Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by John R. Reed

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
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Critical Essay by John R. Reed

SOURCE: "The Redundant Gentleman," in Old School Ties: The Public Schools in British Literature, Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 169-219.

Reed is an American educator, critic, and poet. In the following excerpt, he discusses the impact of Philip's schooling on his character—a schooling intended to make him a gentleman but which in practice left him ostracized and self-conscious.

In Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), Philip Carey, an up-to-date Ernest Pontifex, in his rebellion against the cant of his elders, reacts strongly against his school as well as his family. He leaves school to finish his education at Heidelberg, hoping for greater intellectual and imaginative freedom. Of Human Bondage is typical of the twentieth-century version of the Bildungsroman. Philip follows a familiar pattern in his progress toward enlightenment. At school he is unhappy, suffering humiliation at the hands of his schoolmates for a physical deformity. Philip becomes introverted, and his suffering makes him aware of the flaws in the system under which he is forced to exist. He suffers isolation from his fellows and is made the victim of a capricious bully. Like Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Philip is made acutely sensitive to religious matters, especially matters concerning damnation.

From this unhealthy prep school atmosphere, Philip moves on to King's School at Tercanbury (an anagram on Canterbury) which "prided itself on its antiquity," much in the manner of Sawston in The Longest Journey. Tercanbury is a smartly snobbish school for gentlemen's sons. There Philip is fashioned into a gentleman. In the atmosphere of the school, Philip is uneasy but cannot focus his dissatisfaction since he accepts the gentlemanly code of the school. He learns that enthusiasm is bad form, while suffering form the passionate irascibility of a techy form master not fit to teach young and sensitive boys. Just as Tony Farrant learned how to adapt himself to all situations, preserving this talent as the one lesson adequately taught at school, so Philip's greatest acquisition at Tercanbury is adroitness in deceit, "which was possibly of greater service to [him] in after life than an ability to read Latin at sight." Uncontent, Philip wishes to leave Tercanbury. Public schools are uncongenial for the bright student, and, as Mr. Perkins, the liberal headmaster of Tercanbury, admired by Philip, says, "'Of course schools are made for the average. The holes are all round, and whatever shape the pegs are they must wedge in somehow. One hasn't time to bother about anything but the average.'"

Philip, while accepting this tradition, suffers from a sense of failure at school and leaves to complete his education in Germany; and it is here, indeed, that his real education begins, for, when Weeks, an American, presses him for an exact definition of a gentleman, Philip has difficulty defending one of his accepted prejudices. This is the first step in the bouleversement of the ideal British middle-class image, the gentleman. Philip realizes, as he learns to look critically upon gentlemanliness and the society it represents, that his education has been limited and that he has been insulated against too much of life. It is with this step outside the potting shed of the narrowly tended public school that Philip is made aware of the existence of values which not only differ from but which conflict with school values and which, if they are to be faced, require clear and critical revaluation. At first, Philip attempts to defend his previously unquestioned beliefs. His definition of a gentleman is naïve.

"First of all he's the son of a gentleman, and he's been to a public school, and to Oxford or Cambridge."

"Edinburgh wouldn't do, I suppose?" asked Weeks.

"And he talks English like a gentleman, and he wears the right sort of things, and if he's a gentleman he can always tell if another chap's a gentleman."

His is not, in fact, a bad definition. However, as Philip proceeds on his crusade of discovery, he learns that there are other sorts of gentlemen. Mr. Watson, whom Philip meets while at the law firm of Messrs. Herbert Carter and Co., is from a wealthy brewing family and in his manner is too gentlemanly. He is rude to his inferiors and patronizing in a careless manner toward Philip.

He had been to Winchester and to Oxford, and his conversation impressed the fact upon one with frequency. When he discovered the details of Philip's education his manner became more patronising still.

"Of course, if one doesn't go to a public school those sort of schools are the next best thing, aren't they?"

Mr. Carter, speaking casually to Philip, also manages to announce that he is accustomed to hunting (definitely a gentleman's sport) and that his son has been educated at Rugby and is now at Cambridge. When Mr. Carter leaves, Philip, pondering the performances by Carter and Watson, is obliged to reconsider his definition of a gentleman.

Philip was overwhelmed by so much gentlemanliness: in East Anglia they knew who were gentleman and who weren't, but the gentlemen didn't talk about it.

Philip's experience is a guide to the transformation of the modern gentleman. Philip is made aware of the possible perversion and distortion of the gentlemanly code which he had previously accepted as the standard for decorous behavior. He discovers that the gentleman can use his advantages in ways which suggest a great potential for the exercise of a snobbish and thoughtless influence, concerned paradoxically with material values, yet lacking an adequate comprehension of reality. Though Philip never confronts a Pembroke or a Ralston, he does encounter the products of their educational methods.

From this point, Philip's maturation and experience wean him from the sham gentility that he encounters repeatedly in his adult life. He submerges himself in the underworld of Parisian bohemia and London lower-middle-class labor, reaching the antipodal regions of society where he can view his old genteel values in new perspectives, much in the manner of George Orwell, whose descent into the subworld of deprivation and suffering was more conscious and politically motivated. Having reached this spiritual Duogobmai, Philip is prepared to return to the old values on new terms, and after an excruciating love affair, he frees himself from economic insecurity by completing his medical education. When he goes down into the country to serve as assistant to Doctor South, his qualifications are indicative of his own progress away from sham gentility. The doctor asks him if he was at a university, and Philip replies that he was not, at which the doctor remarks: "'Last year when my assistant took a holiday they sent me a 'Varsity man. I told 'em not to do it again. Too damned gentlemanly for me.'"

Maugham's hero escapes his public school background, as did Ernest Pontifex, to associate himself with the more natural aspects of human life and to find love and contentment on a less pretentious level of existence.

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This section contains 1,149 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by John R. Reed