Of Human Bondage, by William Somerset Maugham.

Over two years ago I put Of Human Bondage on my Classics Club list, and last week I finally began to read it (it was, incidentally, the 161st book I've read from my list). I knew I'd like it - the blurb on the back describes "the bohemian life of a Parisian art student", which is very appealing, especially to someone who enjoyed Émile Zola's The Masterpiece so much. And there is a sense of Zola in this, Somerset Maugham's eighth novel (published in 1915). 

Of Human Bondage is a bildungsroman: a story of the childhood and young adulthood of Philip Carey, orphaned at nine years old, and who struggles with a club foot. Maugham writes of Philip's young life: his progression and development through the many changes of circumstance, his upbringing in a vicarage by his aunt and uncle, his schooling, life in Germany, Paris, and London, careers as an artist and then a doctor, and the women along the way: Norah, Fanny, Mildred, and Sally. As the title suggests, the predominate theme is that of freedom: Philip's, and humanity's.

Maugham originally intended the title to be 'Beauty from the Ashes', however he chose Of Human Bondage from Part IV of Spinoza's Ethics, titled 'Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions' (1677). Spinoza wrote,
Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.
He goes on to discuss perfection, good, and evil, and how humans strive to seek pleasure and shun pain, yet their emotions can, when ungoverned, produce the opposite effects. Philip could be this "human" brought to life, a character who seeks himself and happiness, and tries to overcome the obstacles not only of society's but those of his own making, and these characteristics that are, whilst a part of him, also appear to be independent of him at times: the "infirmity" Spinoza referred to, perhaps.

Bette Davis as Mildred in the 1934 film
directed by John Cromwell. . 
The most striking of these "infirmities" that is his obsession with Mildred, one of the most loathsome characters in English literature (though too well drawn to be completely vile). Their relationship could have been penned by Leopold Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian author of Venus in Furs (1870): the kinder he is to her, the viler she is in return (Maugham was familiar with Sacher-Masoch's work, writing in A Writer's Notebook, 1949, that he understood the work to be a sexual desire in a man to be subjected to physical and mental mistreatment by the woman he loves, and yet be unable to break away from his bondage). I think all readers of Of Human Bondage come to dread Mildred's appearance. She is toxic, sucking the life, pleasure, happiness, and health out of Philip, and every environment she comes in contact with. Yet he persists, even though it is clear she has the potential to ruin him, costing him not only his money but his chosen path to self-discovery and fulfilment; his "freeing of spirit" as it were. Mildred is, in short, a major part of Philips' Bondage. His club foot, whilst a part of the bondage, really is ultimately the least of it.

I said there is a little of Zola in Of Human Bondage. The obvious comparison is The Masterpiece (1886) with the descriptions of Philip as a struggling artist in Paris, but there is also a little of L'Assommoir (1877) with the failing, doomed and unhealthy relationships and the feelings of inevitability at times. The style, too, it has a touch of Zola's ease with a grim realism, though, as with Gervaise Macquart of L'Assommoir, we do hope. Maugham is not Zola, after all.

In short, this is a wonderful novel! There is so much going on in it - I've only written about one part. Each episode of Philip's life is beautifully drawn, and there's a real 'completeness' about it. It's a philosophical novel, as I've said, drawn on the works of Spinoza, but this isn't a novel that seeks to overwhelm or trip up its reader (as Zola did not intend to confuse his readers with the events in the Second Empire: he sought to communicate, as Maugham has done). It's the second novel of Maugham that I've read (the first was The Magician, which I also loved) and I'm looking forward to reading The Moon and Sixpence next. Maugham is, I do believe, one of my more exciting discoveries!

*****
Further reading
Spinoza, Baruch - 'Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions' from Ethics.

Comments

  1. Oh wow! I loved The Masterpiece and I loved Of Human Bondage, but I've never connected the two as being similar. Now I must re-read them back to back and make comparisons.

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    1. :) The Masterpiece was awesome, wasn't it? Very interesting to learn about Zola in that novel. Very telling.

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  2. This is the only Maugham book I haven't read yet. Tsk. I really need to read it...maybe this summer. But I agree, Maugham is a great writer. The Magician and The Moon and Sixpence by him are two of my favorites. (I also love Cakes and Ale.) Great review of On Human Bondage!

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    1. Thank you! I loved The Magician as well, and looking forward to The Moon and Sixpence. I think I have Cakes and Ale already, so perhaps that will be my next Maugham read :)

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  3. The similarity with Zola is very interesting, now I can't wait to read it. Thanks for the review!

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    1. No problem, hope you enjoy it - I'll look out for your review! :)

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  4. I remember the constant reminders about Mildred's green-tinged skin. Love that you linked him to Zola. I knew there was a reason I liked Maugham!

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    1. Yes, I liked that element. Made me think of Aunt Dide (who didn't actually have green-tinged skin, but I did think she had syphilis), Nana, and Gervaise. Lord, I hated Mildred!

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  5. I love Maugham and this was the first of his books I ever read, way back in college, where it was forced upon me by a boy on my dorm. I had an enormous crush on him so of course I read it. I loved it then and then 20 years later I read it again and loved it just as much, so that's something. I also love The Painted Veil, which has an excellent movie adaptation, and Up at the Villa, which has a terrible adaptation. I haven't seen the film version of Of Human Bondage but I can definitely see Bette Davis as Mildred.

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    1. Apparently it was the film that made her famous! I wouldn't mind seeing if I could get it, actually.

      I'll look out for The Painted Veil :)

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