Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by S. P. B. Mais

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
This section contains 3,367 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by S. P. B. Mais

Critical Essay by S. P. B. Mais

SOURCE: "Somerset Maugham," in Some Modern Authors, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1923, pp. 115-28.

Mais was a British educator, nonfiction writer, and critic. In the following excerpt, he briefly comments on several of Maugham's early novels and discusses Of Human Bondage, describing it as a model of autobiographical fiction.

For some twenty years Mr Somerset Maugham has been writing novels and plays, hammering hard on the doors of the critics' studies, clamouring for a hearing. For a long time they overlooked him. A man of indomitable courage, he has persevered and gone on from strength to strength until at last, in The Moon and Sixpence, he "rang the bell" (as the phrase goes) to such purpose that no intelligent reader could any longer deny him his place among the really brilliant leaders of modern fiction. There is an astringency about all his work that is most refreshing. He has stood his ground always, and refused to pander to the public taste for the sugary sentimental. He has remained true to his conception of his art, and he has won out. After years of struggle as a dramatist he is now accredited with financial success only second to that of Barrie. It is salutary to our critical sense to go back twenty years and see how good he was long before he was recognised. Take, for instance, The Merry-Go-Round. The idea of the barrister-author philandering with the barmaid, marrying her to save her honour, finding out that by so doing he was making a hell for two instead of one, has been often enough exploited, but no one has tackled the theme so frankly as Maugham. At the end, when Jenny commits suicide, Basil is at any rate honest:

"I made a ghastly mistake and suffered for it … and perhaps it wasn't all my own fault…. For God's sake let us be free. Let us do this and that because we want to, and because we must, not because other people think we ought. And d'you know the worst of the whole thing? If I'd acted like a blackguard and let Jenny go to the dogs, I should have remained happy and contented and prosperous, and she, I daresay, wouldn't have died. It's because I tried to do my duty that all this misery came about."

Somerset Maugham is a good author because he never flinches in the face of reality: he is definitely antisentimental. "After all," he says to his best friend just after he had seduced Jenny, "if we were all as cool at night as we are in the morning—"

"Life would be a Sunday school," finished his friend. His mother (herself wanton) denounces his decision to marry the girl in good set terms. "A gentleman doesn't marry a barmaid because he's seduced her—unless he has the soul of a counter-jumper…. You're one of those persons who are doomed to mediocrity because you haven't the spirit to go to the devil like a man."

Maugham is like Flaubert in his contemptuous view of humanity. Most of his women have the souls of trollops, most of his men are frankly sensual, loving after feeding, like animals, "as an accompaniment to the process of digestion."

His virtuous characters, like Bella Langton's father, are hard, his worldly characters hypocritical. Once in early days he had a curious lapse into the sentimental. "Even if the beliefs of men are childish and untrue," cries Miss Ley, by far the best character in The Merry-Go-Round, "isn't it better to keep them? Surely superstition is a small price to pay for that wonderful support at the last hour, when all else fades to insignificance."

When Reggie Bassett goes off the rocks Miss Ley coolly rounds on his dissolute mother.

"A wise mother lets her son go his own way, and shuts her eyes to youthful peccadilloes: but you made all these peccadilloes into deadly sins…. Moralists talk a deal of nonsense about the frailty of mankind. When you come to close quarters with vice, it's not really so desperately wicked as all that…. All these things are part of human nature, when youth and hot blood are joined together."

Clear-sightedness in Maugham's characters leads them to cruelty. They have no compunction in cutting Gordian knots which may lead to disasters for the weaker party. He is as much a believer in the survival of the fittest as he is in the saving quality of beauty.

Take another of his little-known early works, The Explorer. He is quite relentless in hunting Lucy Allerton's lovable but shifty father to prison and death for his weakness. Maugham is almost alone among novelists in facing the utter ruthlessness of life. Just as he refuses to compromise in his art, so does he refuse to allow his characters the false security of a harbour. That is why he is so frequently accused of cynicism and brutality. "Every woman is a Potiphar's wife, though every man isn't a Joseph," is typical of the sort of epigram with which his pages are studded.

"A love for good food is the only thing that remains with man when he grows old," is put into the mouth of an indolent wit; but we feel that Maugham himself believes it, just as in Alec Mackenzie, the explorer, he paints what he would wish himself to have been, reckless, desperate, the fascination of the unknown ever urging him on to explore the hidden recesses of the material world as well as those of the world of the mind.

In reply to Alec's denunciation of "the greatest imposture of Christian times—the sanctification of labour," he replies: "If I had ten lives I couldn't get through a tithe of what … so urgently needs doing."

Strength, simplicity, the greatness of life, beauty—these are the things that Mackenzie and Maugham both worship. It is these things that make them worship Boswell, Homer, Thucydides and Shakespeare, the heart of Africa and the South Seas. Maugham delights in placing his characters not only in dangers but in the most remote places of the earth. They are all, like himself, victims of a wanderlust.

His attitude to life is that of Walker, the fighter:

"I've not had a bad time," he said. "I've loved a little, and I've worked and played. I've heard some decent music, I've looked at nice pictures, and I've read some thundering fine books. If I can only account for a few more of those damned scoundrels before I die, I shouldn't think I had much to complain of."

Abroad he suffers from a nostalgia for the grey, soft mists of England; at home he suffers from a nostalgia for the wild, riotous, prodigal virgin jungle, the hot sun beating on a blue lagoon. He has something of the bitter scorn of Swift and Samuel Butler for the world's quick changes from idolatry to persecution. "They lick my boots till I loathe them, and then they turn against me like a pack of curs." He might be Coriolanus speaking. Misunderstood, his pride prevents him from explanations. "Take it or leave it, by God, 'tis good," one imagines both the explorer and Maugham saying to a puzzled world. "The British public is sentimental," cries Mackenzie, "they will never understand that in warfare it is necessary sometimes to be inhuman." But these two novels are examples merely of Maugham in his salad days, serving his apprenticeship in a none too tractable medium. His greatness can be gauged from two books: Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence—both novels of his maturity.

Of Human Bondage is so good a book that it is impossible (for a long time after reading it) to fall down and worship the young Americans of the Sinclair Lewis type or the intellectual young Englishwoman of the Dorothy Richardson-Romer Wilson type. Of Human Bondage is good because it is sincere autobiography—one of the few absolutely sincere documents I have ever read. I would give it, if I could afford copies, to every imaginative boy on leaving school. Let me go through it in detail.

Right from the beginning there is Philip Carey's club-foot, the deformity which made life so hard for him, which warped his character, which made him ultrasensitive, but by reason of which in the end he "acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never have had his keen appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature, and his interest in the varied spectacle of life. The ridicule and the contempt which had so often been heaped upon him had turned his mind inward and called forth those flowers which he felt would never lose their fragrance."

Early left an orphan, he had provided for himself (by reading) a refuge from all the distress of life. His schooldays (at King's School, Canterbury, thinly disguised) increased his sensitiveness (one master called him a club-footed blockhead), and made him solitary: he developed a sense of humour and lost his faith in God. He then went to Heidelberg and indulged in much freedom of thought. It was here that he met the feckless Hayward, who gave him a sense of taste, and Weeks, who helped him to put off the faith of his childhood, like a cloak that he no longer needed. He began to yearn for experience, especially with women, and to see things for himself. When he got home again he drifted into a liaison with the elderly Miss Wilkinson.

There are few things more grim than the picture of Philip steeling his heart to take what this grotesque, unattractive woman had to offer.

She had taken off her skirt and blouse, and was standing in her petticoat…. She wore a camisole of white calico with short arms…. Philip's heart sank as he stared at her … but it was too late now. He closed the door behind him and locked it.

He was lucky to escape even to that appalling London office of Herbert Carter & Co. and his lodgings in Barnes: for ten loathsome months he learnt how to fail as an accountant and (under Hayward's guidance) went to study painting in Paris. It was here that he met the slatternly Fanny Price, unhealthy, unwashed and starving, who hanged herself when she found that neither her pictures nor herself were marketable commodities in a ruthless world. The picture which Maugham draws of these artists, all desiring to have mistresses, all indulging in endless discussions on art, is excellent. Cronshaw, the poet, in particular, stands out, yearning "for the love of chamber-maids and the conversation of bishops," preaching his gospel of pleasure, finding the meaning of life in a Persian carpet. It is in Paris that Philip hears that creed of the artist: "An artist would let his mother go to the workhouse," let his wife and children starve, sacrifice everything for the sake of getting on to canvas with paint the emotion which the world gave him.

It was from Foinet, the master, that he learnt the importance of money.

"There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one's means of livelihood. I have nothing but contempt for the people who despise money…. Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off…. You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation; it cuts your wings; it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one's dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. I pity with all my heart the artist, whether he writes or paints, who is entirely dependent for subsistence upon his art."

He goes back to Blackstable, a failure as an artist, after two years of jollity, two years of learning to look at hands, at houses and trees against the sky—years of discovery that shadows are not black but coloured … that sort of thing.

So he now makes his third fresh start, this time to learn something about medicine, armed with a deeper philosophy of life, determined to be swayed by no prejudices, to follow his inclinations "with due regard to the policeman round the corner," and to find out man's relation to the world he lives in, man's relation with the men among whom he lives, and man's relation to himself. He delighted in the robust common sense of Thomas Hobbes: his mind was concrete. Almost immediately he got entangled with Mildred, another unattractive girl, with narrow hips and the chest of a boy. Only her face and her teeth passed muster. She worked in a tea-shop. He did not think her pretty; he hated the thinness of her; she was common and unhealthy; she showed no pleasure in his company, and yet he was hungry for her; his want of her became a poison, permeating his whole system. She gave him no encouragement; she only went out with him because he was "a gentleman in every sense of the word"; he even offered to marry her, but she preferred to go off with Emil (already married, with three children), so Philip is left with his unslaked thirst and his passion to travel.

It was during these medical student days that he met Norah Nesbit, with the pleasant, ugly face, who lived on writing penny novelettes. In spite of the fact that he did not love her, he made her his mistress and companion, and had some measure of satisfaction until Mildred (deserted by Emil) came back. This meant breaking off with Norah and looking after Mildred until her baby was born. Then (as much in love with her as ever) he gives her up to his friend, Griffiths, who, of course, deserts her. He had the luck to meet a forty-eight-year-old journalist, Thorpe Athelny, who lived with his wife and family (which included Sally) on three pounds a week, earned as press agent to a linendraper, and gave Philip a zest for El Greco, that painter of the soul, and for the beauty of Spain.

He again runs across Mildred (now a harlot) and provides for her a home with him, in spite of the fact that his love for her was now finally killed. They have a row; she makes havoc of his furniture and leaves him. Philip loses the little money he has left on a gamble on the Stock Exchange and sinks to starvation. He is rescued by Athelny, who makes him live with him and finds him a job as shopwalker at six shillings a week. Once more he finds Mildred, now a victim to venereal disease, and passes his final examination at the hospital.

He accepts a locum tenens post in Dorsetshire, which leads to the offer of a partnership, which he refuses on the ground that he wants to travel. He goes back to Athelny and immediately seduces the amiable, buxom, rosycheeked Sally. He did not love her, but he had conceived a great affection for her; he admired her magnificent healthiness. When she came to let him know that she was going to have a child he was torn between his life's ambition to get away and travel to Spain and the South Seas and his duty to her. "I'm so damned weak," he said despairingly. He screws himself to offer to marry her, when she tells him that it was a false alarm, and suddenly he discovers that all his desires to wander were as nothing compared with the desire of his heart. "Always his course had been swayed by what he thought he should do and never by what he wanted with his whole soul to do." He had failed to see that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children and died, was likewise the most perfect—so he discovered the meaning of the pattern on the Persian carpet at last. "Amor omnia vincit"—was that it?

Of Human Bondage is of great length: six hundred and fifty pages, closely packed, and not one of them could be spared. Maugham, like Philip Carey, is one of the few persons who gain a different standpoint from every experience that they undergo. His sensitiveness enables him to recoil more than most of us do from ugliness, and respond more than most of us do to beauty. To fail and fail again, ever to have courage to climb once more, to be interested in every type he meets, and to meet as many types as possible, to put his beliefs to the proof, to discard, prune, reembellish all the time ruthlessly—there are the qualities that made Philip a man and Maugham an artist. He sees with a holy compassion the long procession of unfortunates, deformed in body and warped in mind, ill in the spirit, craving for sweetness and light; he sees the goodness in the bad, but is not sentimental enough or cowardly enough to shut his eyes to the power of evil. He will not pretend that things or people are attractive when they are not. He is probably the least of a hypocrite, as he is one of the finest in spirit, among modern authors.

An Excerpt from of Human Bondage

The Vicar of Blackstable would have nothing to do with the scheme which Philip laid before him. He had a great idea that one should stick to whatever one had begun. Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one's mind.

"You chose to be an accountant of your own free will," he said.

"I just took that because it was the only chance I saw of getting up to town. I hate London, I hate the work, and nothing will induce me to go back to it."

Mr. and Mrs. Carey were frankly shocked at Philip's idea of being an artist. He should not forget, they said, that his father and mother were gentlefolk, and painting wasn't a serious profession; it was Bohemian, disreputable, immoral. And then Paris!

"So long as I have anything to say in the matter, I shall not allow you to live in Paris," said the Vicar firmly.

It was a sink of iniquity. The scarlet woman and she of Babylon flaunted their vileness there; the cities of the plain were not more wicked.

"You've been brought up like a gentleman and Christian, and I should be false to the trust laid upon me by your dead father and mother if I allowed you to expose yourself to such temptation."

"Well, I know I'm not a Christian and I'm beginning to doubt whether I'm a gentleman," said Philip.

The dispute grew more violent. There was another year before Philip took possession of his small inheritance, and during that time Mr. Carey proposed only to give him an allowance if he remained at the office. It was clear to Philip that if he meant not to continue with accountancy he must leave it while he could still get back half the money that he had been paid for his articles. The Vicar would not listen. Philip, losing all reserve, said things to wound and irritate.

"You've got no right to waste my money," he said at last. "After all it's my money, isn't it? I'm not a child. You can't prevent me from going to Paris if I make up my mind to. You can't force me to go back to London."

"All I can do is to refuse you money unless you do what I think fit."

"Well, I don't care, I've made up my mind to go to Paris. I shall sell my clothes, and my books, and my father's jewellery."

W. Somerset Maugham, in his Of Human Bondage, Doubleday, 1915.

By comparison with, shall we say, Hugh Walpole's Fortitude, Of Human Bondage stands out as immeasurably superior to most of even the best work in this kind of our time. It is a human document of incalculable value to all men who wish to leave the world richer for their experiences. It is a model of what the autobiography in fiction ought to be.

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This section contains 3,367 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by S. P. B. Mais