Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by Bonnie Hoover Braendlin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
This section contains 3,279 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Bonnie Hoover Braendlin

Critical Essay by Bonnie Hoover Braendlin

SOURCE: "The Prostitute as Scapegoat: Mildred Rogers in Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage," in The Image of the Prostitute in Modern Literature, edited by Pierre L. Horn and Mary Beth Pringle, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984, pp. 9-18.

In the following excerpt, Braendlin discusses the character of Mildred Rogers, arguing that Rogers is cast as a "threatening female" who serves as villain, victim, and scapegoat and is sacrificed for her sins.

Scarcely any other character in modern British fiction has been disparaged as unanimously as Mildred Rogers, the supercilious waitress turned prostitute in Somerset Maugham's early-twentieth-century Bildungsroman, Of Human Bondage (1915). Critics of the novel have nearly all regarded Mildred solely from the author's viewpoint, perhaps because Maugham's naturalistic, detailed style so convincingly characterizes her as an immoral "slut" and castigates her as a representative of feminine evil, allowing her no redeeming virtue. Because Mildred is propelled into prostitution by her own snobbery, it is obvious that she is culpable and thus perhaps deserving of her fate, yet from other perspectives she appears not only as villainess but also as victim. In this novel of male self-development, Mildred assumes the position of a scapegoat, compelled to expiate the sins of others, specifically those of the protagonist, Philip Carey, and more generally those of women who defy prescribed identities and demand proscribed freedoms. She is victimized in a symbolic way by the demands of the traditional male Bildungsroman, which sacrifices woman to man's development process and in a sociological sense by a rigid class hierarchy and propriety and by a paucity of opportunities for women to advance themselves or to find satisfying work. Her independent willfulness suggests her affinities with the New Woman, a turn-of-the-century phenomenon depicted in various guises by novelists of the period; her irrational destructiveness relates her to female demons and finally to all outsiders who avenge themselves against societal ostracism.

Of Human Bondage delineates a young man's struggle to realize his own identity, or in bourgeois terms, to achieve a successful integration into his society through the proper choice of vocation and wife; hence, the novel closely follows the basic pattern and philosophy of the conventional Bildungsroman. Maugham's novel continues the practice established by its predecessors in the Bildungsroman tradition—Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, for example—of rewarding the mature adolescent with marriage to an idealized woman. Like Goethe's Natalie and Dickens's Agnes, Sally Athelny incarnates those female characteristics which men have usually considered ideal—unselfish love, unquestioning devotion, and uncritical maternal solicitude—against which all the other women in the novel, including Mildred, are measured and found wanting. On an archetypal level, Sally provides the means whereby Philip as the questing hero can reaffirm lost ties with the natural world. Her affinity with nature becomes evident especially at the end of the novel as she emerges "a Saxon goddess" in the hop fields of Kent. By virtue of her sexual openness, Sally is a twentieth-century improvement on the Victorian mother-goddess, a fitting reward for the young modern who frees himself from outmoded religion and morality yet retains a sense of familial responsibility and societal duty and of the necessity for harmony with the natural world, which is all but eclipsed by industrialism and urbanization.

When Philip meets Sally, he has for some time been hopelessly and helplessly enslaved by his irrational passion for Mildred, whose commonness, vulgarity, and infidelity he despises. The defects of several women in Philip's previous adolescent love affairs and friendships coalesce in Mildred's repulsiveness, which is diametrically opposed to Sally's ideal beauty. Mildred's tall, thin, drooping figure, flat chest, and narrow hips characterize her as less than the established ideal of feminine pulchritude, while her greenish, anemic skin tone betrays her underlying unhealthiness. Her outer sickly physique masks no mitigating inner beauty or strength of character; her "common" and "vulgar" personality lacks any redeeming "gentleness" or "softness." In addition to being unfeminine, Mildred lacks "the maternal instinct," a grievous flaw for any woman to have in a male Bildungsroman, in which the goal of individual and societal stability depends on a perpetuation of values through family solidarity and inheritance. The perfect wife not only provides essential maternal solicitude for the struggling hero but promises to give continuity to his newfound identity through children, preferably sons.

Mildred is one of many characters sacrificed in this Bildungsroman and in countless others to the development process of the protagonist. Philip's inexplicable infatuation with her constitutes one of the series of trials in his progress toward maturity, illustrating the destructive power of unbridled emotion over reason, a major theme in Maugham's novel. [In an endnote, Braendlin adds that Robert Lorin Calder in his W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, 1973, "demonstrates how the several stages of the Philip-Mildred relationship embody various emotional responses of Philip to Mildred, ranging from humiliation through enslaving emotional bondage and finally pity arrived at through self-analysis."] Robert Lorin Calder points out that a destructive female like Mildred appears in most English nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Bildungsromane: "It is usually part of a young man's apprenticeship that he becomes ensnared by a woman who is vulgar, insensitive and unintelligent. In most cases the hero finally frees himself and, although emotionally scarred, is more mature because of his experience." Calder offers no explanation for the inclusion of such a character, but his remark implies that her presence, although appearing to hinder the protagonist's development, in some way furthers it. As seductress, Mildred incurs the blame for impeding Philip's progress, since her enslavement of him causes his initial failure in medical school and eventually contributes to his impoverishment. Yet she also promotes his progress by exemplifying the inevitable consequences of undesirable behavior and destructive emotions. Philip's devastating relationship with Mildred chastens his pride and strengthens his will and determination; most important, it demonstrates to him that love is not so much passion as affection and respect, two sensible emotions that he feels for Sally, although he does not "love" her.

As a symbol of enslaving emotional, irrational passion, Mildred represents that bane of male existence, the femme fatale, the unattainable temptress, the faithless lover, the social counterpart to the immortal fairy, La Belle Dame sans Merci. By refusing to submit to Philip's sexual advances because she feels neither sexual attraction nor love for him, Mildred illustrates Barbara Fass's definition [in her La Belle Dame sans Merci & the Aesthetics of Romanticism, 1974] of the femme fatale, "the unattainable temptress who keeps her admirer in a perpetual state of longing." Later, when Mildred turns to other men to satisfy her own desires, she fulfills another form of the archetype by becoming the "frequently faithless partner of a destructive love affair," although ironically the "affair" with Philip is devoid of love. Mildred appears to be damned if she does (with other men) and damned if she doesn't (with Philip). In Of Human Bondage, the specific social designation for the destructive female archetype is the prostitute, which Mildred becomes after Philip refuses to marry her because he is disgusted and disillusioned by her unfaithfulness. Prostitution brands Mildred a pariah, separated by an insurmountable gulf from respectable womanhood. Because she solicits men on the streets, taking them back to her dingy room, she inhabits the lowest rung of the demimonde social hierarchy, far removed from the courtesans in elegant brothels who catered to the Edwardian upper classes and thus enjoyed a measure of social respect and even envy.

Mildred's fall to the depths of depravity punishes her for sexual promiscuity, a conduct accepted as part of the normal course of events in a young man's adolescent development, in which his sexual exploits confirm his manhood. A comparison of Mildred's actions with Philip's indicates that her emotions, desires, and responses parallel his in reverse. The direction of Mildred's reaction to Philip during their relationship proves to be the inverse of the course of his interest in her. Her initial lack of response to Philip's advances leads Philip to conclude that she is impervious to passion, but gradually her sensuality emerges in her affairs with other men, at the same time that Philip's ardor cools in reaction to her "infidelity." She becomes as enslaved to passion as Philip is in the early stages of their acquaintanceship. Finally she turns her desires toward Philip, only to be rebuffed by his decision that their association be platonic. Mildred's reactions of bewilderment, humiliation, and anger, which are reported by the narrator just before her attack on Philip's room and mark one of the few lapses of the limited omniscient point of view, echo the "pique" and humiliation Philip demonstrates earlier. Calder provides a rationale for Mildred's destructiveness, attributing it to sexual frustration and loss of "mastery" over Philip once he no longer desires her, two motives that also suggest her affinities with Philip. Mildred in fact personifies the very weakness of character that Philip himself displays and which hinder his development: Philip accuses her of being "on the make" as he himself is; she betrays him for other men, but he in turn betrays Norah Nesbitt when Mildred returns to him.

As is typical with secondary characters in a Bildungsroman, Mildred is allowed no self-development and no change of heart; but unlike other personages in Of Human Bondage, such as Norah, who is rescued by marriage, Mildred is denied redemption. The nature of Mildred's illness as a prostitute presages an early death for her. The fact that the severity of her punishment exceeds the enormity of her "crimes" and the fact that Philip escapes punishment for similar sins suggest that Mildred assumes the burden of Philip's guilt as well as her own. Her sins are his sins exaggerated, and her penalty is his release. As a scapegoat she is sacrificed so that Philip may be strengthened. As she deteriorates, he regenerates; as she slides down the social scale, he rises, moving from the poverty of his student days to the security of the medical profession.

As a scapegoat Mildred is both guilty and not guilty. She represents the "fallen woman" who, although partly responsible for her own actions and choices, is also victimized by men in particular and society in general. Mildred's early conditioning, her petty bourgeois upbringing, has instilled in her a scorn for menial work like waitressing and a belief in the necessity of marriage for respectability and advancement on the social scale. The latter conviction conspires with her uncontrollable emotional desires to increase her vulnerability to men who seduce her by marriage offers or by affairs that end in deception and abandonment. Ironically, Mildred's vanity and desire for independence, in addition to her snobbish attitude—typical, Maugham says, of her class—cause her fall to a level of the social scale diametrically opposite that of the respected housewife she longs to become and pretends to be while living and traveling with Philip.

Maugham's unrelieved negative portrayal of Mildred in this novel differs from his more sympathetic treatment of prostitutes, such as Miss Sadie Thompson in "Rain" but resembles other characterizations of destructive women in his works. One critic speculates that Mildred's despicable character results from Maugham's notorious misogyny occasioned by his disillusionment with women who could not measure up to his mother or assuage the pain occasioned by her death; others assume that Maugham's desire to expunge the memory of some agonizing love affair prompted his deleterious description of Mildred. [See Richard Albert Cordell, Somerset Maugham, 1961, p. 80; Laurence Brander, Somerset Maugham, 1963.] Both theories have merit, especially because Of Human Bondage is an autobiographical novel, detailing the pain suffered by a little boy who loses his beloved mother, as happened to Maugham.

Another possible explanation is suggested, however, by Mildred's affinities with the New Woman, the independent female who caused consternation in England from the 1890s into the twentieth century. While Mildred does not directly rival Philip for professional opportunities, she does threaten the accepted societal notion of male domination, which is essential to Philip's pride and easily bruised ego. At the beginning of their relationship, Philip cannot control Mildred although he is determined to bend her to his will. Later he feels betrayed when she follows her own passionate inclinations, and unjustly injured and insulted when she rebels against his mandate of a platonic liaison, destroying his property in revenge for his treatment of her.

When he attempts to rehabilitate her, to get her off the streets and prevent her from spreading venereal disease, she pushes him away with a final vituperative comment: "What do I care? Let them [the men she solicits] take their chance. Men haven't been so good to me that I need bother my head about them." Turning an independent woman into a diseased harpy suggests that Maugham's misogyny may have been furthered by a fear of the consequences inherent in woman's desire for self-determination and her refusal to acquiesce to maternal and subordinate roles; it may reveal some of the antagonism toward the New Woman expressed in other Edwardian literature, in novels such as H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay and D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers. [In The Edwardian Turn of Mind, 1968] Samuel Hynes attributes this hostility to the fear that women's desire for freedom presented a serious threat to family stability and hence to societal equilibrium, already shaken by disruptive factors resulting from increased industrialization. While the young Edwardians desired more sexual freedom, even extending it to women as if to enhance them as sexual partners, they also regretted the loss of their Victorian fathers' ideal of a stable and sheltered home life safeguarded by a contented wife-mother. Mildred's characterization seems to incorporate this trepidation and desire for revenge on the wayward female; she may be Maugham's scapegoat for the New Woman, made to expiate her independent spirit.

Having demonstrated that Mildred becomes a scapegoat for the sins of others, we may extend the nature of her sacrifice by reference to her as a manifestation of the universal goddess, as the evil side of the Great Mother archetype. [In an endnote, Braendlin states: "See Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949. A displacement of the myth of the hero into the realistic Bildungsroman finds the young developing protagonist encountering various manifestations of the mother in the ancillary women characters, at least two of whom are often polarized, a reflection of the general tendency in man's art and literature to view woman as either good or evil, angel or witch, helpmate or hindrance, intercessor or seducer. In Victorian fiction, this duality expresses itself in the characters of wife and whore, the latter being either the working-class woman or one fallen from middle-class respectability through sexual indiscretion. Of Human Bondage continues the dichotomization into the twentieth century."] If Sally is the "sinless" aspect of the deity in that she embraces her designated role as maternal helpmate, Mildred represents the misguided goddess who resists. In a response to Claude Lévi-Strauss's observations on myth, René Girard [in "Violence and Representation in the Mythical Text," MLN, 92 (1977)] defines one basic mythic structure as the ritual elimination of an erring deity, the scapegoating of a divine being who has acted in a manner threatening to the community. If a society's crisis situation is severe enough and the causes vague, an individual deity or a human incarnation may be accused and made a scapegoat even though not guilty of any real crime or causative action. From the perspective of the threatened community, the apparent malefactor or a helpless substitute is always guilty; and the punishment, usually ostracism or death, is always justified. In Of Human Bondage, Mildred is made a scapegoat to save Philip from his personal crisis, but in a larger sense, she is sacrificed for the good of a society in crisis. Although, as Calder says, Maugham's novel in many ways "attempts to grapple with man's new freedom in the twentieth century," it reaffirms traditional answers to modern dilemmas, particularly those involving threatened values such as the stable home as a bulwark against change. The marriage of Sally and Philip at the end of the novel is intended to restore a threatened societal ideal; it is Maugham's answer to his culture's crisis, and it necessitates the death of Mildred, the erring goddess.

Widening the circle of those who benefit from the ostracism and death of a scapegoat enables us to see Mildred as an example of the "outsider," defined by Vivian Gornick [in "Woman as Outsider," in Woman in a Sexist Society, ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, 1971] as "one in whom experience lives in a metaphorical sense, one whose life and meaning is a surrogate for the pain and fear of existence, one onto whom is projected the self-hatred that dogs the life of the race." Like Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Mildred incarnates "the quintessential female" whose "behavior is emotional, impetuous, illogical, uncontrollable," all characteristics that help explain Mildred's supposedly inexplicable destructiveness. When she annihilates Philip's possessions, presumably in a streak of mad fury, Mildred demonstrates "the infantilism of reduction" typical of all outsiders who are denied the advantages of civilized living appropriated by the inside elite. Finally, as the fatally diseased prostitute, she becomes the scapegoat, described by Gornick as one whose "life is offered up, as every outsider's life is offered up, as a sacrifice to the forces of annihilation that surround our sense of existence, in the hope that in reducing the strength of the outsider—in declaring her the bearer of all the insufficiency and contradiction of the race—the wildness, grief, and terror of loss that is in us will be grafted onto her, and the strength of those remaining within the circle will be increased." Mildred, the diseased prostitute, the treacherous goddess, the independent woman, dies for us all.

Critics of Maugham's novel maintain that reader sympathy for Philip continues even when he appears ridiculous by wishing that he could stab Mildred in the carotid artery with his muffin knife or callous by longing for his uncle's death so that he can get his inheritance. Maugham's vituperative treatment of Mildred as unredeemed feminine evil supposedly excludes any similar compassion for her, yet it may in fact engender sympathetic understanding. Even as a spiteful fallen woman, Mildred exhibits a measure of courage and independence by scorning the option of serving a man who neither loves nor respects her. Sympathy for Mildred and her plight comes more easily perhaps to readers whose consciousness has been raised by the women's movement and feminist criticism. But Maugham's naturalistic technique, which revels in sordid detail in order to expose the evils of society (as in the slum where Philip practices medicine) and to revive a threatened societal ideal, may in Mildred's case also contribute to a sympathetic reading of her character and function by affording a view of her as a representation of a social reality, the fallen woman and unwed mother, a victim as well as a villainess, a person as well as a symbol.

Of Human Bondage is undeniably remarkable for its particular vindictiveness toward the threatening female, which transforms her into a prostitute who, as scapegoat, is sacrificed for all who remain within the circle of respectability and rationality. Even this vindictiveness, though, may backfire by loading the dice against Mildred and thus increasing reader sympathy for her. Because Maugham advances the time-honored theme of ironic comedy that the scapegoat must be ritualistically expunged from society, his treatment of Mildred may illustrate Northrop Frye's contention [in Anatomy of Criticism, 1957] that "insisting on the theme of social revenge on an individual, however great a rascal he [or she] may be, tends to make him [or her] look less involved in guilt and the society more so."

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This section contains 3,279 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Bonnie Hoover Braendlin