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published when Maugham had just ended his fourth decade, was a highly polished, considerably more mature book than its unpublished antecedent, “The Artistic Temperament of Steven Carey,” written during a sojourn in Spain and unpublished first because Maugham did not want it published at once, and later because no publisher would accept it.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

(The entire section is 907 words.)