W. Somerset Maugham by Robert Calder

Introduction to Of Human Bondage by Robert Calder (A Book by W. Somerset Maugham).

On its publication in 1915, Of Human Bondage became a substantial addition to the genre variously called the novel of adolescence, the novel of apprenticeship, or the bildungsroman, the novel of educational or character development. Though its origins lay in the eighteenth century, the form flourished especially vigorously in the first two decades of the present one. Among the more notable examples in this period are Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh (1903), Henry Handel Richard son's Maurice Guest (1908), H.G. Wells's Tono Bungay (1909) and The New Machiavelli (1911), Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger (1910), Compton MacKenzie's Sinister Street (1913), D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913), and James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1913–1915). So common was the genre that William York Tyndall later observed that “from 1903 onwards almost every first novel by a serious novelist was a novel of adolescence.” 

Of Human Bondage, begun when its author was thirty-seven, was, however, far from being Maugham's first novel. In 1897, following five years of medical study at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, he had published Liza of Lambeth, a good, realistic slum novel based on his experiences as a medical student in the mean streets of Lambeth. Deceived by the favorable reviews, he abandoned any idea of practicing medicine to pursue a literary career and then endured ten years of struggle before becoming securely established as a writer. During that time, he produced a volume of short stories and seven novels, but none were as good as Liza of Lambeth and few sold well. Hoping as well to become a dramatist, Maugham wrote a number of plays, but except for the very brief run enjoyed by A Man of Honour in 1903, none were staged. 

It was the theatre, however, that saved Maugham's writing career. When the Court Theatre suddenly needed a play to replace an unexpected failure in October 1907, its manager turned to Lady Frederick. It became an enormous success, and by the summer of 1908 Maugham had four plays running in London, a feat previously unmatched even by Shakespeare. Within eight months he had become a leading British playwright, a position he maintained until he stopped writing for the theatre in 1933. Moreover, having achieved financial security, he resolved never to write another novel. 

This was a professional decision, however, and within three years Maugham was driven back to fiction by a stronger, more personal impulse. In his foreword, he describes how he had become obsessed by memories of his past-identified in The Summing Up as the death of his mother and the breakup of his home, the misery of his school years, his stammer, and his experiences in Heidelberg and at medical school. Only by writing them down could he free himself from their burden, and so at thirty-seven he began a lengthy work of catharsis. 

Maugham had actually written an autobiographical novel, which he called “The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey," in 1898, but the loosely constructed and sloppily written work had attracted no publishers. Rather than a candid self-portrait, it was a picture of what the author thought a turn-of-the-century aesthete should be. Its rejection preserved the material for a time when he could explore it with more maturity, but it denied him the emotional release he sought. 

Looking at Maugham's early life, one can understand why he needed to purge himself of distressing memories, why in the words of his nephew, Robin Maugham, "he was a person who was crippled by his emotional experiences as a child and from which he never recovered." Born in Paris in 1874, he was the fourth son of an English solicitor attached to the British embassy and his beautiful wife. After his brothers were sent to boarding school in England, the young “Willie" had the exclusive attention and love of his mother, and for four years he was surrounded by emotional warmth and security. Edith Maugham died of tuberculosis, however, six days after his eighth birthday, creating an emotional wound that would never heal. On his ninetieth birthday, he told a reporter: "Perhaps the most vivid memory left to me is the one which has tortured me for more than eighty years--the death of my mother. I was eight when she died and even today the pain of her passing is as keen as when it happened.” When Maugham died on December 16, 1965, there were three photographs of Edith Maugham on his bedside table. 

Though many details have been changed - Philip is an only child because that is how the young Willie felt when his brothers were away at school-the death of the young boy's mother in Maugham was asked sages from the opening pages of Of Human Bondage is an accurate rendering of the emotional impact of the author's own loss. When asked in the 1940s to make a recording of passages from the novel, he broke down and wept after reading only a dozen lines of the description of Philip's mother. 

Two years after the death of Edith Maugham, Willie's father died of cancer, and he was sent to live in Whitstable, in Kent. with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, a vicar, and his wife. Both were in their fifties, childless, and ill-suited to raise a sensitive young boy who had just lost both parents, and Maugham felt like an intruder. The portrait of the vicar in Of Human Bondage is caustic—Maugham provided a more sympathetic one in Cakes and Ale in 1930—but accurate, and the narrow, circumscribed life of “Blackstable” is drawn from the author's memories of Whitstable. 

Similarly, the chapters dealing with Philip's school years in “Tercanbury'' are thinly disguised accounts of Maugham's time at King's School, Canterbury. Carefully recreated are the bullying, the insensitivity of many of the masters, the tedium, and the self-consciousness. As well, there is the growing sense of identity-in particular, of being an outsider-which reflects Maugham's own development. 

Like Philip, Maugham left school early and spent a number of months as an unregistered student at the University of Heidelberg, and the ferment of ideas described in Of Human Bon dage records not only his own intellectual growth but many of the intellectual currents swirling around at the end of the nineteenth century: the writings of Goethe, Verlaine, Meredith, and Flaubert, the art of Watts and Burne-Jones, the new drama of Ibsen and Sudermann, the revolutionary music of Wagner, the aestheticism of Pater and Arnold, and the lectures of Kuno Fischer. The religious skepticism planted in Philip by his reading of Renan's Vie de Jésus is not only Maugham's own agnosticism but the loss of faith of generations of late Victorians. 

Like Philip, Maugham spent some months of drudgery as an apprentice chartered accountant in London, but he never attempted a career in painting. He did, nonetheless, spend a year in Paris (1904–1905) among the art colony, and many of the figures in the Paris section have their origins in those he encountered. Flanagan is based on the American illustrator Pen Tyhn Stanlaws, Clutton on the Irish painter Roderick O'Connor, Cronshaw on the Canadian artist J.W. Morrice, and Lawson on Gerald Kelly, who later became president of the Royal Academy and one of Maugham's most loyal friends. 

Philip's life in medical school is a vivid record of Maugham's own experiences at St. Thomas's Hospital, though the author suffered neither the failures nor the economic setbacks he gives his protagonist. He did not have the clubfoot, which makes Philip an object of curiosity at school and in the hospital, but he was afflicted with a stammer that made public speaking torturous and conversation difficult. Indeed, there is evidence that Maugham began Of Human Bondage in 1911 after the American playwright Edward Sheldon suggested that it might help him overcome the sense of inferiority caused by his stammer. This theory gains strength when one remembers that the protagonist of the earlier draft, “The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey," has no such disability. 

An English writer and friend of Maugham, Francis King, argues that Philip's clubfoot was "a metaphor for a graver dis ability than the stammer that most critics have assumed it to have been": that is, his homosexuality. Referring to his sexual nature late in his life, Maugham once told his nephew that his great mistake was that he "tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer-whereas really it was the other way round.” In this confession can be seen one of the most fundamental and damaging conflicts in Maugham's life: that between his natural impulses and his acceptance of society's definition of normalcy. He had, after all, seen Oscar Wilde destroyed at the peak of his fame for his sexual orientation, and he lived during a period in which British society considered homosexuality abnormal and unacceptable. 

Maugham's homosexuality may also explain the extraordinary relationship between Philip and the vulgar cockney waitress Mildred. Readers have always been puzzled by the strength of her attraction since, unlike the conventional femme fatale of novels of adolescence, she does not bind the young man to her with feminine beauty. She is, in fact, described androgynously, with a pale, almost green complexion, flat chest, and thin anemic figure. Philip's enthrallment has little to do with her to do with her being female. 

Mildred's androgyny has led a growing number of people to believe that Maugham was recounting a painful and protracted homosexual liaison from his medical student days. The strongest evidence for this is the comment by one of his close friends of the period, Harry Philips, to the French scholar Joseph Dobrinsky that the real Mildred was a youth.” If Maugham did indeed reverse the gender of his antagonist, he would merely have been emulating countless writers of the period who felt compelled by law and public opinion to disguise the homosexual elements in their fiction. 

There are, regardless of gender, two significant things to note about the relationship with Mildred. First, it was probably responsible for the inclusion of a highly unusual clause in the original Heinemann contract for Of Human Bondage. Into the standard form has been typed the following qualification: “An advance of £500 (five hundred pounds) shall be made on account of royalties, any unearned portion of which shall be returnable by the Author if the free circulation of the book is impeded at the Libraries, by either its being placed in the class 'B' or objection being raised and free access to it is not given to subscribers on account of its contents.” This irregular clause, rarely seen in contracts of the period, clearly reveals a fear that something in the novel might offend the private lending libraries, an influential source of income for publishers. 

It is now impossible to know what elements in Of Human Bondage might have given offence, but the safest assumption is that they involved Mildred's sexual activities. It would not, moreover, be the first time that Maugham's writing had pushed the limits of what, in sexual matters, was acceptable in fiction. His novel Mrs. Craddock had been accepted by Heinemann in 1902 only after some passages were excised; even then, a decade before D.H. Lawrence's work, it created a minor sensation. Indeed, throughout his career Maugham presented problems for editors, censors, and other guardians of propriety-whether in the theatre, in print, or in the cinema. Never very innovative in form, he was daring in content, and he deserves more credit than he is often given for extending the boundaries of what can be explored in fiction. 

The other important aspect of the relationship with Mildred is that, whether it was with a male or female, Maugham almost certainly had suffered from a very painful liaison with someone. It was so traumatic that it came to dominate his autobiographical novel—so much so that all three film versions focus almost exclusively on it—and variations of its unrequited and tortured emotion recurred in his other works. 

Beyond Philip's involvement with Mildred, there is little in the novel's final third that is autobiographical. The Athelny family is probably a fictional creation, and there was certainly no Sally in Maugham's life, though he may have given her some qualities he found attractive in a young actress he knew called Ethelwyn Arthur Jones. As he later admitted, Sally was almost entirely a product of his imagination-the kind of thought he would like to marry-and many readers found the ending unsatisfactory and inconsistent with the novel. 

In real life, two years after the publication of Bondage, Maugham married a much different woman Sally. Syrie Barnardo Wellcome was a divorcée, a socialite as unsuited to be the wife of a writer as Maugham was her husband. After years of unhappiness and separation, they divorced in 1929. 

Despite the many autobiographical elements in Of Human Bondage, it is nevertheless, as Maugham reminds us in his for word, a novel. And, to a remarkable extent, he has cast the details and outline of his own life into a pattern which verb closely follows the formula of the conventional novel of adolescence or apprenticeship. In Wilhelm Meister and His English Kinsmen, Susanne Howe describes the plot of this genre: 

The adolescent hero of the typical “apprentice" novel sets out on his way through the world, meets with reverses usually due to his own temperament, falls in with various guides and counsellors, makes many false starts choosing his friends, his wife, and his life work, and finally adjusts himself in some way to the demands of his time and environment by finding a sphere of action in which he may work effectively. 

The fascination of the apprentice novel lies in the exceptional nature of the apprentice-sensitive, intelligent, and emotional: 

For these heroes are, after all, the elect-a little feeble, impressionable, vacillating, perhaps, but endowed with exceptional powers of mind and spirit, though it takes them a long while to find it out. They are more sensitive and gifted than the average young man; their perceptions are sharper, their failures more heartbreaking, their struggles for adjustment to the world more desperate than those of their fellows, but their ultimate victory is assured. 

It is easy to see that, measured against Howe's formula, Philip is both an autobiographical figure and a typical protagonist of the apprentice novel. He is impressionable, vacillating, and a little feeble, and he is more sensitive and perceptive than the average young man. Almost pathologically, his failures hurt him more than others', and his struggle for adjustment is greater than those of his friends. Philip's progress through the novel is largely that of the conventional apprentice. He encounters many guides and influences- Parsons, Weeks, Hayward, Lawson, Fanny Price, Cronshaw, Griffiths, Mildred, and Athelny--and he must choose the true from the false. His own temperament, so warped by his loneliness and deformity, often brings him unnecessary suffering. Finally, like most of the protagonists of the genre, Philip discovers a philosophy that is tenable in the world he perceives, and he finds his own niche. 

In two significant ways, however, Philip is different from the conventional protagonist. Aside from his individualized character, he is hardly endowed with “exceptional powers of mind and spirit”—at least in the sense that Paul Morel, in Sons and Lovers, and Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are both convincing as future artists and adventurers. Philip proves not to have a comparable imagination and creativity, and he is almost unique among such figures in choosing domesticity and a modest occupation over the pursuit of experience, exoticism, and art. In this regard, it is interesting that, while Howe notes that the “ultimate victory” of the apprentice is assured, Maugham calls Philip's choice at the end "a defeat better than many victories." 

Philip's decision to live a conventional, unromantic life is actually close to that of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, who also concluded that “America was here and now.” It was not, however, Maugham's own, because by the time that Of Human Bondage was published, he was off doing intelligence work during the First World War and beginning fifteen years of wandering through the South Seas and the Far East. The protagonist of his first novel of this period, The Moon and Sixpence, published four years after Of Human Bondage, in fact abandons family and occupation to pursue art in Tahiti. In 1915 the reviewer of The Times Literary Supplement had written that, until the end of the novel, Philip "was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.” In 1919, Maugham took his title from this comment, and his autobiographical narrator reveals a good deal of admiration for the man who ignores the sixpence in order to pursue the moon. 

In the titles of the two novels, however, one can see that, quite apart from indicating any changes in the direction of Maugham's own life, they signal the exploration of quite different themes. While the latter seems to have come easily to him in the form of a reviewer's metaphor, the former went through a surprising number of versions. The original manuscript, now in the Library of Congress, indicates that Maugham's first choice was “Beauty for Ashes,” a phrase from Isaiah 61:23, but Lady Henry Somerset's use of it in 1913 forced him to suggest a series of alternatives. The Heinemann contract, signed in October 1914, carries three successive titles: “Of Fleeting Things," "The Pride of Life," and finally, and clearly added later, “Of Human Bondage." Before the final choice, there was yet another: “Life's Thoroughfare,” as the work was identified in the American rights contract signed by Heinemann and George Doran in December 1914. 

However seriously any of these titles were considered, none is as remotely appropriate as Of Human Bondage. Its emphasis on the restrictions and by implication the freedom-inherent in the human condition underlines the central concern of Maugham's own life and the dominant theme which runs throughout his writing. 

Maugham once commented that “the main thing I've always asked from life is freedom. Outer and inner freedom, both in my way of living and my way of writing,” and at the age of sixty-two he wrote: “I have sought freedom, material and spiritual, and now on the threshold of old age, I am not disinclined to think that I have at last achieved it.” Examined in its entirety, Maugham's very long life was indeed a succession of attempts to discover complete freedom-not merely physical liberty but true independence of spirit. On one level he sought to be free from personal obligations, financial dependence, and the constraints of time and place (which in part explains why he became one of the world's great travelers); on another, he pursued intellectual freedom and emotional detachment. He did in the end achieve a life of considerable independence, but his tragedy is that it did not ultimately ensure happiness. 

Maugham's lifelong search for freedom permeated his writing, and though the plots, settings, and characters may vary, the essential theme reiterated throughout is freedom and bondage. Many of the titles—The Merry-Go-Round, The Circle, The Painted Veil, The Narrow Corner, Cakes and Ale, and The Razor's Edge—suggest that men and women are in various ways confronted with narrowness and restraint on all sides. Liza (Liza of Lambeth) is trapped by the slum, Bertha Craddock (Mrs. Craddock) is stifled by life among the landed gentry, Charles Strickland (The Moon and Sixpence) is driven to paint by a force he cannot control, Rosie Driffield (Cakes and Ale) defies puritanical convention, Dr. Saunders (The Narrow Corner) is on a voyage of liberation, and Larry Darrell (The Razor's Edge), seeking to escape American materialism, finds spiritual liberation in Indian mysticism. 

Of Human Bondage, however, remains Maugham's deepest and most comprehensive expression of his concern for the freedom of the individual. Its theme is the development within Philip of a spiritual independence, a liberation from what the author once called the “strange and ruthless forces that are beyond our control.” Although it is a very long novel, there is little in it which is not an integral part of the central theme, and it is a serious mistake to focus attention on one episode of the affair with Mildred, for example—and ignore the others. Each section, setting, or character demonstrates the mistakes, falsehoods, and delusions that Philip must face and escape before he can discover a desirable and feasible pattern for his life. 

In delineating the many “strange and ruthless forces'' in Philip's world, Maugham is very much a realistic novelist of his time, influenced by the French naturalists such as Flaubert, Zola, and de Maupassant, with their emphasis on the power of heredity and environment. In the realistic tradition, he describes the two elements in exhaustive detail, and one of the novel's great strengths is its demonstration of how a relatively simple influence exerted early in one's life can become much more complex and destructive as one grows to adulthood. The constraints of physical disability, pressures to conform, economic hardship, and domestic tyranny are easily recognized and relatively easily combated. As Maugham demonstrates, the real danger is that these forces create in Philip a host of deeply ingrained psychological handicaps, much less easy to identify and much more difficult to eliminate. As Kingsley Amis says, "the novel shows how one barrier, in the shape of lameness, loneliness, puritanism or stupidity, will set up others: suspicion, over-exclusive affection, vindictiveness, exhibitionism, obstinacy, intolerance, self-torture—the state of what a later generation has learnt to call the injustice collector.” 

Nowhere is this progression more obviously delineated than in the effect on Philip of his clubfoot, an impediment with which he was born. Hardly an overwhelming handicap-Byron, for example, overcame his— Philip's foot prevents his playing sports but otherwise does little to restrict his movement, and, while it elicits ridicule when he first enters school, the other boys soon treat him as they do anyone else. By this point, however, he has been conditioned to feel that he is different, inferior, and somehow separate from the others. By the time he is a young adult, he has developed a super-sensitivity to any suggestion that he is not a whole man, and much of his initial determination to win Mildred comes from his perception that she has treated him as less than normal. Thus an accident of birth, which became a physical impediment, has been transmuted into a complicated and deeply ingrained psychological shackle. 

Philip's personality is similarly shaped by a variety of influences in his environment. When, for example, as a young boy he is humiliated by his failure to memorize the collect, he is consoled by a picture book of Middle Eastern scenes, and he begins to discover the joy of reading. But, as the author observes, this escape into the imagination also creates an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.” Philip does not realize “how wide a country, arid and precipitous, must be crossed before the traveller through life comes to an acceptance of reality.” 

It is not until the novel's final pages that Philip is able to accept reality, to stop suffering repeated disillusionments as the world fails to meet his idealized and romanticized expectations. He undertakes to seduce Miss Wilkinson, for example, because he thinks that it is what any young man in his position would do, and his reading has led him to believe that love will come in the shape of “great violet eyes," "alabaster skin,” and “rippling masses of ... auburn hair.” Miss Wilkinson, though, comes from life rather than literature, and her half-undressed form, in Philip's eyes, is “grotesque.” 

This highly romantic view of life still dominates the young man years later, when he imagines entering a ballroom, seeing a woman "tall and dark and beautiful, with eyes like the night ... dressed in white,” with diamonds in her hair. Sweeping from the room, they catch the midnight train to Paris, speeding "through the silent, star-lit night into the unknown.” Measured against this vision, no woman, least of all Mildred Rogers, can hope to be acceptable. 

A similar pattern of illusion and reality underlies Philip's experience with the art colony in Paris. On reading Murger's La Vie de Bohème the novel on which Puccini based his famous romantic opera-Philip succumbs to its “picture of starvation which is so good-humored, of squalor which is so picturesque, of sordid love which is so romantic, of bathos which is so moving.” When he arrives in Paris, he views the city through the novelist's eyes, drinking absinthe, seeing men who look like artists with women who look like mistresses, and dressing himself as he believes a painter should. 

By the end of his Paris experience, however, Philip has not only discovered that he does not have the talent to paint; he has learned what the bohemian life really entails. He comes to recognize the poseurs, and the formerly colorful patrons of the music halls are now merely petty and sordid. More than anything else, it is the pathetic Fanny Price, who hangs herself after exhausting all her resources in a vain pursuit of an art career, who teaches Philip that starvation is not good-humored and squalor is not picturesque. Maugham always detested the Victorian belief that suffering ennobles, and nowhere does he attack it with more vigor than in his portrayal of what deprivation does to Fanny Price. 

Philip comes away from Paris with a heightened aesthetic sense, but he also comes to realize that the artistic temperament is a form of bondage. The genuinely talented painters are driven not by their intellects but by almost autonomous instincts. Clutton, in whom Philip sees a “mysterious force,” states that “the only reason that one paints is that one cannot help it.” To prove the power of the obsession, he points to a man in Brittany who abandoned wife, family, and income in order to paint in Tahiti. This, of course, became the plot of The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham's most thorough examination of the creative impulse. 

Fanny Price's tragedy is that her obsession is not matched by any talent, but she is also destroyed by poverty. In this, she is only one of many examples in Of Human Bondage and throughout Maugham's writing of the immense power of economics to trap or liberate. The turn-of-the-century realists had grown up in an age of imperialism, industrialism, and material acquisition, and it is hardly surprising that they-Wells, Gissing, Galsworthy, Bennett, Moore, and others—should see money or the lack of it as a powerful determining force. Maugham himself once referred to money as “the string with which a sardonic destiny directs the motions of its puppets'' and poverty as "a more exacting master than all the conventions of society put together." 

Of Human Bondage vividly shows how economic deprivation imprisons both the body and the spirit. In the hospital, Philip sees tuberculosis patients sentenced to death because they can not possibly afford to travel to a warm climate or to rest from hard labor. His Paris art teacher, Foinet, in the novel's most often quoted line, tells him that “money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make complete use of the other five." “There is nothing,” he says, “so degrading as the constant anxiety about one's means of livelihood.” 

 Philip himself later demonstrates the degradation that economic hardship can bring. When a foolish gamble on the stock market costs him practically all his capital, he becomes bankrupt and homeless. Forced to abandon his medical studies to work at the humiliating task of floorwalker at a hosiery store, he becomes preoccupied with the possibility of his uncle's death. Studying Mr. Carey with a medical student's eye, he calculates his age, consults his texts about chronic bronchitis, and hopes for cold and rainy weather. Finally, he even contemplates mur der, considering how easily he could give his uncle an overdose of drugs. This is the point of the novel where Philip is least attractive, as he is later able to recognize. “He knew," writes Maugham, “that the lack of money, made a man petty, mean, grasping; it distorted his character and caused him to view the world from a vulgar angle.” Only when Mr. Carey's death gives Philip economic security is he free to resume his medical studies, to turn his interests outside himself, and to regain a mastery of his own life. 

Philip's deepest and most protracted enslavement is his obsession with Mildred, and it is here that the novel's title is most appropriate. Maugham took it from a chapter of Spinoza's Ethics, “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions,” where the philosopher writes: “The impotence of man to govern or restrain the [emotions] I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master, but is mastered by fortune, in whose power he is, so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he sees the better before him.” 

Though there are many places in Of Human Bondage where Philip's reason is overruled by his emotions, the relationship with Mildred is the most dramatic—and unique among the heroes of apprentice novels. Almost universally, these young men become involved with, and must free themselves from, a destructive woman, but the attractions of these sirens are always romantic or sexual. Mildred, however, is thin, anemic, and has an unattractive complexion. A snob, she is unintelligent, insensitive, and vulgar. Lacking generosity, cold, and completely selfish, she has few redeeming qualities. 

Most young men in fiction who suffer at the hands of a woman have their reason so overwhelmed by passion that they do not see her realistically. Philip is unique in that he always sees Mildred precisely as she is, often to the point of repulsion, but he is still powerfully drawn to her. Maugham thus creates a genuine split between reason and emotion, and dramatizes the Spinozan dilemma of being forced to follow a destructive course even while recognizing a better one. 

The split in Philip baffles readers who expect his attraction to Mildred to be conventionally romantic when it is actually driven by complex psychological needs arising from deeply rooted problems. The relationship begins when her indifferent treatment of him in the tea shop makes him feel "strangely humiliated” and he does not feel that he can rest until he regains his dignity. As the relationship develops, Philip is moved by contradictory feelings of affection and hatred, and of self loathing for being enslaved by a woman he so despises. “He was a prisoner," Maugham writes, “and he longed for his freedom.” Later, in one of the novel's most cynical lines, he concludes that love is some sort of force "that passed from a man to a woman, from a woman to a man, and made one of them a slave.” 

Before Philip can effect any surrender from Mildred, she elopes with Miller, and his desire remains unrequited. When she returns after being abandoned, Philip's emotional bondage reaches its greatest intensity. Not happy in her presence, his desire for her is strongest when she is with another man, and Maugham introduces a strong element of masochism to the self pity which has always been part of Philip's character. 

When Mildred leaves a second time, Philip's enslavement lessens, and though he becomes involved with her twice more before the end, he is never as emotionally troubled. On learning that she has turned to prostitution, he feels nothing but "infinite pity," and ironically it is Mildred who reveals a greater enslave ment to her emotions. Philip's indifference to her attempts to seduce him enrage her, and, hoping to strike at his most vulnerable point, she spits out: “Cripple!” 

When Philip encounters Mildred for the last time, he feels nothing but horror for the venereal disease she has contracted, but he is not truly free until he can forgive her. This comes when he sees Mildred, Griffiths, and others as puppets in the hands of fate, and he repeats Christ's words: "Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Even so, Maugham shrewdly reminds us that deeply traumatic experiences can never be entirely left behind, and so Philip still feels a quickening of the pulse when he sees a woman in the street who reminds him of Mildred. 

Despite the horrified fascination of many readers, the climax of Of Human Bondage comes not with Philip's liberation from his obsession with Mildred but with his discovery of a philosophical foundation to his life. Coming in Chapter CVI, when he realizes the significance of Cronshaw's reference to a Persian rug, this knowledge frees him from his greatest bondage—that of finding meaning in human existence-and resolves most of the conflicts which have built up in him from the opening pages of the novel. 

When Philip loses his religious faith in Heidelberg, his feeling is characteristically one of liberation, of freedom from an "intolerable burden.” Believing that he has lost “that burden of responsibility which had made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence," he confidently assumes that he is at last his own master. Having lost a pattern of belief dictated from without, however, he is driven for the rest of the novel to find one from within. In this he is very much a twentieth-century figure. 

Behind Philip's need to see meaning in his life lies a long line of lives he views as futile and wasted. His aunt, he believes, lives a life without significance, faithfully attending an egotistic and selfish husband. Monsieur Ducroz, his French teacher in Germany, seems to have spent his life in the pursuit of that which was not worth the finding.” Miguel Ajuria is passionately devoted to writing, but his mind is trivial and his talent minimal. Having sacrificed everything for artistic success, Fanny Price dies wretchedly after making no impression on the world, as if she had never existed. At Cronshaw's death, Philip is dismayed by “the absolute futility of the life," and when Hayward dies in South Africa, he concludes that things are "just the same now as if he had never lived." 

Determined that his own life should have significance, Philip is dismayed by what seems to be people's inability to control their own destinies. They are, in the most common image in the novel, puppets or robots driven by forces much more powerful than their wills. Hayward inexplicably enlists in the Boer War, and even Griffiths and Mildred are “the helpless instruments of blind chance." 

The question of how much free will could be exercised in the face of deterministic forces was a central concern of naturalistic writers, and it is explored at length in Of Human Bondage. It first arises in Paris in discussions with Cronshaw, who argues for fatalism but a kind of fatalism which permits the illusion of free choice. “I act as though I were a free agent,” he says, “but when an action is performed it is clear that all the forces of the universe conspired to cause it, and nothing I could do could have prevented it.” Maugham reiterates this position in The Summing Up by using the metaphor of chess, where the player is limited by the particular moves of the pieces provided but can seem to make freely willed choices. 

Because modern man is a social animal, many of the rules of the game are determined by society and the state, and here again Cronshaw, reflecting Maugham's reading of Spinoza, describes how a free man is to function. Public opinion and law, the weapons of society and the state, are necessary because they protect the individual from those more powerful and ruthless; or, in Spinoza's words, “a man ... who is guided by reason desires, in order that he may live more freely, to maintain the common rights of the state.” Within the limits of these common rights, says Cronshaw, the free person will do what he wants, which means to “follow one's instincts with due regard to the policeman around the corner.” Cronshaw's Spinozan credo provides Philip with a rule of conduct, but his realization of the meaning of life, as symbolized by the Persian rug, does not come until Chapter CVI, when he seeks solace in the British Museum after the death of Hayward. At his despairing cry about the purpose of life, with all its futility and pettiness, the illumination comes: “The answer was obvious. Life had no meaning. . . . Life was insignificant and death without consequence.” 

This epiphany, as James Joyce would have called it, is a release, a liberation from the pursuit of the unattainable: a logical and comprehensive design which accounts for the state of the world. No longer will he need to question the origins of cruelty, stupidity, disease, suffering, and death; no longer will he need to explain the waste and futility of so many lives; and no longer will he feel compelled to weigh the appropriateness of his actions against any eternal plan. Once again, Philip experiences a great sense of liberation: “It seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free.” 

According to Graham Greene, Maugham's dismissal of divine meaning diminishes the importance of human activity: “Rob human beings of their heavenly and their infernal importance, and you rob your characters of their individuality.” He may be right, but Philip is representative of millions of people in the twentieth century who, confronted by a Godless universe, must find the meaning of their lives within themselves. Recalling Cronshaw's Persian rug, Philip realizes that, just as its weaver created an elaborate and beautiful pattern for no purpose but his own aesthetic pleasure, a man can make his life into a pattern whose significance will be apparent only to himself. “It would." Maugham writes, “be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.” It is arguable, moreover. that Philip is no less interesting or individual because he has come to this modern, existential position. 

Those readers who find the ending of Of Human Bondage contrived and inconsistent with the rest of the novel overlook the fundamental change in Philip after this revelation. Though his view of life is, in philosophical terms, pessimistic, his acceptance of its meaninglessness has given him an equanimity and a willingness to settle for more modest goals. Furthermore, Sally is not a romantic ideal nor is her relationship with Philip idyllic; and Phillip's love for her never has the compulsion of his attraction to Mildred. In The Summing Up, Maugham distinguishes between two types of love: "love pure and simple, sexual love, namely; and loving-kindness.” Sexual love, though bringing excitement, intensity, and exultation, often involves unrequitement and enslavement for one of the lovers. Loving kindness, on the other hand, is not binding or transitory; more akin to affection and friendship, it is more durable. Above all, it is "the better part of goodness.” 

In the final chapters of The Summing Up, Maugham examines the three values "Truth, Beauty, and Goodness," which he says give "man the illusion that through them he escapes from human bondage.” Philip's story is really an exploration of this triad: truth is analyzed in Heidelberg, in discussions with Cronshaw, and in the vision in the British Museum; beauty is introduced in Paris and becomes an essential part of his life; and goodness is the central issue in the latter half of the novel, where the treachery of Mildred and Griffiths is contrasted with the goodness of the Athelny family. Maugham concludes The Summing Up by placing the greatest value on goodness, and in choosing marriage to Sally, who is an Athelny, Philip is doing the same. 

Of Human Bondage is also a novel about free will and determinism, and Maugham is careful to arrange the elements of Philip's decision so that it is as close to being a free choice as is possible. When it appears that Sally is pregnant, Philip chooses marriage and constraint over Spain and freedom in a gesture of self-sacrifice, rationalizing the decision by considering the pleasures of domesticity. When, however, he discovers that Sally is not pregnant, he can act positively out of free will. Having learned that he is willing to abandon his dreams of travel, he is free from his romantic illusion of exotic exploration and the compulsion to do what he thinks a young man in his position should. Now that he knows that Sally is not pregnant, there is no need to marry her out of honor or convention; if he chooses her, it will be from positive desire, not from a negative force of conscience. Thus Maugham has created what Dean Doner has called the perfect Spinozan situation, “a positive act of will in terms of the entire situation unaffected by prior desire or decision.” 

Of Human Bondage remains Maugham's most complete statement of the importance of physical and spiritual liberty, a theme that has become one of the most important issues of twentieth-century life. From the latter part of the last century onward, human progress has generally been toward more and more essential freedoms. Economically, socially, morally, intellectually, and spiritually, it has been a period of liberation. Of Human Bondage reflects its age in treating the effects of these developments on people. Unlike previous youthful figures such as Tom Jones and David Copperfield, Philip is confronted with many new freedoms, and Maugham shows how each carries with it a corresponding obligation. Whereas the former protagonists could be confident of certain basic assumptions, Philip, the representative of a new age, must find his own truth. His is an era of agnosticism and, while this brings intellectual freedom, it also demands that he seek his own vision of human purpose. Similarly, morality has become complex and ambiguous, and Philip must therefore establish his own set of values. In examining these and many other issues, Of Human Bondage explores people's new freedom in the twentieth century. 

In the seventy-six years since its publication, Of Human Bon dage has become one of the most widely read of modern novels, particularly by young people, who still find relevance in Philip's struggle for a free and meaningful life. With a few exceptions, however, the critical response in 1915 was lukewarm, many reviewers objecting to the novel's length, its protagonist's morbid and unpleasant character, and the distasteful affair with Mildred. The American novelist Theodore Dreiser, in a review published in The New Republic in December 1915, was almost alone in hailing it as “a novel or biography or autobiography or social transcript of utmost importance” and describing its author as a “genius.”

Of Human Bondage found a much better general response from the reading public, and sales were steady enough to warrant seven new editions or reprints in the twenties and numerous more in the thirties. As early as 1931, first editions were becoming scarce collector's items, and in the forties it was one of Modern Library's most popular titles. Though Maugham's reputation underwent the usual decline after his death, Of Human Bondage continued-and continues—to be read throughout the world. 

Despite the reservations of the initial reviewers, Of Human Bondage gradually earned the respect of critics, scholars, and other writers. In the decade after its first appearance, D high praise was followed by similar notices by such influential critics as F.P. Adams, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Grant Overton, St. John Adcock, S.P.B. Mais, and Carl Van Doren. Then, in a New York Times article in 1925, Marcus Aurelius Goodrich pronounced Of Human Bondage a "classic.” Of Human Bondage had, he claimed, "risen in England almost to a place beside The Way of All Flesh, and in the United States is on the way to becoming an uncanonical sensation."
By the 1920s Of Human Bondage had reached cult status, mandatory reading for those who fancied themselves intellectuals. In 1925, Dorothea Mann wrote: “I should like to see the time come when the well-read person would be as unwilling to admit not having read Of Human Bondage as he would be to admit that he had not seen the plays of Shakespeare.” That time seems to have long since arrived, if one is to judge by the well-read Gore Vidal's admission in 1990 that "it is very difficult for a writer of my generation, if he is honest, to pretend indifference to the work of Somerset Maugham. He was always so entirely there. By seventeen I had read all of Shakespeare; all of Maugham.” 

At the end of his writing career, Maugham left a substantial body of work, and he was unusual among writers in achieving success in three genres. After Of Human Bondage, he wrote another eleven novels, the best being The Moon and Sixpence (1919), The Painted Veil (1925), Cakes and Ale (1930), The Narrow Corner (1932), and The Razor's Edge (1944). By 1933, when he left the theatre, he had written twenty-five plays, several of which—The Circle (1921), The Constant Wife (1927), and For Services Rendered (1932)—will continue to be produced for many years. His hundred or so short stories--which include such memorable tales as “The Letter,” “Rain," and "The Alien Corn”-are as good a collection as can be found in English literature. The Summing Up, moreover, has become a classic modern philosophical autobiography. 

As well crafted as many of these works are, though, they lack the intensity of Of Human Bondage, the willingness of the author to bare his soul that is a mark of the greatest literature. The novel did not in fact provide the catharsis that Maugham was seeking, and in his senile last years the memories came flooding back. On the other hand, because, as Dreiser says, “it bears the imprint of an eager, almost consuming desire to say truly what is in his heart,” Of Human Bondage will remain not only Maugham's most important work but one of the most widely read of twentieth-century novels.   

—Robert Calder 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: