parallels between my own romantic life and the story of this novel.  While I have generally found that the connections people draw between my character and that of novels has seldom been personally enjoyable to read–like the time I was compared by a former seminary classmate of mine to one of the more unpleasant characters in Middlemarch–it has at least spurred me to read such works and see what it is that people were getting at, and such was the case here.

In light of this context, I decided not only to read this book but as many other books by the author as I could, and I found in general from that previous reading (reviews forthcoming) that I greatly appreciated the author’s style and approach, even if he was viewed as somewhat old fashioned during the early 20th century.  I found that I appreciated his restrained prose as well as his deep psychological acuity, and those phenomena are definitely to be found in this book.  Philip Carey, the semiautobiographical hero of this book, is definitely a very Nathanish figure.  As is the case with many such figures, this phenomenon leads me to wonder (as I often wonder when reading this sort of book) why it is that I encounter Nathanish figures so much more often in literature than in life.  In my extensive travels, I have not found it very often to meet people who are like me.  Wherever I have been, I have been an odd sort of bird, and yet when I read books I regularly find that people write figures like myself, who combine restrained emotional affect with deep intellect and the fire of painful experiences of abuse and personal torment, who struggle to maintain dignity, find loving and intimate relationships, and feel as if their youth has been wasted by various false starts and misadventures.  So it is here and so it is in a great many books that I have read.  Perhaps it is that Nathanish people are compelled to write, as the author was, and that such people tend to find each other across generations through those writings, even if such people find it difficult to find each other in the same time and place.

Given all this, it should not be a surprise that this novel, at more than 500 pages, was well worth reading, and that the novel combines a great deal of skill with a sprawling tale of considerable complexity.  Philip Carey enters this tale as an orphaned boy being raised by a stern vicar uncle and his loving wife, finds himself bullied and tormented as a student in the brutal English schools of the late 19th century (not too different from the ones I grew up in), and fancies himself an artist.  He finds that his artistic talents are limited after spending two years in Paris and then returns home to England to become a doctor, finding his studies interrupted by his money running out.  He engages in some hard labor where his drawing skills and kindness give him a chance to earn a living before the chance death of his uncle gives him the chance to finish his studies and enter into a career as a partner of a crusty doctor with a strong social streak of helping the poor and avoiding medical fads.  While all of this career and intellectual development is going on, Philip finds himself dreadfully unpopular with girls and oblivious to the interest some girls have in him, finding himself attached to a truly dreadful and whorish woman named Mildred, and only very eventually finding himself engaged to be married to a much younger woman whose practicality and character he respects and appreciates without being infatuated with her, having recently found himself taken aback by a letter written by his late mother that indicated she was a pious person not given to mawkish sentimentality, all of which encourages him to take matters of faith and personal integrity more seriously than he had done before.

In the complexity of the story, the astute reader is left to wonder about the many aspects of human bondage that the book discusses.  We see the protagonist struggle with bondage to the identity of being a cripple as a result of his clubbed foot, with the self-knowledge of his own foibles and weaknesses and longings, with the pain of loneliness and isolation, with the experience of grinding poverty and the lack of freedom that comes from being dependent on cranky older relatives.  We even see human bondage in some respects as a positive thing, given the protagonist’s practical idealism in seeking to use his talents to help benefit the poor he encounters whose struggle he has some understanding of, and his desire to create worthwhile art and to recognize the aspects of design in his own complex and often painful life.  Even his decision at the end of the novel to marry a woman he respects but is not in love with and to become a partner in a medical practice rather than to travel around the world in rootless abandon is itself an aspect of human bondage that is viewed as an aspect of maturity and character, of behaving manfully and honorably.  As Bob Dylan famously sang, “You’ve gotta serve somebody,” and whether we serve our own ambitions or our sense of duty and honor or our longings and desires or live in fear and torment about how other people think towards us, we have some experience with the multifarious aspects of human bondage that this book eloquently deals with, providing a deep moral lesson in the most subtle and profound of ways, through the telling of a story the author obviously knew well, and one that can relate deeply to people who have limped in a similar fashion to Philip in our own lives.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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