Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.
W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is a story about an orphaned, crippled boy’s journey into manhood. These journeys are rife with humor, sadness, wit, despair, and sometimes downright exasperation (stop going after that worthless hussy, already!). Philip’s physical deformity is a hardship which haunts him, both bodily and emotionally, throughout his life – even after corrective surgery which, at the time, did little for the problem. The perseverance, though, and the slow, subtle strengthening of character which ultimately leads to a satisfactory self-image and corporeal ability to make decisions based on desire and not from fear, are the driving forces of this novel. The, I suppose, didactic purpose of the novel is twofold: first, that individuals have the capacity to enact change through courageous resolve and believe in one’s self rather than any higher power (Philip throws off the theological and physical “crutches” to empower himself); and two: that it is perfectly natural for life’s path to detour, veer of course, and be completely road-blocked from time to time – the willingness and ability to adapt to and grow from change seems to be virtuous and worthwhile.
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
What is most interesting about Maugham’s characters are that they are all static, but in a believable way. Normally, I would get extremely bored or irritated by characters who remain the same throughout the course of the story; fortunately, Philip Carey, the main character, though repeatedly making similar mistakes with “love” and money (to the point where I literally wanted to pull my hair right out of my scalp), is the one character who actually does grow and metamorphose over the course of the story – and he is the only one who has to, because it is his journey we witness. Still, I would typically prefer that even the antagonists and minor characters might develop or change, for better or worse, as it usually serves to enhance the story. Here, when the primary antagonist, Mildred (the horrid love interest) remains static, it allows Philip’s growth and follies to become more profound. The reader can root for and shout at Philip throughout his many trials and stumbles, because we know where Philip comes from and what he hopes to achieve, and we can contrast that with what we know for certain about the characters around him. It surprises me to be reviewing this type of characterization positively, but it just demonstrates Maugham’s masterful style and skill.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
Maugham’s prose is rather stunning. It is romantic but effortless (unlike the oft over-wrought prose of the Victorians or the French post-revolutionists). His style is reminiscent to me of Victor Hugo, without the tendency to veer from the storyline into historical and social background and essay. This was a rather long book, coming in at just over 600 pages, but (though it did take me a while to read, due to external factors), had I had two or three days to devote just to reading, I could have immersed myself completely into the story and breezed through the book, without feeling gypped by inconsequential or underwhelming prose/style. I also appreciated the short chapters, as many of the scenes and emotions did tend to be intense and diverse, so allowing for sufficient and convenient pauses (for reflection, for releasing frustration, etc.) was well-met. The prose was appropriately challenging, with a fitting amount of depth – serious, without being lofty.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.
As I mentioned above, regarding the Plot, Of Human Bondage was a great story in its own right, but it also posed two very interesting ideas: the first is counter-religion/pro-Humanist. As the book was written in the early 20th Century, I found it a welcome break from traditional literature of the period; granted, there were certainly reactionary writers, writing back to their staunchly religious and pious (prude) predecessors i.e. 18th Century novelists; but, still, the atheistic sentiment in literature was not (and is not) exactly prevalent. That is not to say, by any means, that the book comes across as “religion-bashing” or “anti-Christian” or even “pro-Atheism” in any way – it is not a call to arms, so much as a subdued retraction from the mainstream. Also, the story speaks highly of the virtue of hard work and resolve. There is much mention of the great societies, particularly of the rising American ideal, and the indication is that the “American dream” has seeped into even European culture (though Americans in the story are not always spoken of in the highest regard). While the “try, try, try again” theme is common in literature, Philip’s pathos is so honest and authentic that the reader cannot help but root for him in a way that almost anticipated failure, but which allows for delight, personally, in his successes. Readers are always supposed to want their protagonists to find their happy endings, but Maugham writes Philip so brilliantly that one can actually be pleasantly satisfied by the little happiness he discovers, and about how he realizes it.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Coming-of-Age; 20th Century English Literature; Orphans; “Bootstraps” Life.
“Follow your inclinations with due regard to the policeman round the corner.”
“He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: he wondered if they had ever tried to do without it.”
“When I read a book I seem to read it with my eyes only, but now and then I come across a passage, perhaps only a phrase, which has a meaning for me, and it becomes part of me.”