Review of ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Somerset Maugham

‘Of Human Bondage’ evokes many views in my mind. It is the best book written by Somerset Maugham. It fully deserves to be featured in the ‘Top 100 English Novels of the 20th Century’ by The Modern Library.

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Maugham’s magnum opus                                          Image Courtesy – You Tube

It is the book that even the critics, who were otherwise narrow and ungenerous to Maugham, have commended as a classic and accentuated the fact that Maugham best represented the effect of French naturalism in English writing. Finally it is Maugham’s endearing legacy to many a future generations of readers.

It is a book that I discovered in my late teens and have admired the most. It is the book that I like to read once in every five years to mark my personal progress in life and derive new insights into my personality. And it convinced me of the cathartic power that Maugham attributed to the process of writing. He simply bared his heart in the novel and was set free forever of the teeming sad memories of a difficult childhood. He had lost his parents early and barely coped with his ‘boarding-school’ life as a shy child with a bad problem of the stammer.

It is nearly 650 pages and the ‘tome-like’ length makes it a bit of difficult read for the average Joe. And it is not the best example of Maugham’s idea of a story that should have a beginning, middle and end. Maugham is also not interested in making it popular by using witty lines and livening up the story by setting a quick tempo. Instead he treats you to an unsparing journey of a naïve and ‘hyper-sensitive’ unhappy man who finds it so difficult to find true love and cope with the harsh realities of life.

He loses his hope, one by one, on most of his illusions – a loveless childhood is followed by not being able to make many friends at his boarding-school. He is seduced by an older woman and scarred further by the incident. He faces multiple failures – it begins with giving up his ambition to join the Church more to spite his teacher and uncle rather than any conviction of ideas. He gets apprenticed in a commercial firm and makes a hash of it as well. He escapes to Paris to study art and after a while discovers that he is a mediocre student.

Finally he sets his heart at becoming a doctor to earn his honest living. It is then that he is stuck by unrequited love for a woman who is quite unworthy of it. The reader instantly and instinctively knows that she will never reciprocate but the callow youth perseveres with his effort. He is then deceived by her and a scheming college mate. His tragedy, Maugham notes, is reflected in the fact that self-control might be as passionate and as active as the surrender to passion.

At the end of it he has lost hope in religion and God, been reduced to penurious state by his own reckless acts, is forced to give up his pursuit of the Medical degree and even endured the ultimate self-flagellation of labeling himself a ‘cripple’. Maugham portrays the tragic and silly young lad, Philip in graphic detail. Maugham uses him as a vehicle to present his honest and searing take on the sacred conventions of the times – religion, class and sexual morality.

Philip comes across as a youth capable of experiencing unlimited amount of grief as well as joy with an eternal belief in the hope for a better future.  A critic noted that the Hero is so busy yearning for the Moon that he fails to see the six-pence lying at his feet. (Maugham was smart enough to use this as a title of his next novel.) At the end of it Maugham derides the illusion of life itself by likening it to the Persian rug – the varied hues representing the varied emotions of life. And Cronshaw, the drunk and disillusioned poet quips, ‘There is no meaning to the design.’

The book devotes a fair part of time to Philip’s experience of Paris as an art student living in the ‘Quarter’ having limited means and fellow Bohemians for company. Maugham displays his sympathy for people struggling in the art world when they lack the innate talent for it which no amount of hard work and application can surmount. He has a bitter Art Master wittily remark, ‘It is cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it is too late. It does not improve the temper.’ Echoes of this can be found in another short story written by Maugham, ‘The Alien Corn’.

The one bright spot that the writer introduces in Philip’s life and that is sustained till the end is the entry of Athelny and his practical approach to life. Athelny is shown to be in relatively straitened times but is in his element when he introduces Philip to his warm and loving family. He is again a stock character who has been built further from another of Maugham’s short stories, ‘The Creative Impulse’ featuring Albert Forrester. The charm of Athelny’s character is that he is no humbug – in fact he enjoys his life on his own terms and is contemptuous of the conventional societal mores. He provides the much-needed support to Philip at the time of great distress and helps him to evolve into a better person.

Philip’s repeated encounters with Mildred leave him poorer in both material and spiritual terms. The last but one encounter creates a situation wherein he has to quit the Medical school and leave his modest lodgings as well. He has been reduced to the role of being a ‘floor walker’ in a department store. Graphic details of his misery and the daily compromises are doled out by Maugham who then reinforces yet another of his core beliefs – ‘Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five.’

Philip has a brief encounter with a sympathetic Norah and the reader welcomes this as a necessary diversion. He even builds up the hope that this will be the character’s redemption from his earlier fixation but Maugham, for reasons of his own, wrecks it up again without providing much of an explanation.This does remain an unsatisfying episode in the novel – in fact it undermines the credibility of the final climax as well. The reader may well feel that Maugham just copped out finally and gave us the conventional ‘happy ending’ to a sordid tale.

The book ends on a surprising but pleasant twist in the tale. And for once we have a platitudinous quote to end at with reference to the pattern of life – ‘There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died.’

Maugham gained a lot from the release of this book. Apart from being a critical and commercial success that enhanced his reputation, it also freed him from the painful memories of his own childhood. A more sophisticated Maugham took centre stage who, fortified by success and wealth, developed his famous persona of being a compassionate cynic and a man of the world. Here was someone who could afford to look at the human foibles and frailties with a tolerant smile and truly inclined to do so.

Of Human Bondage – derived from Spinoza’s Ethics – is definitely a more apt title than the earlier effort titled, ‘The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey’. It represents man’s eternal quest to strive for the two good things in life, as Maugham mentions himself, – freedom of thought and freedom of action.

Collection:Popperfoto Courtesy:Getty Images
Collection:Popperfoto
Courtesy:Getty Images
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