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Of Human Bondage ()

Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century (65)

Philip Carey, the hero of our story, is born with a club foot.  Philip's beloved Mother dies when he is 9 years old and he is sent to live with his Uncle, the Vicar.   Carey finds his religious upbringing stifling and school provides no escape, as he is ridiculed for his deformity.  He travels in Europe & studies to be an artist in Paris, but realizes he is mediocre.  Returning home to London, he takes up Medical studies & gets involved in an emotionally abusive relationship with a waitress, Mildred Rogers.  Their sadomasochism reaches it's nadir when Philip takes her, and her child by another man, back after she's turned to prostitution.   However, he refuses to sleep with her, which fuels an explosion wherein she trashes all of his belongings.  At this same time, Philip loses his small stock of capital and is forced to quit medical school & go to work in a department store.  The death of his Uncle, after lingering illness, finally provides him with the funds to finish school.  He serves an internship with a crusty country doctor who offers to take him on as a partner.  Philip refuses because he hopes to travel, but he soon "falls in love" & the story ends with him accepting the partnership & a life of domesticated bliss.

This is, of course, all autobiographical.  Maugham's disability was a stutter.  He claimed to have enjoyed a relationship of "Perfect unity" with his Mother.  He went to live with the Vicar, hated school, traveled, studied medicine, & ended up married to an abusive woman, but traveled the world with his gay lover.

So right off the bat, I'm thinking here's a guy who I'm reasonably confident doesn't have much to teach me about life.

Here is Philip's great epiphany, while sitting in a London park: came to him that the gaping sightseers and the fat strangers with their guide-books, and all those
  mean, common people who thronged the shop, with their trivial desires and vulgar cares, were mortal
  and must die.  they too loved and must part from those they loved, the son from his mother, the wife
  from her husband; and perhaps it was more tragic because their lives were ugly and sordid, and they
  knew nothing that gave beauty to the world.

and so, this warped little man, sitting on his park bench, decides:

  There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end.  It was immaterial whether he was
  born, whether he lived or ceased to live.  Life was insignificant and death without consequence.
  Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from
  his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the
  first time he was utterly free.

  ...Out of the manifold events of his life. his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design,
  regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful; and though it might be no more than an illusion that he
  had the power of selection, though it might be no more than a fantastic legerdemain in which
  appearances were interwoven with moonbeams, that did not matter: it seemed, and so to him it was.
  In the vast warp of life (a river arising from no spring and flowing endlessly to no sea), with the
  background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might
  get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern.  There was
  one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood,
  married, produced children, toiled for his bread and died; but there were others, intricate and
  wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them
  might be discovered a more troubling grace.

There sounds the clarion call for a century of moral relativism and behavioral aberrance.  Lip service having been paid to tradition, we are all now free to weave our own pattern.


What is really striking about this book, and many like it--written by intellectual elites, is the placid assumption that just because the author's own life sucks, the rest of mankind must be living these lives of quiet desperation.  One thinks of Karl Marx, a miserable little hemorrhoidal failure, toiling away in the British Museum, deploring a system he couldn't master.  These people, who are mistakenly called humanists and liberals, harbor little in their souls but self loathing and contempt for their fellow man.

Burn this book.


Grade: (F)


W. Somerset Maugham Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: W. Somerset Maugham
    -ESSAY: Somerset Maugham: a wily playwright of light dramas and weighty morals: A new revival of The Circle is a reminder of a dramatist who smuggled vital messages into broad crowdpleasers (Michael Billington, 4/26/23, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -W(illiam) Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)(kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "somerset maugham"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "w. somerset maugham"
    -BIO: Somerset Maugham (British Empire)
    -Knitting Circle: Somerset Maugham
    -Somerset Maugham, "The Fall of Edward Bernard"
    -W. Somerset Maugham's Stories and Books on Film (
    -Maugham, W. Somerset: 1874 - 1965 (EducETH)
    -Literary Research Guide: Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965 )
    -ETEXT: Moon and Sixpence (Self-Knowledge)
    -ETEXT:  Of Human Bondage
    -ESSAY: Listen to your Maugham: Purpose, Method, and Contradiction (Edward G. Green)
    -ESSAY: Somerset Maugham--World Traveler, Famed Storyteller (Craig Showalter, Caxtonian)
    -ESSAY: THE FOLLIES OF WRITER WORSHIP (Julian Barnes, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Grace in the Arts:  THE LIMITS OF GRACIOUSNESS:  A Study of Grace-Resisters in  Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and  Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence (JAMES TOWNSEND,  Bible Editor,  David C. Cook Publishing Company)
    -ESSAY: The Writing Life (Ben Cheever, Random House Bold Type)
    -REVIEW: Gore Vidal: Maugham's Half & Half, NY Review of Books
        Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham by Robert Calder
        A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham
        The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
        The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham
        Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham
    -REVIEW: Robert Mazzocco: Slippery Fish, NY Review of Books
        Conversations with Willie: Recollections of W. Somerset Maugham by Robin Maugham
    -REVIEW: Robert Craft: Compositions, NY Review of Books
        Auden: An American Friendship by Charles H. Miller
        This Man and Music by Anthony Burgess
        Glenn Gould: Variations by Himself and His Friends
        Balthus: Drawings and Watercolors by Giovanni Carandente
        The Letters of William Somerset Maugham to Lady Juliet Duff
    -Review of Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham (Doug Shaw)
    -REVIEW: of Moon and Sixpence (Friday May 2, 1919, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham (Edward Tanguay)

Recommended books by W. Somerset Maugham:
    -Aspects of the Novel (see Orrin's review)
    -The Moon and Sixpence
    -The Razor's Edge


Yes, the imprimatur of intellectuals tells you all you need to know.

- oj

- Aug-19-2005, 13:58



No, To Kill a Mockingbird is a great and timeless novel. It's this one that's dated tripe.

- oj

- Aug-17-2005, 22:06


Did you actually read the book first or simply peruse the cliff's notes? If you reread the passage that you yourself quoted, I think you'll find that the author states that though the things that happen in his life may seem like choices, that this is in fact only an illusion. Also, he does not believe that all human life is suffering. He was a doctor to the poor and after witnessing the torturous lives that some people must lead; poor, hungry, and with inadequate health care that left many people suffering and miserable,I think you may forgive him for having the compassion to give a slight damn and maybe even write a CLASSIC novel about it that everyone in the world realizes the brilliance of except you. Perhaps it would do you some good to reread the book, forgetting about the liberal idealism that you yourself have forced on the book and accept the book for what it is: an insightful look into the human psyche that explores the realms of obsession and love. What human being hasn't explored his own mind to try and discover if the ideas that were impressed upon him in his youth were in fact true and then yearned to find out the true meaning of his existence (except, of course, for those individuals with the unbelieveable arrogance to believe that they have it all figured out). It really is a shame that you haven't the ability to appreciate such a beautifully written, captivating novel. I suppose you think that To Kill a Mocking Bird was too liberal as well. Ah, well. Suit yourself.

- Sam

- Aug-17-2005, 20:14


"If you were a genuine Roman Catholic, mother, you would burn me as well as my books."

there is the possibility - undoubtedly the one that lies beyond your tunnel vision - that not everyone has lived the entirety of their lives in constant bliss. however, you seem never to have experienced rejection, loss, or isolation, so i suppose you'd be unaware.

furthermore, where (praytell) in "of human bondage" does maugham suggest that "the rest of mankind must be living these lives of quiet desperation"? strangely, i don't recall that one. perhaps you've hopelessly confused maugham's book with thoreau's "walden."

to any prospective readers: for christ's sake, are you seriously going to listen to a critic that dismisses a book as kindling because he says he can't relate to a life that "sucks"? how about an ultraconservative fool, living a life of whimsy, without trial or tribulation, who can't see past his own writing pad?


- May-14-2003, 04:25