ham retold much of his first twenty-four years of life. The protagonist, however, was sent to Rouen instead of Heidelberg and studied music instead of painting. The novel did not come up to Maughams expectations and was not published. [10, 183]
The novel opens with the scene of a dying woman attended by a doctor and the nurses. She has just delivered a stillborn child, and her condition is critical. At her request, the nurse brings her first-born child, Philip, to her bedside. Mrs. Carey caresses him, tenderly touches his feet, and bursts into tears. The doctor advises her to rest, and the boy is taken away by the nurse to his godmother, Miss Wilkens. Shortly afterwards, the woman dies.
Philip is brought back home to meet his uncle, William Carey, the brother of Philips father and the vicar of Blackstable. The Vicar informs the boy that he would be accompanying him to Blackstable to live there. Even though William Carey and his wife are kind and childless, the prospect of having a boy under their roof does not really delight them. Their means are limited, and Philips father had left behind only 2000 pounds for the boy, which had to last him until he was old enough to earn his own living.
Philip, though disturbed by the thought of leaving his home, is reconciled to the situation. As a mark of remembrance, he picks up his mothers favorite clock, visits his mothers room, and prepares to depart. As he journeys with his uncle to Blackstable, he forgets his sorrows and enjoys the countryside scenery. When they reach Blackstable, everything about the place and its people seems strange to Philip.
In these opening chapters, Maugham conveys the poignancy of Philips situation through clear descriptions and short conversations. It is a touching scene when his mother calls him to her bedside before she dies. They obviously had a close relationship, as evidenced by her tender touches, by his taking her favorite clock as a remembrance, and by his trying to feel her presence left in her room. Because Philip has a clubfoot, she has probably been particularly gentle and patient with her first-born son [10, 187].
The loss of his mother and her baby are made all the more tragic when Philip finds out he must leave home. Because he is now an orphan at the age of nine, he must go to live with his uncle, William Carey, and his wife in Blackstable; unfortunately, they are not particularly pleased about raising the child, and Philip is not pleased about going. He does not want to leave his home and the memories of his mother. He goes into her room to vent his emotions. Hiding his face in her clothes, he tries to breathe her into his being by touching and smelling the things that belonged to her. In these first chapters, Maugham does an outstanding job of presenting Philip as a sensitive and intelligent child who craves affection and sympathy.
Philip shows his innocence when he looks with curiosity at all the sights on his way to Blackstable; he is struck with wonder at the vision and temporarily forgets his sorrow and loneliness. He is almost eager to see a new place. After all, as a handicapped child he has been closely watched and protected. He has not experienced much of the world.
At Blackstable, Philip finds the ways of his uncle and aunt quite different. Although they are kind, he is not comfortable with them, and they feel strange with a child in the vicarage. Philip watches in amazement as his uncle offers him only the top portion of a boiled egg at tea, when he craves the whole thing. In spite of such peculiar habits, Philip learns to adjust to his surroundings and tries to please his guardians. It is important to notice several things in these opening chapters. Although Philips clubfoot is not made an issue here, it is mentioned because it becomes more important later in the novel. The interest in money is also presented. The Careys are not well off, and they worry that the 2,000 pounds (equivalent to about $10,000 at the time of the novel) will not be enough to provide for Philip until he is on his own. A concern about money will be seen throughout the book, for Philip will have and lose a fortune. Finally, the British tradition of tea is presented and will be seen frequently throughout the novel.
The plot of Of Human Bondage traces the story of one mans struggle for survival in a cruel world. Most of the action is mental, as the protagonist tries to conquer his passion and replace it with reason. There is a great deal of introductory material to establish Philips background and philosophies. It is not until the book is almost half over that the antagonist, Mildred, is introduced. The rising action of the plot is then one misadventure with Mildred after another.
The dominant theme in the novel is human bondage. Throughout life, Philip experiences bondage to different things, and the novel is his fight to find freedom from the bondage. Philip is born with a physical deformity that causes him to suffer humiliation and isolation. His clubfoot becomes a bondage to him throughout the book. It curbs his physical activity in school and makes him the object of criticism.
Of Human Bondage is a novel of adolescence, initiation, passage into adulthood,… the traditional bildungsroman, fashionable in the first half of the XXth century. It soon established itself as a classic and became a favorite of many readers in their twenties, mostly men.
Of Human Bondage introduces the hero, Philip Carey, at eight years old, as he becomes an orphan when his mother dies, soon after giving birth to a stillborn child. Philip is sent to be raised by his uncle and aunt, sixty miles from London. His uncle, a vicar, is self-centered and thinks only about fulfilling his appetites and attracting people to his church. His aunt cares for him but is very awkward at showing her feelings, as she never had any children of her own.
Philip is afflicted by a handicap: a clubfoot that makes him a scapegoat in the boarding-school where he studies until he is old enough to be ordained and follow in the steps of his uncle. But Philip, growing up, develops different ambitions…
He first realizes that the almighty God who can move mountains cant or wont cure his clubfoot, despite his ardent prayers. Little by little, he looses his faith and starts to turn to philosophy to understand the world. Along the way, he meets people who, with their perspectives on life, make him think differently; he progressively builds his own personality. Before graduating from school, he decides that he will not go to Oxford, despite the fact that he is clever and hard-working enough to earn a scholarship: instead, he decides to spend some time in Germany.
He starts to wonder about love and gets romantic ideas and ideals, first by observing couples and then by a first-hand experience with an older woman, a friend of his aunt and uncle. But his frustration grows, when he realizes that he has not experienced love as it is described in the numerous novels he likes to read [9, 96].
Training for some months as an accountant in London, he understands that this is not what he is meant to do and, since he can draw, sets his mind on becoming an artist and goes to Paris to learn the craft. The part of the book set in Montmartre reminds strongly of Zolas The Masterpiece. Sensing and having been confirmed that he has no real talent, he gives up la vie de bohme after a while and returns to London to study medicine. Surprisingly, he shows real compassion to his patients and finally succeeds in the profession that he chose as the last resort.
But the turning-point of the book, from which the title derives, is his passionate and destructive relationship with Mildred, a waitress whom he finds common, vulgar, stupid and anemic, but whom he is desperately attracted to, against reason and his best interest. Because of this attraction, he will compromise his studies, loose his money and almost his sanity.
Of Human Bondage certainly appeals most to readers between fifteen and twenty, at the age when one spends hours philosophizing about love, arts and the meaning of life (later we turn to the Monthy Python to understand the meaning of life!)… The ideas discussed by Philip and his friends probably sound familiar to many readers, which explains why so many people are drawn to this book. I probably would have enjoyed it more a decade ago…
The main themes developed in the book are of course the passage into adulthood, the opposition between passion and reason, bondage and freedom, and we see that even if Philip is completely aware of being used and ridiculed by Mildred, he cannot get away from her… Other minor themes treated along the way are art (how does one define a piece of art? does art reproduce reality or is reality defined by the painter who gives to see?), religion (must a man abide by the law if he doesnt believe in God, knowing that the conception of good and evil is based on Judeo-Christianism?), etc.
Of Human Bondage is largely autobiographical. Somerset Maugham started of as a doctor before becoming a novel writer, a successful play writer, and again a novelist. His mother passed away when he was eight, a very traumatic experience in his life, and he was raised, like Philip, by his vicar uncle. He didnt have a clubfoot, but was stammering. Critics have pointed out that the clubfoot however didnt symbolize his stammer, but his homosexuality, that was considered a handicap back then. They also argue that Mildreds description corresponds to a very androgynous woman (flat chest, thin lips, etc.). Somerset Maugham is not the first author to describe a heroine in ambiguous terms. After all, Marcel Prousts model for Albertine was probably a man and Poes Ligeia has masculine physical features (for a different reason though: Poe couldnt conceive an a