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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Book Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

One warning before I kick off this review: Of Human Bondage is an exceptionally long book. The copy I've got (from the Vintage imprint) runs to exactly 700 pages and the type isn't exactly large either. However, I felt a unique sense of satisfaction when I finally closed it and I wouldn't say it was a monotonous chore to read.

The novel is known as Maugham's most autobiographical work. I don't know much about Maugham's life but a cursory glance at some biographical facts suggests much of the childhood portion of the book was based on his own experiences. In the novel the uncle who lives at Whitstable in real life becomes the vicar of Blackstable and the city where he received his education, Canterbury, becomes Tercanbury. I was aware of these similarities as I was reading and it helped create a sense of location. I don't think any knowledge of Maugham's early life is necessary to an enjoyment of this book, although it's interesting to see what things fit in and what is invention.

Of Human Bondage follows Philip Carey from his boyhood loss of his mother up to around the age of thirty. He packs quite a lot into life in this time. After the death of his mother he moves in with his uncle and aunt and goes to school in anticipation of becoming a clergyman. However, Philip was born with a club foot which makes integration at school difficult and, indeed, haunts him for much of his life. He frequently comments that whenever he is involved in a disagreement his disability is the one thing that people use as a low blow against him. It shapes the way he perceives the world and the way the world treats him.

Philip travels to Germany to finish his education and he also spends time in London then in Paris, looking for something he is suited to. He finally settles on his father's profession as a doctor for his career but this is beset with financial problems, primarily impacted by his relationship with a waitress called Mildred. I have to say, his dealings with this woman very nearly had me throwing the book against the wall. It occasionally defied belief that he took so much from her but, I suppose, seen through the eyes of his disability, it makes a little more sense. Still, Philip behaves in a somewhat pathetic manner and his self-sacrifices for the sake of Mildred are painful to read about. Each time she appeared I let out an audible sigh.

I don't think this novel is remarkable for character. Not only does Philip's character infuriate sense at times, other characters seem wooden on occasion. This could be symptomatic of the scope of the novel: so many people pass through the pages that fleshing them all out would be a difficult - and perhaps pointless - task. I found that some characters serve a purpose, or put across a point of view, before vanishing. Some, however, stuck in my memory a little more. Philip's aunt, Mrs Carey, struggles to demonstrate her affection for her nephew in the face of indifference from her husband. One of the most touching scenes of the book for me was the moment she pressed her life savings into his hands to make up for not being a 'proper' aunt to him during his youth. Another female character, the tragic Fanny Price, is notable for the end of her story. Perhaps it was that end which kept her in my mind but it could also have been the desperation to preserve appearances and self-belief which did it.

What Of Human Bondage seems to do best is impart ideas an philosophy. In Germany, for instance, Philip finds the religious doctrines he has followed all his life being challenged as he examines the differences between the Protestant religion he knows and the Catholic religion practised in Europe. When you consider this book was published in 1915, the conclusions are a little startling:

The fact was that he had ceased to believe not for this reason or the other, but because he had not the religious temperament. Faith had been forced upon him from the outside. He put off the faith of his childhood quite simply, like a cloak that he no longer needed. At first life seemed strange and lonely without the belief which, though he never realised it, had been an unfailing support. He felt like a man who has leaned on a stick and finds herself forced suddenly to walk without assistance. It really seemed as though the days were colder and the nights more solitary. But he was upheld by the excitement; it seemed to make life a more thrilling adventure; and in a little while the stick which he had thrown aside, the cloak which had fallen from his shoulders, seemed an intolerable burden of which he had been eased. (p130)

What Maugham does very well throughout the novel is examine the ideas of religion and morality, along with the meaning of life. It's interesting to see Philip's uncle, the vicar, struggling towards the end of his life with a painful thought that he may not be in for eternal peace after all. Along with religion, Maugham uses Philip's time in Paris to discuss art and philosophy. Many of the characters Philip encounters there become merely mouthpieces for ideas Maugham wants to impart.

I enjoyed this book, although I wanted to hit Philip. I think it's worth reading for the ruminations on humanity but don't go to it for character. Go to it for the sheer ease of storytelling or go to it for the intricate scenes Maugham depicts throughout the pages. It may not be an enthralling read but I did come away with knowledge I'm not sure I recognised before.

1 comment:

Joseph said...

Yep...I've met a few characters in lit that I wanted to hit, but probably none more than Philip. So many people rave over this novel. Glad I'm not the only one over the moon for it. Great review!

My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2015/06/of-human-bondage-by-w-somerset-maugham.html