Reading Guide

Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage


Introduction by:

INTRODUCTION

Of Human Bondage is a bildungsroman made unique by W. Somerset Maugham’s minute dissection of the limitations of individual freedom. The novel delineates the coming of age of Philip Carey, an orphan with a clubfoot. Raised by his aunt and uncle, a vicar, Philip grows up under the rules of their house and church. He is tormented at school but excels academically and even aspires to be an ordained minister. Just before graduation, he takes off for a year in Heidelberg, where he is plunged into a world of ideas and succumbs to religious skepticism. But he finds nothing to replace his religion or his identity as an English gentleman. Attempting to fill in the blanks and follow his true nature, Philip struggles by trial and error to establish a philosophy for himself. The novel relates the weight of each failure, each disappointment that Philip endures, in realistic detail. As a result, Maugham convincingly shows a sensitive young man’s battle to eliminate the constraints imposed on him so that he may live freely, but at the conclusion of the novel, it is unclear whether Philip ever attains the freedom he desires—and whether Maugham’s title, Of Human Bondage, suggests that humanity’s natural state of being is one of freedom or rather one of perpetual restriction.

When Philip breaks from religion, he takes a bold first step toward transforming himself. Philip’s inner nature, without any conscious effort on his part, asserts itself: “He was surprised at himself because he ceased to believe so easily, and, not knowing that he felt as he did on account of the subtle workings of his inmost nature, he ascribed the certainty he had reached to his own cleverness” (p. 118). Philip loses his faith as a result of the buildup of years of repression imposed on him while living in his uncle’s vicarage and while attending King’s School. In both places, Philip’s pious caretakers often treat him with indifferent cruelty. The reality that Philip experiences does not match the professed ideals of his religion. For example, Philip believes that Weeks, an American he meets in Heidelberg, is a kind man who leads a life of Christian purity, but knows that the Church of England considers any “unbeliever” to be “a wicked and a vicious man” (p. 115). Philip comes to his own conclusion: “It was evidently possible to be virtuous and unbelieving” (p. 115). When Philip renounces his religion, the narrator pauses to comment on youth’s shedding of illusion: “It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life” (p. 121). But just because Philip sheds one unrealistic ideal does not guarantee that he won’t fall for the next one. For we are told that “the strange thing is that each one who has gone through that bitter disillusionment adds to it in his turn, unconsciously, by the power within him which is stronger than himself” (p. 121). Philip frees himself from a religious upbringing that he realizes contradicts his reality. But what does he replace it with?

Philip’s preoccupation with freeing his spirit leads him to read philosophy in order to find “some guide by which he could rule his conduct” (p. 257), but he ultimately decides to become his own philosopher. Reflecting on the varied experiences and ideas he discovered during his failed attempts to become a chartered accountant and then a painter, Philip comes to the conclusion that sin is “a prejudice from which the free man should rid himself” (p. 259), and that a “free man can do no wrong” (p. 260). His failed attempts at finding an occupation are not without their benefits. Once he enters medical school to begin his third attempt at a vocation, Philip has pieced together a philosophy, albeit an incomplete one. He doesn’t believe in right or wrong, yearns to discover the intention of the soul, and is still trying to define a mode of conduct and the meaning of life. At this point in the novel, it is important to wonder whether Philip’s fragmentary philosophy affects how he lives: whether it helps him free his inner nature or merely restricts it in a different way.

Philip’s obsession with Mildred, a selfish, vulgar woman with few redeeming qualities, may at first seem odd given his desire for complete freedom. But his affair with her can be seen as an unconscious attempt to escape an idea and an expectation he finds confining: the attainment of happiness. Mildred takes advantage of Philip’s generosity, yet he purposefully subjects himself to continued torture from her, despite his recognition of her shortcomings and the fact that he is often repulsed by her. Considering Philip’s incomplete philosophy, failed attempts at work, and bad beginning as a medical student, his love affair at this point in the book may reflect his failure to find a way of life that is meaningful to him. When he begins his affair with Norah after Mildred leaves him for another man, Philip realizes how happy Norah makes him. Yet Philip leaves Norah and goes back to his misery with Mildred: “He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other” (p. 338).

The desire for happiness is, finally, the last ideal that Philip casts aside in his pursuit of freedom. When he realizes that “his life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness” and that “it might be measured by something else” (p. 525), he disowns his desire to be happy and in turn is happy. But what is this something else by which life might be measured? Perhaps it is his belief that the pattern one chooses to follow in life determines the meaning of one’s life. In the end, when he decides to marry Sally, Philip chooses “the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died” (p. 606-607). And with this decision to pursue the mundane—a departure from the typical bildungsroman in which the sensitive protagonist turns out to be an artist or otherwise realize his potential—we are told, “It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories” (p. 607).

 

ABOUT W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris to British parents on January 25, 1874. There are many parallels between his life and that of his protagonist in Of Human Bondage. Like Philip Carey, Maugham lost both his parents at an early age and was sent to live with his uncle (a vicar) and aunt in England. As a boy at King’s School in Canterbury, Maugham suffered from bullying and the insensitivity of others. A severe stutter hampered him socially, and he retreated into his studies. Rather than finishing school and continuing on to Oxford, Maugham rebelled against his guardian’s wishes and, like Philip, spent time as an unregistered student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Returning to England, Maugham entered St. Thomas’s medical school to appease his aunt and uncle, but he had already decided he would be a writer. He earned a medical degree but never practiced. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was published in 1897, the same year he graduated.

Maugham’s writing career spanned sixty-five years, during which time he was quite prolific. Although he began as a novelist, his first popular success was as a dramatist. Maugham quit writing plays, however, when contemporary preferences in the genre changed, deciding to concentrate on novels and short stories instead. Among Maugham’s many works, Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale; or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (1930), and The Razor’s Edge (1944) are considered his greatest. Maugham died in France in 1965.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. When Mr. Perkins, the headmaster of King’s School, tries to persuade Philip to go to Oxford, we are told that Philip “felt himself slipping. He was powerless against the weakness that seemed to well up in him” (p. 81). Is Philip’s refusal to be ordained or to at least go to Oxford a weakness or a strength?
     
  2. While Hayward believes in “the Whole, the Good, and the Beautiful” (p. 112), Weeks, defining himself as a Unitarian, says he “believes in almost everything that anybody else believes” (p. 114). How do these two outlooks compare with each other and with Philip’s interpretation, at the end of the novel, of the Persian carpet design as a metaphor for the meaning of life?
     
  3. After realizing that he no longer believes in God, why does Philip say to himself, “If there is a God after all and He punishes me because I honestly don’t believe in Him I can’t help it” (p. 119)?
     
  4. When Philip starts to see how reality differs from his ideals, the narrator says that the young “must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life” (p. 121). Why does Maugham use a religious image associated with Christ’s suffering to describe the suffering of disillusionment?
     
  5. When discussing Philip’s initial disillusionment, the narrator says, “The strange thing is that each one who has gone through that bitter disillusionment adds to it in his turn, unconsciously, by the power within him which is stronger than himself” (p. 121). What is this power?
     
  6. After Philip leaves Heidelberg, why does the narrator tell us that Philip “never knew that he had been happy there” (p. 130)?
     
  7. Why does Philip subject himself with masochistic obstinacy to Mildred’s cruelty?
     
  8. Do Philip’s life choices reflect Cronshaw’s theory about pleasure being the only motive for human action?
     
  9. Why is Philip happy when he casts aside his desire for happiness?
     
  10. Why does Philip think of “the words of the dying God” (p. 604) as he forgives humanity’s defects, Griffiths’s treachery, and Mildred’s cruelty?
     
  11. Why does Maugham end the novel with Philip and Sally’s engagement?
     
  12. Does Philip ever rid himself of idealism?
     
  13. At the end of the novel, are we meant to think that Philip has found the freedom he has been looking for?
     

FOR FURTHER REFLECTI0N

  1. How much control do we have over whether or not we are happy?
     
  2. Is it possible to live without ideals?
     
  3. Can self-control be “as passionate and as active as the surrender to passion” (p. 437)?
     

Related Titles

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (1925)
Drawn to the empty promises made to him by a malignant society, Clyde Griffiths, the doomed protagonist of this central work of naturalism, is driven to commit murder to further his ambitions.

Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
Headstrong Bathsheba Everdene vainly rebukes Gabriel Oak’s love for her and involves herself instead with two suitors who bring her tragic misfortune.

Henry James, The American (1877)
When American millionaire Christopher Newman courts French aristocrat Claire de Cintré, he learns that he must win over her proud family, the de Bellegardes, as well.

D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (1913)
Paul Morel, a talented artist, is unsuccessful in love twice, and he struggles to be free of his mother’s dominating influence.


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