16 September 2010

Thoughts on Of Human Bondage


Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915) - his most intimate and autobiographical novel - was written by the author over the course of a few years and was a cathartic, purging exercise for him. Many tend to believe that the novel revolves primarily around a masochistic relationship that the protagonist has with a woman. However, Of Human Bondage is much more than that, and it's not until very later in the novel that the above episode actually takes place.


The novel is one of Maugham's longest (almost 700 pages) and captures the many shades of his life: an uneasy childhood, frustration at struggling to find the right calling and then finally, falling into an abusive relationship that almost leads to his ruin. While not all the episodes are autobiographical, the emotions are all his. Maugham was at the height of his popularity as a playwright when he set out to write this novel. His career as a novelist had taken a backseat and not even Maugham though he would digress from writing plays. But he did. Of Human Bondage wrenches out a story of deeply fractured emotions and inner conflicts experienced by an artist and an emotional man, which Maugham felt compelled to write about. He wanted to get it out of his system. He often said that he wrote because he couldn't help it. Which is what makes the novel one of the most intimate and searingly honest books ever written.
Maugham never really went back to the stage. Now that he was affluent, he returned to his first love - writing novels, short stories and essays, where he could be himself.

When the novel was first published  it was met with a certain ambiguity among critics. For a while it looked like the novel would be doomed to obscurity. Then writer Theodore Dreiser  wrote a stunningly positive review of the novel and suddenly it stoked a good deal of critical and public interest. Dreiser said, "Here is a novel of the utmost importance. It is a beacon of light by which the wanderer may be guided. . . . One feels as though one were sitting before a splendid Shiraz of priceless texture and intricate weave, admiring, feeling, responding sensually to its colors and tones."

Over the years, Of Human Bondage has gone on to become Maugham's most famous novels. The first part of the book is almost entirely autobiographical and is engrossing from the word go.


Maugham had a difficult childhood after losing his mother when he was a little boy and being sent to his childless uncle and aunt.  Likewise in the novel the protagonist, Philip Carey finds himself desolate staying with his uncle, a vicar who is overly religious and cautious with money. The aunt who has never known a life beyond meekly serving her callous husband is well-meaning and affectionate towards Philip. Given his circumstances, Philip is prepared to be a good Christian and follow the path prescribed by the Lord.

However his first exposure to the outside world as a boarding student is an especially painful one.  Philip has a club foot and limp, and when children studying with him cruelly tease him, it makes a permanent scar on his young heart.  Philip grows up insecure and conscious. To him, his club foot is a reminder of his inadequacy and he blushes every time someone makes a reference to it. There's a heart-wrenching scene where Philip - with his absolute belief in God - fervently prays one night that he should be rid off his club foot and be made normal the next day. As it turns out nothing happens and therein are sowed the first seeds of Philip's disenchantment with religion.


The next big hurdle for him is to find his calling. His uncle and aunt want him to either enter the Church or take up something conventional. Philip tries accounting for a few months but he finds it torturous. He has a talent for sketches and when a few people praise him, he is spurred on and decides to go to Paris and become a painter. His uncle is outraged and strongly protests, but after a few acrimonious exchanges, Philip has his way. This is quite autobiographical. Maugham has said about himself that though he was shy and a silent child, he was also cunning and finally always got what he wanted.


 Maugham's description of his growing up years is compassionate yet ironic, not only in the description of other characters, but also Philip, who is his alter-ego. As is the case often, Philip in the bloom of youth, full of hope for the future tends to look upon his middle-aged uncle and aunt with a smug condescension and believes that theirs was a wasted life. At this point, Philip has grand plans for himself and intends to attain greatness. When he reaches Paris, he is initially thrilled to live among artists listening to various theories all day. It makes him a more open person and many of his moral shackles loosen up. But he is still unable to settle down as a painter. His works are considered intelligent, but nothing extraordinary. As a senior painter tells him, 'It is cruel to discover ones mediocrity too late in life'.


Philip's funds start running out and he is nowhere in sight of earning through his art. Here, the life of his acquaintance, Fanny Price holds an uncomfortable mirror to what his own life could degenerate to. Fanny is a zealous artist but with zero talent. Ultimately she dies of poverty. This works as a catalyst in hastening Philip's decision to give up art and try something else. He is again lost and tortured.

Quotes Maugham,"It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded."


Philip decides to take up medicine and it is while studying that he encounters a waitress called Mildred. Her contemptuous look haunts him ,and he desires to possess her. She agrees to go out with him and soon Philip finds himself madly in love. She is vulgar, commonplace and not at all good-looking yet Philip cannot get rid off his obsession. He spends freely on her  though he has very little money. She does not love him and at various points goes off with other men who in turn leave her in the lurch. Philip still craves for her and does everything she might want,  including providing for her child (another man's) when she is in dire straits. Ultimately this relationship brings Philip to the point of utter despair.


He is left penniless and has to take up work as a common worker in a shop. At this point, another revelation comes upon Phillip. Following the death of both his uncle and aunt, he realizes that life is ultimately meaningless and we make our own little designs to keep ourselves happy for as long as we live. Every little episode is merely a curve in the design of life. This idea unburdens him and he feels elated again.


This learning curve ultimately comes to its logical conclusion when Philip settles to marry Sally, the daughter of a poor worker whose family was exceptionally kind to him when he had no one to go to.


Of Human Bondage tackles several themes and is an extremely rich and layered exploration into the human psyche (though it is unduly long and some episodes are extremely stretched out). Its greatness lies in the fact that even if the story is close to Maugham's life, the emotions are all tragically universal and gently touch upon deep-seated complexes we all suffer from. 

Many believe Philip's club foot could be a reference to the author's stammering. But many others believe it is an allusion to his homosexuality which he could not reveal given the time and age when such a thing was looked upon with derision. In fact, his masochistic relationship with Mildred many feel, alludes to a certain homosexual partner the author had. There could be some credence to this given that Mildred is described like a man with no attractive feminine features. She is bare-chested. Yet, this is merely in the realm of speculation and I wouldn't be too bothered about it, except that the incident comes quite abruptly in the book. 

What makes me suspect that it could be a slice from Maugham's own life is the surreal nature of the affair. Reality is very often much stranger than fiction.  Fiction is often far more predictable when compared to the complexities of the real world.

It's never easy to understand why Philip would fall for a woman without a single redeemable quality. Also, up to this point, Philip never comes across as someone who is wholly deprived of female attention.  In fact, he rejects a few women. His attraction for Mildred is sudden and unexplained. And yet, broadly, it suggests how human complexity can manifest itself in strange ways, and Philip is certainly a complexed man.

His relationship with Mildred underlines Philip's inner need to be humiliated and abused. His feeling of inadequacy - apart from his club foot - compounded by his non-success as a painter and general sense of despair - perhaps make him crave for a relationship where he can suffer. In fact, on various occasions, Philip brings this suffering upon himself. He knows Mildred's character and yet he introduces her to a handsome friend of his and soon enough they end up in an affair. Philip even pays for them to go on a vacation. His addiction to the affair continues, and only acute poverty forces him to get over this destructive relationship. In the middle, he even rejects a perfectly healthy relationship with another woman, Norah and goes back to Mildred. As a reader the Philip-Mildred relationship might seem puzzling, but if you've ever obsessed for someone who didn't return the favour  or blew hot and cold, it might not be so difficult to identify with Philip's servile state.

"He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other."

The other possible reason why Philip clings to Mildred and suffers her could be to feed his own flagging self-esteem by being in a relationship with a woman so lacking in class and character. In an odd way, her deep flaws and ugly behaviour make him feel better about himself.  He remains with her not because he has affection or respect for her but because of the inherent volatality and emotional violence of the relationship that his masochistic heart seeks. I tend to believe this theory because Maugham has captured with devastating accuracy this very emotional trait of human beings in some of his short stories.

One of the main themes of the novel is about the damning nature of love. In many ways, it advances Maugham's ideas on love, namely how one partner loves and the other lets themselves to be loved. "And the important thing was to love rather than be loved" In a twisted way, every character in the novel is consumed with a feeling to love, and are callous to those who love them.


Maugham opting to go for a conventional ending for his protagonist might appear contrived, but it also signifies the emotional maturity of Philip who this time round does not refuse Sally (like he did with Norah), even though he does not love her. He realizes by now the temporariness of life and how it wouldn't be so bad to make a design of being married with children. Once the limitations of life itself become clear to Philip he takes a more charitable view of himself and what he aims from his future.

As lucid as ever with its controlled irony and sardonic observations on life, Of Human Bondage rightfully deserves its place among the best in literature, though I would hesitate to rate it as Maugham's absolute best. Sure, there is immense emotional power in the writing and great philosophical insight, but that is true of much of his other works as well. But nevertheless, this is a creative tour de force.


33 comments:

gargimehra said...

This is one of my favourite Somerset Maugham books, right after Razor’s Edge. This inspires me to dig out my old copy and reread it.

Alexander said...

Brilliant, Sandhya, just brilliant!

I'm glad to see you don't fall in some usual traps, like searching too much the real foundations of the characters or proclaiming Of Human Bondage for 'Maugham's best' as if he never wrote anything else.

I love your analysis of Philip's masochism and self-humiliation. Penetrating.

I always forget the name of that harsh French teacher but his words are difficult to forget indeed. The scene with Philip showing him his paintings is one of my most favourite in the book. I always find the crack in the teacher's hard shell deeply moving.

Interesting to know that The Painted Veil has made a deeper impression on you. Am most curious what would be case with Theatre. Can't wait to read your thoughts about it.

PS Funny, The Razor's Edge is probably Maugham's second longest novel - but it's about twice shorter than Of Human Bondage.

sandhya said...

Thanks for visiting Gargi - hope you will post your views in details. Would be great.

Alexander: Thanks so much. Yes, Philip's masochism intrigued me a fair deal. I should say I could relate to the emotions.

Philip has a dread of public humiliation and any refrence to his club foot makes him extremely uncomfortable, which suggests he is acutely conscious of not being viewed as 'normal' - this is one of the struggles that Philip goes through for a long time - of looking upon himself as incomplete, inadequate. It hampers his own image of himself or how he would like it be. As long as Philip seeks the 'ideal' he is always dissapointed and it is this sense of despair and feeling of inadequacy that heightens his masochistic streak. Reticent and restrained in public, he needs a release in private. He sees Mildred's behavior - nasty, capricious and callous - as a well-deserved chastisement to himself for all that he cannot be. Philip's self-debasement is destructive to him, but also an oddly cathartic and clensing process, which is why he is so clingy, inspite of his corresponding hatred for her. Mildred meets a deep-seated need in him to 'suffer'

Alexander said...

Sandhya,

I believe you should chuck the literature/cinema and take up psychology. :)

sandhya said...

LOL - I could be imagining it, I know :-)

sandhya said...

You think I'm off the mark eh? :-)

Alexander said...

No, my dear, I think you're right ON the mark. It's just different mark than mine. :)

sandhya said...

What is your mark?

Alexander said...

My mark, I am afraid, is rather amateurish compared to yours.

I think Philip's fervent desire for self-debasement, self-humiliation or, in short, masochism is just personal vanity, only it is brought to almost unprecedented heights for the purposes of fiction of course. But milder forms must have been experienced by pretty much everybody at one time or another. Which is what I suppose makes the appeal of Of Human Bondage universal.

Such spiritual masochism out of enourmous vanity may not be the essence of love, but I should certainly think it is very often what love, especially unrequited love, degenerates into.

My hypothesis also applies to the notoriously unconvincing ending. Maugham said it was just a wish thinking - he wanted to get married and that's that. It makes sense: shortly before he was to start writing the novel he made the only proposal for marriage in his life and was flatly turned down; shortly after the novel was published he did indeed get married, after his daughter had been born out of wedlock. His marriage was a marriage of obligation and was the greatest mistake in his life. And he knew it would be long before the ceremony.

The fascinating thing is how much of the novel betrays Maugham's views on marriage as a bondage and disaster. To my mind, the ending of Of Human Bondage is by no means happy. Quite on the contrary, Philip betrayed all his dreams just to get married; Sally is a great deal better choice than Mildred, no doubt, but there are hints of callousness and indifference in her too. Moreover, the important thing is that Philip's marriage to her is just another form of human bondage, probably the worst of all. I wonder if Maugham wanted to show just that and was being a little disingenuous about the wish thinking. It would be most compelling if he was quite honest about the marriage but subconciously made it a doomed affair in which Philip falls all too eagerly, certainly not realising that he was betraying all his dreams.

On the other hand, all that may well be my fancy and has nothing to do with Maugham's intentions. But, then again, this to my mind is the purpose of fiction, and of art in general - what I can discover in it, not what the artist wanted to say with it. Maugham wrote a lot about that; he was convinced that the true artist creates to release his soul, not to make a communication, which is just a by-product. Of all his books, Of Human Bondage is surely the one Maugham wrote exclusively to free his soul from unhappy memories. But this has nothing to do with any possible communication that I, the layman, may derive from it.

sandhya said...

Wonderful points Alexander.


Yes, in Philip's obsession for Mildred, there is vanity than love - that is clear. Can it be possible that the idea that a vulgar waitress won't reciprocate to his advances triggers the obsession?

Also, the way I see it, the fact that Mildred is silly, commonplace and affected, allows Philip to feed his own flagging self-esteem whenever he sees the state she is in. There is a desire to make her love him, and at the same time he chooses to despise her. Vanity again!

Maugham's whole theory of love to me seems to be one of vanity - where the purpose is to possess the ungettable.

sandhya said...

The ending - I will admit -left me a little cold - but that was more because I am aware of Maugham's views on marriage and his own personal life.

From a fictional point of view, certainly, the ending is a slightly contrived one - given that even the novel and its view on relationships -esp marital - is heavily ironical. You could be very right that there was a certain wish-fulfillment in Maugham's chosen ending, and I'm afraid I don't see any irony or subtle hint of a doomed fate there. I wish there was - given Maugham's acutely sardonic view of life and relationships. It ends on a tad too 'flat' note.

sandhya said...

I understand what you say about not judging a novel based on what the author's intentions are, and to rather discover and feel it for what it is. Which is why, within the fictional scope and logic of the novel, I though Philip's decision to marry is one of 'emotional maturity' . There is no irony to suggest otherwise. But of course, I know it didn't quite end up happiily and given a chance, Maugham would have written it quite differently.

Alexander said...

When I think about the ending I always about the final conversation:

"I was going to ask you to marry me," he said.
"I thought p'raps you might, but I shouldn't have liked to stand in your way."
"You wouldn't have done that."
"How about your travels, Spain and all that?"
"How d'you know I want to travel?"
"I ought to know something about it. I've heard you and Dad talk about it till you were blue in the face."
"I don't care a damn about all that." He paused for an instant and then spoke in a low, hoarse whisper. "I don't want to leave you! I can't leave you."
She did not answer. He could not tell what she thought.
"I wonder if you'll marry me, Sally."
She did not move and there was no flicker of emotion on her face, but she did not look at him when she answered.
"If you like."
"Don't you want to?"
"Oh, of course I'd like to have a house of my own, and it's about time I was settling down."
He smiled a little. He knew her pretty well by now, and her manner did not surprise him.
"But don't you want to marry ME?"
"There's no one else I would marry."
"Then that settles it."
"Mother and Dad will be surprised, won't they?"
"I'm so happy."
"I want my lunch," she said.
"Dear!"
================================

Now, what's that?! He's happy, she wants her lunch. She marries him because he is better than nobody; because it's nice to have a house. Well, they marriage may well be happy, if loveless. In this scene Sally seems to me like Mildred No. 2. And Philip - Philip gives away his travels because he is terribly smitten with that girl and, God knows why, he has imagined marriage is the greatest thing there is. If I try to extend the novel further, I cannot but see Philip dismayed by the coldness and dullness of Sally. Neither his masochistic craving will be satisfied any more, for she is NOT Mildred after all, nor any other, probably much greater, craving for affection and warm. For my part, he would have been much happier travelling through Spain or through the South Seas as as ship physician. His decision to leave all that was sudden, impulsive; it has anything to do passion and absolutely nothing to do with reason. Later, when he had time to reflect on it, he will bitterly regret it.

This probably has nothing to do with Maugham and his thoughts while he was writing this endind - he himself agreed with his critics that it is by far the weakest part of the book. But for me, as I imagine Philip's it is a chilling end. It is deeply affecting too, for I can see crystal clear Philip's complete misery in this marriage.

sandhya said...

Alexander: All that you say is very persuasive. But is it possible to really make sense of this ending in any true sense without bringing in Maugham's personality and life into the picture?

Alexander said...

As a matter of fact, Sandhya dear, believe me or not, that's exactly what I did.

The first two times I read Of Human Bondage I did so in Bulgarian - and both times I was disappointed by the endind, closing the book with something like 'Damn you, Willie, it's much too happy an ending!' The third time, which was quite some time afterwards, I read the novel in English and I was suddenly struck that the ending is far from happy. Only later, much later, did I learn the details about Maugham's disastrous marriage, illegitimate daughter or his only proposal that was turned down earlier. At the time when I read Of Human Bondage in English I knew only that Maugham was once married, had a daughter and was later divorced. But, then again, this may have had its influence on me without I even realised it.

Anyway, I am all for NOT putting too much of writer's life in his books. That's why the biographies of Maugham I read did so little, if anything, to improve my appreciation of him. There are those people for whom such knowledge is essential; I see their point but cannot share it. I am honestly appalled when people start searching about the real persons behind the characters, and this is especially often the case with Of Human Bondage. But let me give the word to Evelyn Waugh who said some really perceptive about this odious habit of the public in his review of Maugham's Cakes and Ale:

'If only the public could be dissuaded from these recurrent, impertinent attributions! They are an intolerable nuisance and, occasionally, even a danger to authors. No one, not even the novelist himself, can follow the process by which personal experience is transformed into impersonal, artistic creation. People should realise that the eager 'Oh, Mr Maugham, it is so exciting to meet you; now you will be able to tell me who all your characters REALLY are,' is not only embarrassing but insulting.'

Now, I firmly disagree with Mr Waugh that the artistic creation is impersonal; I think it is quite the opposite. But his point is well worth considering and amusingly expressed. Maugham himself has written tons of pages about the creation of fictional characters from living models, but it seems nobody bothers to read these pages.

Excluding Maugham's personality is much more difficult, though by no means impossible of course. Dr Saunders (The Narrow Corner) has many obvious similarities with his author and Maugham all but said that Ashenden was an autoportrait, but I don't really see how this makes the characters any less, or more, compelling than they are. The same is true about Of Human Bondage, I should say. Whether Philip is or is not Maugham's alter ego hardly makes any difference, he still seems to me perfectly doomed in this marriage of his, no matter whether Maugham ever thought so or not.

sandhya said...

Yes, the decision to marry Sally is impulsive, but it's possible that he had already come to that emotional stage where he didn't see much point in life anyway, and he was quite ready to make his small pretty design of marriage and children.

The way I saw it, Philip's attraction for Sally is physical. He keeps mentioning her strong body very often. Now, once the physical passion dies down, Phlip could very well start to feel miserable in the marriage. That much I can deduce out of it.

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Alexander said...

Sandhya,

I hope you have no personal relationship with one Pico Iyer, the 'editor' of 'The Skeptical Romancer':

http://www.librarything.com/work/9185766

For I am about to write a truly withering review of his 'editorial' work in this volume.

sandhya said...

LOl Alexander. I am not related to Pico Iyer, but yes I know quite a few people who enjoy his writing.

BTW, I am reading Theatre and enjoying it a great deal. But I don't quite find it having the emotional density of a Painted Veil or The Moon and Sex Pence. I'm liking it for what it is though, and can really relate to the central character in very many ways.

Alexander said...

Judging by his totally deplorable introduction to a very mediocre, to say the least, selection of Maugham's travel writings, this guy is not my cup of tea at all.

I think the subject of Theatre hardly allows for such emotional density as The Painted Veil or The Moon and Six Pence, let alone Of Human Bondage. At any rate, I guess this was not Maugham's aim. I am looking forward to your purely woman's point of view.

sandhya said...

Alexander: You are really adept at trashing sub-standard efforts, esp related to Maugham, aren't you! I really enjoyed your critique, not least because you have used such colourful adjectives - outstanding indolence, deplorable hotchpotch...etc etc

And I was realy amused at this one...

"Mr Iyer finishes his introduction with the startlingly presumptuous notion of improving Maugham's travel writings by cutting the dull passages from them. Well, such passages in Maugham's travel books there may well be, but if I am allowed to paraphrase (in greatly inferior style of course) his famous words about Proust, I should say that I would rather be bored by Maugham's books as they were originally published than entertained by such mishmash of a selection like Mr Iyer's."

Now you know I am so anxious to write anything about Maugham :-)

But yes, I was very entertained by your review, as much as I found it reassuring that there is a wealth of literature by Maugham that I will have the delight to discover in the near future.

On a more serious note, I think you are truly valuable to the academic world of criticism, in relation to Maugham, because you have such an in depth, incisive knowledge of his works. Which is why you can easily spot the mediocrity and superfluity in someone like Pico Iyer's selections and observations. We need critics like you, who demand certain standards of scholarship, proficiency and intellectual depth from the reviewers.

sandhya said...

With Theatre, I am beginning to understand what you said about each of Maugham's works being so distinct from one another. of course, I see common threads and the readability of his text remains high as always. I loved the way he's etched Julia Lamber's character, and SHE by herself IS the point of the book.

Alexander said...

Oh, dear, my personal vanity has just swelled enormously! :)

Seriously, I don't know how adept I am in literary cricism, but I am really annoyed - tremendously so indeed - by such cheap attempts to capitalise on Maugham's popularity, which still seems to be considerable, like Pico Iyer's volume. May Maugham's books remain in print as they were originally published. Not that there are no nice compilations of his writings, but I have yet to come across one superior to the original volumes.

Together with his astonishing evolution of style and his versatility, what I am most fascinated about Maugham is this difference between his books, even the ones in one genre, yet one could hardly mistake them for somebody else's. It's kinda like the music dramas of Wagner (Maugham's favourite composer, you know): each one has a very special sound and mood, often vastly different than all others. This is also the case with Maugham's travel books and there lies the tombstone of Mr Iyer's editorial task. I shudder to think what an impression about Maugham's travel books one might form from this selection only, not to mention about his personality from the four full scale biographies of him. But if one has read the travel books and, say, The Summing Up before, that's quite another story.

I have often heard criticisms that Maugham's female characters are not sympathetic enough, Julia Lambert being a case in point. I take issue with such statement. I have always preferred characters which are not so full of virtues and noble qualities; they are much more real and that's why Maugham's characters in general are so powerful and compelling. But the real gem is Mauhgam's attitude (not only) to his female characters: full of compassion and entirely devoid of condemnation, even though by some superficial standards many would call these women immoral, hypocritical, vain, egoistinc and what not.

The number of Maugham's captivating female characters is downright astonishing. They are everywhere: novels, short stories, plays; especially plays indeed, since most of them were written with a certain great actress in mind (who usually was all too glad to take the lead part in the new play of Willie).

I would even venture to suggest that a pretty good case may be made that Maugham always was more successful in his female characters, though he did create a number of unforgettable males as well. Such a case would be highly ironic considering the huge amount of misogynistic nonsense Maugham is usually subject of - which is most often expressed by people who never bother to read him carefully.

Yes, Julia IS Theatre. I suppose this was Maugham's way to present a world he never was intimate with but he did know intimately: a character of a great actress. Much more captivating, and suitable, stratagem than a story, no matter how good it may be.

PS Please be anxious to write more about Maugham.

sandhya said...

Beautifully said! I haven't heard any of Wagner's music dramas, but you get me interested now with the analogy.

I am finished with Theatre anmd the film it was adapated into - being Julia. Loved both! I'm just in the midst of putting up a piece.

I couldn't agree more that Maugham has a deep understanding and compassion for his female characters. Except maybe Of Human Bondage, where I thought Mildred is a particularly pathetic and tragic character (but even in her hard-nosed vulgarity and commoness, she is nothing but a victim of her circumstances and mental confusion, the other two - both Julia Lambert and Kitty are beautiful creatures, but both have different personality problems, which make them selfish and vulgar in their own way.
I can say I could relate to both Julia and Kitty. They are life and blood characters. I am stunned Maugham could etch his female characters with such incisiveness and depth.

Alexander said...

Yes, Mildred is a very extreme case - by far the most extreme in everything of Maugham I've read. But even in Of Human Bondage there are female characters of great charm. I don't mean that cold fish Sally, but Nora (if I don't confuse the names) whom was treated rather abominably by Philip, instead of vice versa.

I guess, similar to Maugham quite fascinating empathy with the sex (to use the phrase of Anthony Curtis), what makes your reviews special is the fact that you identify with Maugham's characters, especially the female ones.

Wagner's music dramas are daunting task but well worth your time if they capture your imagination. To whet your apetite (hopefully), here is a video the only one (to the best of my belief) world famous Indian performer of Western classical music who does, incidentally, some pretty impressive things with Wagner:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRuMD0n3utY&p=EEF204EE5BC337EF&playnext=1&index=49

Anonymous said...

Hi Sandhya,
I chanced upon your blog because I am in the midst of reading Human Bondage and I wanted an explanation for Philip's behaviour. I am getting very frustrated with him especially when he continues to seek humiliation by pursuing Mildred.
Your analysis gave me some relief and a better understanding of the reasons for the masochistic relationship that Phillip shares with Mildred.

Thanks!

Mike said...

Hello Sandhya,

I've just watched the 1934 film of "Of Human Bondage", a novel I have yet to read, and was deeply affected by it because I too was for 5 years in a very similar situation to Philip.

I Googled information about the film and the novel and came across your site.

I just wanted to thank you for your brilliant analysis of the psychology of obsessive "love". Absolutely spot on, and it has helped my greatly to understand myself. The true purpose of all literature of course.

Mike

Sandhya Iyer said...

Thank you for you response Mike. Im glad the analysis made some sense to you. The relationship is bewildering for sure, even if the pattern of unrequited love where the object of desire is quite a worthless person, is a familiar one is all of Maugham's works. It is a theme that Maugham dealt with one way or the other in almost every story he wrote.

Maugham always laid a good deal of stress on verisimilitude. He wrote stories that rang true. And in most cases, you can clearly see what the character finds attractive about the person they love. So the passion is justified even if it turns out to be a foolish one. Here in Humna bondage, that aspect is not clear because Mildred is made into a very unattractive character. The most logical conclusion is that Philip finds gratification in a sado masochistic relationship. And seen from that point of view, it makes complete sense.

Anonymous said...

Just finished the novel tonight. Loved reading your blog post and many of the comments. In my mind, this story has neither a happy ending or a sad ending.

It's simply an ending. Philip realizes the pursuit of happiness is futile and furthermore meaningless, however living in poverty and misery is not an option either.

He has traded love for companionship; passion for stability, chaos for conventionality. He is also entering a loveless marriage but not necessarily an unhappy one. We are left with the sense from both Phillip and Sally that this is the inevitable and logical thing to do. Certainly for the utterly masochistic Philip, the village of Fernley and the inscrutable Sally are a safe harbor after years of humiliation, alienation and rock bottom poverty.

Sandhya Iyer said...

Thanks for visiting. I agree with your view on the ending and that was a point on which I and Alexander (from the comments above) disagreed. Philip's decision is logical enough, given that he has come to see most of life as meaningless anyway and feels it is upto each one to make a pretty design of it. I don't think Maugham predicts a bleak future for Sally and Philip, even if Maugham never really portrayed a happy marriage in his novels. There is some physical attraction for sure. I dont remember the novel very accurately but if I'm not wrong there is some emphasis on Sally's looks. That implies that there is sexual attraction even if something else is missing. Maugham always thought physical passion is a justifiable reason to marry, but without an emotional and mental compatibility, it would fail (Mrs Craddock).

Maugham does not spend too much time on the Philip-Sally relationship for us to guess which way it will go. In the sequence of events in the novel, it seems like a pleasant sort of ending to me, and at this point at least Maugham seems to be advocating a marriage where there is reasonable affection.

Nicholas said...

The relationship between Sally and Philip emerges abruptly, which makes the ending somewhat unsatisfying, but it occurs at a stage when both are ready for marriage. Philip, because he has had an extremely rich and turbulent life of the mind and has done a lot of maturation in his thirty years. Sally, because she is a good, honest, no nonsense woman who is ready for marriage at the age of eighteen.

I think there's a spark between them. When they are on that holiday in the fields they make love a few times and there's that wonderful scene when Sally scolds Philip with maternal affection. Philip likes her mystery and Sally has long admired Philip. She is probably impressed by his tenderness and warmth with the Athelny brod.

The relationship makes sense when you recall the happiness of the Athelnys' marriage. Thorpe Athelny tells Philip that it isn't necessary for a married couple to share intellectual and artistic interests. So I believe that Philip is making a decision similar to Thorpe's: to enjoy marriage for the companionship, the stability, and the children, and to seek intellectual repartee with male friends.

Joseph said...

A very astute review. I thought this was a fascinating book, and I couldn't put it down at the end, but I'm not quite in love with it.

My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2015/06/of-human-bondage-by-w-somerset-maugham.html

Anonymous said...

Nicholas nails it. Agree with Anonymous's comments too.

Sorry to say, but I found the comments above by Sandhya and Alexander a bit pretentious.