Study Guide

Of Human Bondage

by W. Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Of Human Bondage, published when Maugham had just ended his fourth decade, was a highly polished, considerably more mature book than its unpublished antecedent, “The Artistic Temperament of Steven Carey,” written during a sojourn in Spain and unpublished first because Maugham did not want it published at once, and later because no publisher would accept it. Any disappointment that ensued from that book’s rejection was well assuaged over succeeding years when Maugham—now a mature writer with considerable experience in writing plays, short stories, and novels—returned to the manuscript around 1911 and began to rewrite it, this time renaming the protagonist Philip Carey. The result was Of Human Bondage, probably Maugham’s best-known novel and certainly among his two or three most artistically successful ones. The philosophical scope of this book far exceeds that of the earlier version, presumably because Maugham had now matured into middle age.

By this time he realized that he did his best writing when he wrote about his own experience. Also by this time he had experienced considerable success as a playwright and was able to apply to his prose writing some of the techniques he had learned as a dramatist, thereby bringing greater dramatic tension into his fiction.

Philip Carey’s story, with certain artistic alterations, is Maugham’s own story. The novel opens when the young Philip is informed of his mother’s death. The boy went to his mother’s closet, just as young Willie did, and wrapped his arms around as many of her dresses as possible, burying his face in them, inhaling the lingering vestiges of his mother’s perfume. Like Maugham, Philip is soon sent to England to live with his uncle, a vicar, and his Aunt Louisa. Philip differs from Willie in that he has a club foot, but this touch is simply a substitution for Willie’s affliction: stuttering. The young Maugham stuttered badly, particularly after the death of his parents, and suffered from this problem throughout his life. As Philip was abused by the students and masters of the school he attended at Tercanberry, so was Maugham ridiculed for his stuttering by his masters and fellow students at King’s...

(The entire section is 907 words.)

Of Human Bondage Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Philip Carey is nine years old when his mother dies, and he is sent to live with his aunt and uncle at the vicarage of Blackstable, forty miles outside London. Uncle William Carey is a penny-pinching, smugly religious man who makes Philip’s life miserable. Having been born with a clubfoot, Philip is extremely sensitive about his deformity, and he grows up bitter and rebellious. The only love he is shown is given to him by his aunt, Louisa, who has never been able to have children of her own. At school, Philip’s clubfoot is a source of much ridicule, for the children are cruel. Philip is so sensitive that any reference to his foot, even a kind reference, causes him to strike out at the speaker.

When he is eighteen years old, Philip, with a small inheritance of his own, goes to Berlin to study. He takes a room in the home of Professor and Frau Erlin. There, he studies German, French, and mathematics with tutors from the University of Heidelberg. He meets several young men, among them Weeks, an American, and Hayward, a radical young Englishman. From their serious discussions on religion, Philip decides that he no longer believes in God. This decision makes him feel free; for in discarding God, he subconsciously discards his memories of his cold and bitter youth at the vicarage.

Shortly after his return to Blackstable, Philip becomes involved with a woman, Miss Emily Wilkinson, who is twice his age and a friend of Aunt Louisa. She is not attractive to him, but he thinks a man of twenty years of age should experience love. It is typical of Philip’s attitude that even after they become lovers he continues to call her Miss Wilkinson. Not long after the affair, Philip goes to London to begin a career as a clerk in an accounting firm. Dissatisfied, he works only a year; then he goes to Paris to study art. Two years later, he gives up the idea of becoming an artist and returns to London for his third great start on a career. He has decided to study medicine.

In London, Philip meets Mildred Rogers, a waitress. She is really nothing more than a wanton, but Philip nevertheless loves her and desires her above all else. He gives her presents that are extravagant for his small income, and he neglects his studies to be with her. She gives him nothing in return. When he asks her to marry him—seemingly the only way he can possess her—she tells him bluntly that he does not have enough money for her and that she is marrying someone else. Philip both loves her and hates her so much that he is almost consumed by his emotions.

In his affection for another girl, he starts to forget Mildred as she returns to London. Alone and penniless, Mildred tells him that the other man had not married her and that he already had a wife and children. Mildred is pregnant, and Philip forgets the other girl and takes Mildred back. He pays her hospital bill and her...

(The entire section is 1177 words.)