Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by M. K. Naik

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
This section contains 3,523 words
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Critical Essay by M. K. Naik

SOURCE: "Of Human Bondage," in W. Somerset Maugham, University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, pp. 46-57.

Naik is an Indian educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he argues that Of Human Bondage is a "novel of adolescence"—the purpose of which was for the author to find himself—and concludes that the book's greatest fault is a negativity that leaves the hero with a creed that lacks positive values.

The strong native sensibility which dominates the works of Maugham's early phase reaches its high-water mark in Of Human Bondage, a novel which is largely autobiographical. Maugham wrote in The Summing Up that, having finished the novel, he "prepared to make a fresh start." This "fresh start" was to lead him far away from the dominant strain in Liza of Lambeth, Mrs. Craddock, and Of Human Bondage.

Maugham described the genesis of this novel in The Summing Up and also in the introduction to the reprint of the novel in the Collected Edition of his works. We are told that Maugham first wrote Of Human Bondage in a much shorter form, as early as 1897–98:

It was called then, somewhat grandly, "The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey." It finished with the hero at the age of twenty-four, which was my own age when I finished it, and it sent him to Rouen, which I knew only from two or three short visits to see the sights, instead of Heidelberg, as in Of Human Bondage, which I knew well; and it made him study music, of which I knew nothing, instead of making him study painting, of which in later years I was to learn at least a little.

The book was rejected by publishers and was put aside. But, continues Maugham:

I could not forget the people, the incidents and the emotions of which it was composed. In the next ten years I had other experiences and met other people. The book continued to write itself in my mind, and many things that happened to me found their place in it. Certain of my recollections were so insistent that, waking or sleeping, I could not escape from them. I was by then a popular playwright. I was making for those days a great deal of money, and the managers could hardly wait to engage a cast till I had written the last act of my new piece. But my memories would not let me be. They became such a torment that I determined at last to have done with the theatre till I had released myself from them. My book took me two years to write. I was disconcerted at the unwieldly length to which it seemed to be extending, but I was not writing to please; I was writing to free myself of an intolerable obsession. I achieved the result I aimed at, for after I had corrected the proofs, I found all those ghosts were laid, and neither the people who played their parts in the story, nor the incidents in which they were concerned ever crossed my mind again. Looking back on it now in memory … I can hardly tell what is fancy and what is fact, what parts describe events that happened, sometimes accurately and sometimes disturbed by an anxious imagination, and what parts describe what I could have wished had happened.

The account in The Summing Up is even more explicit. Maugham narrates there how, at the height of his success as a playwright, he began to be obsessed by:

… the teeming memories of my past life. The loss of my mother and then the break up of my home, the wretchedness of my first years at the school for which my French childhood had so ill-prepared me, and which my stammering made so difficult, the delight of those easy, monotonous and exciting days in Heidelberg, when I first entered upon the intellectual life, the irksomeness of my few years at the hospital and the thrill of London.

Of Human Bondage provided the release from these "teeming memories." This account of the genesis of the novel is highly significant. It explains the deep compassion, the insight into the adolescent mind, and the honesty of the book.

Of Human Bondage belongs to that type of novel which may be called "the novel of adolescence." This type of novel, which was usually represented by a long chronicle in three thick volumes and which flourished throughout the nineteenth century, had its beginning with Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. As has been pointed out by William Y. Tindall [in Forces in Modern British Literature], this form received new life towards the end of the century from the science of biology and later from psychology.

In novel after novel sensitive lads are apprenticed to life, formed by its forces, rebelling against them, sometimes failing, sometimes emerging in victory. Their trials and errors, like those of rats in a maze, are painfully displayed. And all the horrors of adolescence, the theatre of biology and spirit, are examined…. From 1903 onwards almost every first novel by a serious novelist was a novel of adolescence … it produced some of the best novels of the early twentieth century.

Of Human Bondage is a chronicle of a period of about twenty years in the early life of Philip Carey, who is, to a large extent, Maugham himself. The opening chapter forms one of the most moving scenes in the novel. Philip's mother, who is on her deathbed, asks nine-year-old Philip to be brought to her. She presses the child, who is only half-awake, to herself, and then, "she passed her hand down his body till she came to his feet; she held the right foot in her hand and felt the five small toes; and then slowly passed her hand over the left one. She gave a sob." Thus the fact of Philip's clubfoot, which is going to cause him suffering throughout his whole life, is intimated to the reader in an effortless and effective way.

Philip's clubfoot seems to have been suggested by young Maugham's own stammer, and Maugham indeed appears to have put so much of his childhood and adolescence into the portrait of Philip that he emerges as easily the most memorable of Maugham's heroes.

Since Philip's mother dies (his father is already dead), the bringing up of the orphan is entrusted to his uncle, who is vicar of Blackstable. Philip's life at Blackstable is not happy. He is starved of affection, for his uncle is too self-centered to pay much attention to the boy; his aunt, a shy and meek childless lady, is too diffident to satisfy the boy's emotional needs. Philip's deformity, which excites ridicule and makes him exceedingly self-conscious, renders his schooldays equally unhappy. "And often there recurred to him then that queer feeling that his life with all its misery was nothing but a dream, and that he would awake in the morning in his own little bed in London."

The dull routine of the school irks this dreamy and precocious boy, and he rebels against the ecclesiastical career which his uncle intends for him. However, he persuades his uncle to allow him to spend a year in Germany, where he experiences his first taste of freedom of action and thought. Still undecided about the choice of a career on his return, he spends one year in London in a chartered accountant's office, and two more in Paris, where he studies painting, until he discovers that he is devoid of genius and returns to London to become a medical student.

While Philip is pursuing his medical studies, he falls in love with Mildred, a shallow and vulgar waitress.

He had thought of love as a rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness, but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was a painful yearning, it was a bitter anguish, he had never known before.

He struggles in vain against the destructive passion which robs him of his health, of his peace of mind, and of his slender financial resources. Thrice Mildred leaves his life, only to return and make fresh claims upon him. Reduced to poverty, Philip has to abandon his studies for a time and work as a shopwalker to maintain himself.

At long last, he frees himself from the cruel spell of Mildred, and, inheriting money from his uncle who has died, is able to resume his studies. He decides to travel extensively after qualifying as a doctor, but when he receives his degree, he discovers that his one desire is for peace. Throughout his adolescence and youth, one question has been nagging him—"What is the meaning of life?" He deduces that life has no meaning and that every man's life is simply a pattern that he makes out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, and his thoughts—a pattern that he makes simply for his own pleasure. There is "one pattern, the most obvious, perfect and beautiful, in which a man is born, grows to manhood, marries, produces children, toils for his bread, and dies." With the passing of his mental struggles, Philip decides to follow this pattern, and he marries a healthy and simple girl, settling down as a country doctor.

The appeal of Of Human Bondage is due, first, to the sincere desire to understand the mind of a sensitive and dreamy adolescent, secondly, to the deep sympathy with which the afflictions of this adolescent are portrayed, and, lastly, to the unflinching honesty and restraint which save its compassion from sentimentality or mawkish self-pity.

The pathos of the opening scene of the novel has already been commented on. With great tenderness, Maugham portrays the sense of loneliness and desolation which haunts Philip in his early days at school. The story of how his deformity, to which he has scarcely given any thought so far, makes him woefully sensitive and self-conscious there, alienates him from the other boys, and makes him grow into a brooding, lonely, and morbid adolescent is told with great power. The career of Philip is, in broad outline, a rather depressing record of the failure of a morbid mind to adjust itself to the world and to life. Yet, it is remarkable that, throughout this long chronicle, Philip never loses our sympathy. This is perhaps due to the stark sincerity with which Maugham portrays his career, extenuating nothing and making no excuses.

The sincerity with which Maugham treats his hero is best illustrated in the Mildred episodes of the novel. Philip emerges from these episodes as an ineffectual, weak, irresolute, and drifting young man, and yet retains our sympathy. It is interesting to compare Philip's adolescent love experience with those of Wells's Lewisham and Meredith's Richard Feverel, for both of whom adolescent love is enveloped in a rosy romantic haze. Philip, with painful honesty, confesses that "Love was like a parasite in his heart, nourishing a hateful existence on his life's blood."

This sincerity is part of Maugham's creed as a realist, but it does not make him completely detached here. This is impossible; for Philip is, to a large extent, Maugham himself. On the contrary, this quality gives greater verisimilitude to the whole picture. [In William Somerset Maugham, 1937] R. H. Ward complains of a certain "rigidity" in Of Human Bondage, arising out of "a stubborn determination to plough right on from the beginning to the end, to extenuate nothing." He thinks that this is due to the "material tyrannising over the author." But it is possible to find in this very "determination to extenuate nothing" the source of the emotional force and massiveness of the book. It is that determination, in fact, which gives unity to this sprawling and seemingly formless chronicle.

Philip is not the only object of Maugham's pity in the novel. There are the drifters through life whom Philip meets in his career, and they are pathetic spectacles—more lamentable than he in certain respects, for they are greater self-deceivers. The portraits of some of these are not devoid of irony, as for example, the picture of Hayward, who is at once the deceiver and the deceived. He has purposely impressed others as being an idealist and has led, under the cloak of idealism, an idle and wasted life. He has worn his mask so long, however, that he has ultimately come to believe in his own fiction.

Nevertheless, the dominant note in the other portraits is one of pity for waste and futility. Such is the fate of Cronshaw who is the slave of his Bohemian life in Paris, and who pitiably advises Philip, "If you can get out of it, do while there's time." Such, again, is the fate of Miss Price who, refusing to accept the fact that she has no talent for painting, blunders on through her art studies, until starvation drives her to hang herself.

Of the restraint which saves the novel from mawkish sentimentality, there is a fine example in the scene where Philip, going through the correspondence of his deceased uncle, suddenly comes upon a letter written by his mother. In that letter she writes about her son: "I pray God night and day that he may grow into a good, honest, and Christian man…. I hope that he will become a soldier in Christ's Faith and be all the days of his life God-fearing, humble, and pious." The letter moves Philip. "He read again," says Maugham, "what she said about him, what she expected and thought about him … he had turned out very differently; he looked at himself for a moment." And then follows a significant gesture; "Then a sudden impulse caused him to tear up the letter; its tenderness and simplicity made it seem peculiarly private…. He went on with the Vicar's dreary correspondence."

Humanitarianism is, as noted earlier, incompatible with disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motive and actions. Maugham, usually the ironic observer of life, has created very few men and women the goodness of whose motives and actions he does not doubt. Thorpe Athelny in Of Human Bondage is one of these. He is, no doubt, an absurd creature to some extent. Although he is an insignificant advertisement writer by profession, he grandiloquently calls himself "a journalist," and his garrulity and flamboyance are highly diverting. Yet with all his ridiculousness, Athelny has a pure, disarming goodness, the warmth of which is felt by all who come into contact with him. It is this goodness that succors Philip when both materially and spiritually he has reached the nadir of helplessness.

The other strain in Maugham—that of contemptuous sneering and cold indifference indicative of cynicism—also has a place in Of Human Bondage. It is present, first, in the unfavorable portrait of Philip's uncle, the vicar of Blackstable. Maugham is generally hard on clergymen, and in the famous short story, "Rain," in the farcical comedy Loaves and Fishes and elsewhere in his work, clergymen are butts of ridicule. The Vicar of Blackstable is a detestable creature both as a clergyman and as a man. He is self-centered, vain, mean, avaricious, and indolent. Maugham takes delight in exposing him through small situations. Thus, when the Vicar and his wife play backgammon, the wife always arranges that he should win, because he is a bad loser. But it is when the Vicar is about to die that Maugham's satire becomes most stinging. Far from reconciling himself to the thought of joining his Maker after a life spent in ease and comfort, this man of God has become a valetudinarian monster, clinging desperately to existence. The thought of death fills him with horror, and the religion that he has preached all his life is now of no avail to him.

But the attack on the clergy and religion in Of Human Bondage has more of contemptuous sneering and frigid indifference than of indignation in it. John Brophy makes an illuminating comparison between Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh and Of Human Bondage from this point of view: "The Way of All Flesh is inspired by violent anger against the clergy because they offended Butler's moral sense. The hypocrisy reported in Of Human Bondage arouses not so much indignation as distaste." Thus, when Philip loses his faith, he does so

… with surprise at the foolishness of believers, but with no sense of shock, no moral indignation. Convinced that religion is nonsense, he feels no obligation to disabuse others of what he regards as mere fantasy, even when he observes that on their death-beds it fails to console them. Maugham notes, as it were, in a casebook: this man is dying of pneumonia because, curious creature, he insists on going out in the rain. The fact is reported and the comment added without passion, without even concern. Samuel Butler, by contrast, professes social medicine. He is appalled that the contagion should be spread. He denounces religion in a satire so hot that it scorches and discomforts not only the object of his scorn but the reader and himself. He would have the churches pulled down and sterlized, and he has already planned the temples to the Life Force which should be built in their place. [Somerset Maugham, published in "The British Council Bibliographical Series," 1952]

This is, indeed, the reason why Of Human Bondage misses the greatness which its rich compassion for Philip brings it near attaining. The deep sensibility and honesty of the book are undeniable, but it fails to attain greatness because of what R. H. Ward rightly describes as its "negative quality." "Of Human Bondage has," he says, "one great disadvantage, that it is written by a man determined that only thought and the material, with the material as leader and ruler exist. It is, as a result, a good book, but an unillumined book."

The negativeness of Of Human Bondage lies mainly in the solution which Maugham ultimately has his protagonist find to the question: "What is the meaning of life?" The conclusion arrived at by Philip is, "There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live." Philip's reaction to this conclusion is even more revealing:

Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders; it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free … what he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing.

The total lack of positive values in Philip's creed is self-evident. He no doubt speaks, later on, about every man making "a pattern of his life for his own pleasure," and tells us that "there was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died." But it is significant that the end of the novel where Philip chooses this pattern for his own life is, according to most critics, the least satisfactory part of the book. Maugham himself mentions this in his preface to Of Human Bondage and is almost apologetic about it: "Here," he says, "I had no facts to go on. It was a wishfulfilment." The fact is that Philip's sudden apprehension of this perfect pattern is not well prepared for in his psychological portraiture and lacks adequate motivation. Hence it fails to convince. It must also be remembered that Maugham's philosophy of life, as stated in The Summing Up, also shows an almost total lack of a positive creed.

The negativeness of Of Human Bondage is no doubt mitigated to a considerable extent by its author's humanitarianism, by the fundamental honesty of the book, and by the goodness discernible in Athelny. Nevertheless, it cuts too deep into the work to be wholly dissipated by these and is especially emphasized, as shown earlier, in the concluding portions of the novel.

The dominant strain in Of Human Bondage is that of understanding and compassion: "I was not writing to please, I was writing to free myself of an intolerable obsession," says Maugham in commenting on the genesis of the book. Hence, the transparent sincerity of the work and the human warmth pervading the struggles and trials of adolescent Philip are explained.

The novel has many faults. It is too long and verbose, and the ending where Philip is thrown hastily into Sally's arms is rather hard to swallow, if not disgusting. From the point of view of form, the novel is indeed only a sprawling chronicle such as a panoramic novel usually is, and, like other lengthy chronicles, it has its redundancies and repetitions. But the greatest limitation of the book is its negativeness of philosophy which persists, though mitigated to a point by other elements in the novel. Yet, in spite of all these shortcomings, the humanitarianism of Of Human Bondage, which is undeniable, effectively counterbalances its strain of cynicism. The tables, however, are turned with Maugham's next novel, The Moon and Sixpence.

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