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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907

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published when Maugham had just ended his fourth decade, was a highly polished, considerably more mature book than its unpublished antecedent, “The Artistic Temperament of Steven Carey,” written during a sojourn in Spain and unpublished first because Maugham did not want it published at once, and...

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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published when Maugham had just ended his fourth decade, was a highly polished, considerably more mature book than its unpublished antecedent, “The Artistic Temperament of Steven Carey,” written during a sojourn in Spain and unpublished first because Maugham did not want it published at once, and later because no publisher would accept it.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 School.

Through Philip, Maugham broaches the question of his own loss of religious faith. Young Philip hears that if one prays fervently enough, all one’s prayers will be answered. When he puts this guarantee to the test by praying as fervently as he can that his club foot will be made whole, his prayers are not answered. This disappointment unleashes a doubt that finally causes Philip to reject the religion in which he has been reared.

Now, no longer willing to tolerate the brutality of his schoolmasters, Philip goes to Heidelberg to study. It is there, in his close association with two intelligent friends and his immersion in the study of philosophy, that Philip disabuses himself of the notion that there is a God. He finds this revelation liberating. On his return to England, he meets Gertrude, his aunt’s German friend, and with her has his first sexual experience.

Philip is expected to be practical and to become self-supporting. He tries accounting but finds it unbearable. Reminiscent of Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence, Philip flees to Paris, where he studies art for two years, only to conclude that his talent is insufficient to justify further study.

Needing to find a way to support himself, Philip returns to England and, although his uncle opposes it, becomes a medical student at St. Thomas’s Hospital, there meeting Mildred Rogers, a waitress at a nearby restaurant. He has an affair with her, but it ends when Mildred runs off with someone else. Then Mildred returns and announces that she is pregnant. Philip takes her in, imposing upon himself one of the bondages referred to in the book’s title. Mildred, like Sue Jones in Maugham’s own life, is less interested in him than he is in her.

When Mildred returns to stay with Philip, however, he has just met Norah Nesbitt, who is more interested in him than he is in her. As soon as Mildred leaves again, Philip seeks out Norah only to find that she has now made plans to marry someone else. Mildred, now a streetwalker, returns yet again, and Philip takes her in, but they obviously have no future together, and Mildred finally leaves for good.

When Philip’s old Parisian friend, Cronshaw, dies, Philip recalls Cronshaw’s comment that the meaning of life can be found in a Persian rug. He muses that life has no inherent pattern, that it is up to each individual to find a pattern and impose it upon life.

Finally, almost by default, Philip falls into an affair with Sally, the daughter of his friends, the Athelnys. After a scare that Sally might be pregnant proves to be groundless, Philip decides that he wants to marry her even though he does not love her. He needs the pattern that such a marriage will provide, just as Maugham apparently sought a similar pattern in his abortive marriage to Syrie Wellcome.

A major theme that emerges from Of Human Bondage is the futility of human relationships. Humans, having only themselves to depend upon, make compromise after compromise searching for the patterns that give order to their lives. Maugham’s agnosticism and some of his cynicism about humanity are important elements in this novel.

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