Of Human Bondage Essay - Of Human Bondage Maugham, W. Somerset

Of Human Bondage Maugham, W. Somerset

Introduction

Of Human Bondage W. Somerset Maugham

The following entry presents criticism on Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage (1915). See also W. Somerset Maugham Criticism (Volume 1) and W. Somerset Maugham Criticism (Volume 11).

Of Human Bondage is arguably Maugham's most popular work and has steadily gained readers and influence since its publication in 1915. Often described as a bildungsroman, the novel chronicles the youth and early adulthood of Philip Carey as he struggles to retain his freedom and individuality within a rigid society. Clubfooted and orphaned, Philip struggles with his differences and sensitivities, which he comes to believe have made him more perceptive than others to art and beauty. Though the first manuscript of the novel was completed in 1898 and titled "The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey," Maugham was unable to find a publisher and pursued other writing interests. In 1911, after achieving some success as a playwright, he rewrote the novel, believing that he was now more adept at portraying the themes and characters that concerned him in his youth, and changed the title to Of Human Bondage. Commenting on the novel's autobiographical aspect, Maugham stated in the preface to the abridged edition that he wrote it to "rid myself of a great number of unhappy recollections that had not ceased to harrow me." Criticized on publication for its pessimistic world view and frank, dispassionate view of sexuality, Of Human Bondage has been alternately praised and condemned for its sometimes unflattering depiction of a hero who tends towards self-pity and self-absorption.

Plot and Major Characters

The novel opens when Philip is sent from London to live with his aunt and uncle in Blackstable after the death of his mother following a stillbirth. His uncle, a vicar, shows little interest in the boy beyond providing basic provisions, and young Philip quickly becomes adept at spotting the vicar's hypocrisy, which includes treating his family with a frugality to which the vicar himself is not held. This hypocrisy leads to Philip's early rejection of Christianity. When he is sent away to school, Philip's painful adolescence continues as he withdraws socially from the other boys; his clubfoot prevents him from joining in sports and games. The novel also depicts Philip's coming-of-age as a man, whose early experiences with women—most notably the aging governess Miss Wilkerson and the penny-novel writer Norah Nesbitt—are physical acts marked with pathos and disdain on Philip's part. After a year of studying business in Heidelberg, Germany, Philip returns to London, only to reject a respectable living as an accountant for the romance of being an artist in Paris. But in France he encounters only poverty and hunger. Following the sui-cide of Fanny Price, an untalented fellow artist whose passion could not save her from her squalid circumstances, he returns to London to begin medical school. When he meets Mildred Pierce, a decidedly plain-looking, emaciated tea-shop girl—whom one critic dubbed "an implacable, pale green worm"—he is inexplicably drawn to her and exhibits an irrational passion of the type that has brought many of his friends to ruin. Mildred rejects his overtures of affection and uses him repeatedly until their relationship reaches masochistic proportions. As Mildred's position in society continues to decline, she resorts to prostitution despite Philip's attempts to help her. When she destroys his art in a fit of rage and condemns him as a cripple, his passion for her is finally extinguished; she dies of syphilis in an institution shortly thereafter. Finally determining that life is random and meaningless, Philip trades his dreams of freedom and travel for responsibility and respectability when he asks the simple and pleasing Sally Athelny, towards whom he feels some affection but no love, for her hand in marriage.

Major Themes

Of Human Bondage, a title borrowed from a chapter in Baruch Spinoza's Ethics (1677), examines Philip's psychological growth, his aesthetic pursuit of beauty in a world in which beauty is constantly juxtaposed with struggle, and the paradox of his love for Mildred, who represents none of the ideals he cherishes. Philip's quest for beauty becomes inextricably tied to his intense desire to follow his dreams at the risk of losing respect within a strict Edwardian society. His decision to study art in Paris, for example, is condemned by his uncle, who derides painting as a "disreputable, immoral" profession and considers Paris "a sink of iniquity." Philip engages in many pursuits on his journey to self-understanding, and his self-absorption frequently discounts the importance of nurturing relationships on human development. Love of beauty alone, however, proves unsustainable; as Philip becomes impoverished and tragedy befalls his friends and acquaintances, his staunch individualism yields to more conventional societal norms. Eventually, he realizes that though life contains patterns, the patterns themselves are essentially meaningless. The novel also examines the conventions of Edwardian society. As a student and young man undergoing a strict upbringing, Philip battles society's definitions of what it means to be a gentleman and he variously accepts and rejects roles as an accountant, store clerk, art student, and medical student. In this respect, Philip's situation mirrors Maugham's, who was orphaned at the age of ten and sent from Paris to live with an uncle in England, where his profound stutter impeded his social development and drove him into the solitary pursuits of art and literature.

Critical Reception

Of Human Bondage received mixed reviews and fleeting attention on its initial publication. A reviewer in the Athenaeum took issue with the novel's morality: "The values accorded by the hero to love, realism, and religion are so distorted as to have no interest beyond that which belongs to an essentially morbid personality." Conversely, Theodore Dreiser praised the novel as an "autobiography of utmost importance," and appreciated the moral circumstances with which Philip grappled. A typical critical reaction, however, is echoed in the sentiments of a Dial reviewer, who admitted that the detail contained within six-hundred pages "can hardly fail to leave us with the feeling of intimate acquaintance," but that the novel ultimately imparts a "depressing impression of the futility of life." While noting the similarities between the author's life and Philip's, some critics have contended that the compromised ending, in which Philip finds comfort and security with the understanding and proper Sally is wishful thinking, especially in light of the author's homosexual tendencies: for Maugham, though he graduated from medical school like Philip, never practiced medicine, and remained unmarried until the age of forty. Several years after its initial publication, however, the novel gained a sizable following among the American reading public through word-of-mouth and a few strategic mentions in the press. Subsequent printings and editions added to the novel's popularity, and in 1946 Maugham presented the original manuscript to the Library of Congress. Maugham stated that his place in literature was "in the very first row of the second-raters," and many critics have been inclined to agree. Likewise, Maugham's contention that he "painted easel pictures, and not frescoes" was enough to earn the dismissal of many critics. Contrasting Maugham's public success with his failure among many critics, Theodore Spencer has argued that the "problem for anyone trying to judge Maugham's permanent value is to decide whether the critics or the public are right."

Principal Works

Liza of Lambeth (novel) 1897
The Making of a Saint (novel) 1898
Orientations (short stories) 1899
The Hero (novel) 1901
Mrs Craddock (novel) 1902; revised edition, 1937
Schiffbrüchig (drama) 1902
A Man of Honour (drama) 1903
Mademoiselle Zampa (drama) 1904
The Merry-Go-Round (short stories) 1904
The Land of the Blessed Virgin: Sketches and Impressions in Andalusia (travel essay) 1905
The Bishop's Apron: A Study in the Origins of a Great Family (novel) 1906
Lady Frederick (drama) 1907
The Explorer (drama) 1908
Jack Straw (drama) 1908
The Magician (novel) 1908
Mrs Dot (drama) 1908
Penelope (drama) 1909
Smith (drama) 1909
Grace (drama) 1910; published as Landed Gentry, 1913
The Tenth Man (drama) 1910
Loaves and Fishes (drama) 1911
The Land of Promise (drama) 1913
Of Human Bondage (novel) 1915
Caroline (drama) 1916; published as The Unattainable, 1923
Love in a Cottage (drama) 1918
Caesar's Wife (drama) 1919
Home and Beauty (drama) 1919; also performed as Too Many Husbands, 1919
The Moon and Sixpence (novel) 1919
Our Betters (drama) 1919
The Unknown (drama) 1920
The Circle (drama) 1921
The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short stories) 1921
On a Chinese Screen (travel essay) 1922
East of Suez (drama) 1922
The Camel's Back (drama) 1923
The Painted Veil (novel) 1925
The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories (short stories) 1926
The Constant Wife (drama) 1926
The Letter (drama) 1927
Ashenden; or, The British Agent (short stories) 1928
The Sacred Flame (drama) 1929
The Breadwinner (drama) 1930
Cakes and Ale; or, The Skeleton in the Cupboard (novel) 1930
The Gentleman in the Parlour (travel essay) 1930
Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short stories) 1931
The Book-Bag (novel) 1932
For Services Rendered (drama) 1932
The Narrow Corner (novel) 1932
Ah King: Six Stories (short stories) 1933
Sheppey (drama) 1933
East and West: The Collected Short Stories (short stories) 1934; also published as Altogether, 1934
Don Fernando; or, Variations on Some Spanish Themes (travel essay) 1935
Cosmopolitans (short stories) 1936
The Summing Up (autobiography) 1938
Christmas Holiday (novel) 1939
Books and You (essays) 1940
France at War (nonfiction) 1940
The Mixture as Before (short stories) 1940
Up at the Villa (novel) 1941
Strictly Personal (nonfiction) 1941
The Hour before Dawn (novel) 1942
The Razor's Edge (novel) 1944
The Unconquered (short stories) 1944
Then and Now (novel) 1946; also published as Fools and Their Folly, 1949
Creatures of Circumstance (short stories) 1947
Catalina (novel) 1948
Great Novelists and Their Novels (criticism) 1948; also published as Ten Novels and Their Authors [revised edition], 1954
A Writer's Notebook (journals) 1949
The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham. 3 vols. (short stories) 1951
The Vagrant Mood (essays) 1952
The World Over (short stories) 1952
Points of View (essays) 1958
Looking Back (autobiographical sketch) 1962
Purely for My Pleasure (essays) 1962

Criticism

W. Somerset Maugham (essay date 1915)

SOURCE: A Foreword to Of Human Bondage, in Selected Prefaces and Introductions of W. Somerset Maugham, Heinemann, 1963, pp. 34-7.

[In the following essay, published as a foreword to the first edition of Of Human Bondage, Maugham describes the book as an autobiographical novel that freed him "from the pains and unhappy recollections that had tormented [him]."]

This is a very long novel and I am ashamed to make it longer by writing a preface to it. An author is probably the last person who can write fitly about his own work. In this connection an instructive story is told by Roger Martin du Gard, a distinguished French novelist, about Marcel Proust. Proust...

(The entire section is 1362 words.)

R. Ellis Roberts (review date September 1915)

SOURCE: "The Amorist," in The Bookman, London, Vol. XLVIII, No. 288, September, 1915, pp. 171-72.

[In the following favorable review, Roberts comments on the futility of Philip Carey's relationships with women and calls the novel a clever "portrait of the weak egoist."]

It was a right instinct which made Mr. Maugham give the greatest space to Mildred, among all the women who touched and influenced his hero's life [in Of Human Bondage]. For Philip Carey, introspective, indolent, shiftless, opinionated, club-footed, is a man doomed to be loved. He is not doomed to evoke great passion, nor is it his destiny to love lightly or deeply any one woman: he is simply one...

(The entire section is 651 words.)

William Morton Payne (review date 16 September 1915)

SOURCE: A review of Of Human Bondage, in The Dial, Vol. LIX, No. 701, September 16, 1915, pp. 219-21.

[In the following excerpt, Payne commends Maugham for creating a sustained interest in his protagonist, but criticizes him for missing "the broad effects" and "large issues of a human characterization."]

Mr. W. Somerset Maugham, a successful playwright, has turned his activities in the direction of fiction-writing, the result being Of Human Bondage, an immensely lengthy work of the biographical type, setting forth the story of a young man's life from childhood to the age of thirty or thereabouts. The following extract will show why it takes six hundred...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

S. P. B. Mais (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "Somerset Maugham," in Some Modern Authors, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1923, pp. 115-28.

[Mais was a British educator, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following excerpt, he briefly comments on several of Maugham's early novels and discusses Of Human Bondage, describing it as a model of autobiographical fiction.]

For some twenty years Mr Somerset Maugham has been writing novels and plays, hammering hard on the doors of the critics' studies, clamouring for a hearing. For a long time they overlooked him. A man of indomitable courage, he has persevered and gone on from strength to strength until at last, in The Moon and Sixpence, he "rang the bell"...

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Marcus Aurelius Goodrich (essay date 25 January 1925)

SOURCE: "After Ten Years 'Of Human Bondage,'" in The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1925, p. 2.

[In the following essay, Goodrich summarizes the critical reaction to Of Human Bondage.]

During the last decade, the vast, passive jury, in whose hands rests the fate of all writing aspiring to a berth among the classics, have been attending in ever increasing numbers to the steady, unacclaimed arcing over the turmoil of William Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Among New York's literary guild the quite long book, no doubt, has been forgotten. Experiment has shown that when it is possible for a moment to shunt the attention of most of that eminent crew...

(The entire section is 2398 words.)

Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell (essay date October 1930)

SOURCE: "Time Passes," in Adventure or Experience: Four Essays on Certain Writers and Readers of Novels, Columbia University Press, 1930, pp. 39-75.

[Brewster was an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, part of a longer essay illuminating the differences between "chronicle" novels and "dramatic" novels, Brewster and Burrell classify Of Human Bondage as a dramatic novel, citing what they consider the reader's ability to sympathize with the self-pitying, imperfect Philip Carey.]

Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage is no family chronicle, no slow birth to death progression. Its very title suggests an emotional involvement, a struggle for...

(The entire section is 2902 words.)

Theodore Spencer (essay date October 1940)

SOURCE: "Somerset Maugham," in College English, Vol. 2, No. 1, October, 1940, pp. 1-10.

[In the following excerpt, Spencer discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Of Human Bondage.]

One of the difficulties involved in writing a critical essay on Somerset Maugham is that he seems to have made such an estimate unnecessary by writing it himself. In a number of prefaces and especially in The Summing Up he has described his career, stated his beliefs, and defined his limitations. He has been as honest with his readers as he has been with himself.

Though I have had variety of invention, and this is not strange since it is the...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)

W. Somerset Maugham (speech date 20 April 1946)

SOURCE: "Of Human Bondage with a Digression on the Art of Fiction," in The Maugham Enigma, edited by Klaus W. Jonas, The Citadel Press, 1954, pp. 121-28.

[In the following transcript of a speech Maugham delivered on April 20, 1946, when he presented the manuscript for Of Human Bondage to the Library of Congress, he explains the genesis of the novel both literally and thematically.]

                                            April 20, 1946

Ladies and Gentlemen:

You will remember that one of the characters in Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed remarks that at a...

(The entire section is 3087 words.)

Robert Spence (essay date Spring/Summer 1951)

SOURCE: "Maugham's Of Human Bondage," in The Library Chronicle, Vol. XVII, No. 2, Spring/Summer, 1951, pp. 104-14.

[In the following essay, Spence traces the novel's rise in popularity and notes the critics whom he believes played a fundamental role in the novel's emergence as a classic.]

W. Somerset Maugham has been one of the most prolific writers of our time. However, of the more than fifty books which he has published—novels and volumes of plays, short stories, essays, and travel sketches—only Of Human Bondage has won the full admiration of serious, reputable critics. Although they tend to disregard Maugham's other work, they have been generally...

(The entire section is 3357 words.)

John R. Reed (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Redundant Gentleman," in Old School Ties: The Public Schools in British Literature, Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 169-219.

[Reed is an American educator, critic, and poet. In the following excerpt, he discusses the impact of Philip's schooling on his character—a schooling intended to make him a gentleman but which in practice left him ostracized and self-conscious.]

In Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), Philip Carey, an up-to-date Ernest Pontifex, in his rebellion against the cant of his elders, reacts strongly against his school as well as his family. He leaves school to finish his education at Heidelberg, hoping for greater intellectual...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

M. K. Naik (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Of Human Bondage," in W. Somerset Maugham, University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, pp. 46-57.

[Naik is an Indian educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he argues that Of Human Bondage is a "novel of adolescence"—the purpose of which was for the author to find himself—and concludes that the book's greatest fault is a negativity that leaves the hero with a creed that lacks positive values.]

The strong native sensibility which dominates the works of Maugham's early phase reaches its high-water mark in Of Human Bondage, a novel which is largely autobiographical. Maugham wrote in The Summing Up that, having finished the novel, he...

(The entire section is 3544 words.)

Bonnie Hoover Braendlin (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Prostitute as Scapegoat: Mildred Rogers in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage," in The Image of the Prostitute in Modern Literature, edited by Pierre L. Horn and Mary Beth Pringle, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984, pp. 9-18.

[In the following excerpt, Braendlin discusses the character of Mildred Rogers, arguing that Rogers is cast as a "threatening female" who serves as villain, victim, and scapegoat and is sacrificed for her sins.]

Scarcely any other character in modern British fiction has been disparaged as unanimously as Mildred Rogers, the supercilious waitress turned prostitute in Somerset Maugham's early-twentieth-century...

(The entire section is 3286 words.)

Forrest D. Burt (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Autobiographical Novel," in his W. Somerset Maugham, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 71-93.

[In the following excerpt, Burt comments on the autobiographical aspects of Of Human Bondage as well as the dramatic skill with which Maugham relates the various forms of "bondage" the characters endure.]

It is of critical importance to understand the significance of Of Human Bondage in Maugham's writing career. The psychological dynamics of Maugham's writing this novel are closer to that experienced by writers of autobiography than that experienced by most autobiographical novelists. Maugham wrote this novel later in life, after having established himself in...

(The entire section is 9026 words.)

Joseph Dobrinsky (essay date October 1985)

SOURCE: "The Dialectics of Art and Life in Of Human Bondage," in Cahiers Victoriens & Edouardiens, No. 22, October, 1985, pp. 33-55.

[In the following essay, Dobrinsky discusses the ways in which Maugham's views on art and life are represented through his characters' actions in Of Human Bondage.]

Due stress has been laid on the philosophic enlargment and formal progress that set this mature work [Of Human Bondage], written between 1912 and 1914, far above its unpublished rough copy of 1897, The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey. Both draw on, and yet swerve from autobiography, but too much could be made of the change of title to assume a...

(The entire section is 10161 words.)

Archie K. Loss (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Major Themes: Bondage and Troubled Grace," in Of Human Bondage: Coming of Age in the Novel, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 15-20.

[In the following excerpt, Loss argues that Of Human Bondage meets the criteria for a bildungsroman and examines Maugham's twin themes of bondage and grace in regards to Philip's relationship with Mildred.]

Implicit in the concept of the bildungsroman is the idea of growth. It is not enough that the main character should simply experience a succession of adventures or suffer from the pangs of unrequited love; he must grow in understanding and sense of responsibility as a result of his adventures or loves. In the broadest...

(The entire section is 2075 words.)