Mary Lou Pratt: ‘Of Human Bondage’ is dusting off a classic
In this era of fast-paced living, sometimes we adapt by choosing fast-paced novels and let the great classics collect dust on the library shelves. Recently while browsing, I came across a copy of Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” and decided to tackle the 600 pages. I knew nothing about it other than the fact that it was considered to be a masterpiece.
It is the story of Philip Carey and his search for the meaning of life. It begins when 9-year-old Philip is informed of his mother’s death and progresses through his early adulthood. It encompasses his oppressive early upbringing by his aunt and uncle, a vicar; his education at a series of boarding schools; his friendships; his pursuit of a series of careers, including time spent in Paris as a painter, and his obsession with the waitress Mildred Rogers.
Throughout his life, Philip is plagued by shame over a clubfoot that he loathes. When his uncle tells him that if he goes to church God will answer his prayers, Philip prays for healing of his clubfoot, and the resulting disappointment when his foot doesn’t heal is the first step toward his abandoning faith in God. During his studies in Heidelberg and later Oxford, as he discusses Christianity with his intellectual friends, he becomes an atheist.
From that point on, he seeks the meaning of life, through reading, studying, conversations with his friends and through art. The human bondage referred to in the title refers to the bondage of humans to emotions and the yearning for freedom. One of Carey’s artist friends, Cronshaw, tells him the meaning of life can be found in a Persian rug. He muses that life has no inherent pattern, that it is up to each individual to find a pattern and impose it upon life.
Much of the story involves Philip’s unrequited love towards the waitress, Mildred. I was furious with Mildred’s treatment of Philip, and furious with him for perpetually succumbing to her abuse. First she leaves him for a married man and breaks his heart. Then she returns, pregnant and deserted by the married man, and Philip takes her back, houses her, clothes her, and pays for her lodging and the birth and care of her baby. Then he makes the mistake of introducing her to his handsome best friend. Sorry, Philip. You deserved it. Clichd as it may seem, I can’t help thinking of Charlie Brown forever thinking that Lucy will finally let him kick the football.
Though it’s a work of fiction, Maugham admitted it is largely autobiographical. He lost his mother at an early age, suffered from a stammer that drew ridicule, abandoned his faith, and wrestled with the same questions about life’s ultimate purpose that Philip Carey does. Although I don’t agree with Maugham’s cynical life view, I loved the book for its honest portrayal of the human struggle.
“Of Human Bondage” is available at the Cabell County Public Library.