Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Almost all of W. Somerset Maugham’s writings deal, in one way or another, with the individual’s attempt to assert his (or her) freedom from “human bondage.” Because it is the most direct, thorough, and personal of his works, Of Human Bondage is generally considered to be his masterpiece and its hero, Philip Carey, to be a thinly disguised portrait of the author. Like Carey, Maugham lost his beautiful, affectionate mother when he was quite young; was raised in an austere, financially pinched, religiously narrow environment; suffered abuse because of a physical disability (stammering); and fled to the Continent as soon as he was able. From that point on, the novel does not follow Maugham’s personal life so literally, but it is clear that Philip’s education follows Maugham’s and that many of the characters and situations had their real-life counterparts. Of Human Bondage was, as Maugham himself admitted, an “autobiographical novel.”

The first “bondage” that Philip must transcend—outgrow, really—is the oppressive environment of the vicarage. Deprived of his mother’s love and thrust into a cold, moralistic milieu, young Philip is starved for affection and approval but finds little of it in his uncle’s household. William Carey, a childless, middle-aged parson, is never able to understand or warm up to the boy, and his wife, Aunt Louisa, although well-meaning, lacks the emotional strength necessary to give the boy the needed support. These insecurities are exacerbated by his clubfoot, which makes him an object of ridicule at school. The only mitigating factor in these early years is his uncle’s library. Books become his only pleasure and excitement and help him to mature; they also provide him with an escape from everyday reality and encourage his natural tendency toward daydreaming and indulging in fantasies. Therefore, his early experiences fix several important character traits: first, his thirst for love; second, his extreme self-consciousness and sensitivity, especially with regard to his clubfoot; third, his need to dominate and his envy of those who can; fourth, his distaste for social pieties and arbitrary moralities; and finally, his taste for literature and the life of the imagination.

As soon as he is physically capable of it, Philip flees to Germany. There, following closely upon his first experience of personal freedom, Philip has his initial taste of intellectual and spiritual emancipation. Two new friends, Hayward and Weeks, introduce him to the world of ideas. Hayward becomes his mentor and gives him a thorough grounding in the great books of the day, but it is Weeks who supplies him with the one volume, Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus (1863), which has the most profound effect. It liberates Philip from his unconscious acceptance of Christian dogma and gives him an exultant new sense of personal freedom.

Philip’s first intellectual awakening is followed shortly by his first sexual involvement. Back in Blackstable, he seduces Miss Wilkinson, an aging friend of his aunt, and quickly learns the difference between his idealized conception of sexual love and the reality he experiences with this demanding and physically unpleasant woman. She satisfies none of his emotional needs and leaves him feeling ridiculous and vulnerable. Miss Wilkinson, it turns out, introduces him to a second crucial book, Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème (1851; The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, 1901). This romanticization of the lives and loves of the bohemian set stimulates Philip to attempt a career as a painter in Paris. At first, he is fascinated by the atmosphere, the activity, and the personalities, but he soon sees the reality beneath the glamorous surface. From careful observation and repeated exposures, he comes to understand the fakery,...

(The entire section is 1580 words.)