Of Human Bondage – Review

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Published in 1915

Pages: 380

Genre: Fiction, semi-autobiographical

“The day broke gray and dull.”

This line sums up Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham incredibly well. Following the life of a newly orphaned boy in England, the book covers twenty years of indecision, romanticized lust, and attempts at self-discovery. Fraught with romantic entanglements and conversations of morality and religion, Of Human Bondage makes for a bit of a slog due to the immense amount of toilsome prose.

Taking place in the late 1800s, Of Human Bondage concerns the life of  9-year-old Philip Carey, a newly orphaned boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle. His uncle, the vicar of the local parish, is a devoutly religious man who retains his distance while his aunt tries to give him love that she is unaccustomed to.

Philip goes to an all boys school where he is made fun of because of his club foot. Throughout his time at the school he loses and regains faith in God as the story moves on into his teen years. This school is where he makes and loses his first friend, a boy named Rose, whose charisma draws Philip’s affections.

After this conflict, Philip grows out of enjoying school. He begins to slack off and though he is clever, he has a sentimental heart and his emotions often get the better of him. Philip decides to travel to Germany, defying the wishes of his uncle and teachers, where he interacts with people from around the world and learns about other faiths.

After his period of study in Germany is up, Philip tries to become an accountant but is terrible at it. He takes the little money he has, some of which was given to him by his aunt, and leaves to study art in Paris. There, he meets pretentious fellow artists (as one does) who wax poetic about philosophy and attempt to qualify what good art is.

It is during this time in Paris that Philip’s aunt dies. He comes to terms with what he feels to be his mediocrity as a painter and begins reading more philosophy to figure out how he should live in the wake of his aunt’s death. Philip believes the most prudent course is to become a doctor like his father.

Philip excels in his studies and falls in love with a waitress named Mildred. Rather, he believes he is in love because though he despises her, he cannot stop thinking of her and tries to buy her love and affection. She uses him and, on the one day she acts kindly toward, him announces she is now engaged to be married to another man. In the agony of her rebuff, Philip meets a sweet woman named Norah. He leads her on since she is nothing more than a rebound and drops her when Mildred returns with a child.

In the fit of happiness at a chance to win over Mildred, he bankrolls her and her child. However,  Mildred falls in love with Philip’s best friend after he introduces them at dinner and the two run away together. He returns to Norah but finds she is engaged.

To occupy his mind, Philip throws himself into his studies. A friend from his time in  Paris comes to London and Philip looks after him until his death. Mildred returns (yet again) and lives with Philip and the baby on the condition that they are only friends (he is no longer in love with her) and that she will keep up their modest apartment. She comes on to him (she is incapable of believing he has no ulterior motive) and she destroys his property when he refuses her advances.

Philip’s troubles continue when he loses all of his money in the stock exchange and must drop out of medical school. He is homeless and lives with a friend’s family until they are able to find him a job at a clothing store.

His uncle dies and Philip uses the inheritance money to return to medical school. He has an affair with the daughter of his friend and when he thinks she is pregnant prepares to start a life with her. Though this is a false alarm, it is revealed that she cares for him and he realizes happiness means starting a family.

In my attempt to save you the time of reading this book it appears I have instead written one of my longer reviews consisting primarily of plot summary. I apologize for that.

If that all seems like one event after another rather than a sequence of cause and effect, that’s because it is. Within the dense and meandering narrative, there are questions of secular morality and religion that arise; though if the point of the book was to give reason to these ponderous ideas, it needn’t be so long.

Maugham tells rather than shows, which is one of the biggest mistakes a writer can make when it comes to keeping their reader’s attention. He will literally say that Philip noticed his changes from “behavior x” to “behavior y” rather than show the reader through Philip’s interactions. Even though Philip does change by the end of the book, we aren’t given the chance to discover those changes for ourselves because Maugham does the work for us.

Many people hold this book in high esteem and though I see the merit in the story and its place in the history of Western literature, it was a book that I had consciously work at in order to finish reading. My copy is about the size of an average textbook, so that may be a contributing factor, but as interested as I was in the characters and story, there wasn’t enough of a pace to keep me interested. Of Human Bondage isn’t a bad book; it just doesn’t do itself any favors.

Verdict: 3 meandering plots out of 5

Recommended for: Those who dislike the classical narrative with a three act structure, fans of period pieces that give a glimpse into the everyday lives of people, lay philosophers, and people who are willing to commit a lot of time to a book.

Not recommended for: Fans of the classical narrative with a three act structure, fans of contemporary literature, those with short attention spans, or most readers.

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