Of Human Bondage | Marcus Aurelius Goodrich

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
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Marcus Aurelius Goodrich

SOURCE: "After Ten Years 'Of Human Bondage,'" in The New York Times Book Review, January 25, 1925, p. 2.

In the following essay, Goodrich summarizes the critical reaction to Of Human Bondage.

During the last decade, the vast, passive jury, in whose hands rests the fate of all writing aspiring to a berth among the classics, have been attending in ever increasing numbers to the steady, unacclaimed arcing over the turmoil of William Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Among New York's literary guild the quite long book, no doubt, has been forgotten. Experiment has shown that when it is possible for a moment to shunt the attention of most of that eminent crew from the uproarious business of literature to the name Maugham, the inevitable response is an exhibitionistic shout referring to a play that he did not write, or to another novel about a tired English business man who retreated to life among the blue skies and corals with a leprosy ridden negress.

But in the less spectacular realms of those who read books merely because they like to read, or those whose culture shelters a vibrant attraction towards authentic performances in English prose, or those who are thrilled to find the universal aspects of life on a printed page, Of Human Bondage has, after ten years of steadily increasing activity, risen in England almost to a place beside The Way of All Flesh, and in the United States is on the way to becoming an uncanonical sensation. When the book was first published in the United States, it managed to live through three anaemic editions, despite the general critical preoccupation with other matters. Then four years went by and the publishers suddenly discovered that there was a quiet, unheralded demand for more copies of Of Human Bondage. They issued another small edition. Two years later, without a single pat on the back from the literators, the supply was again exhausted. The publishers prepared another edition. In 1923 the steady demand for the novel assumed such proportions that it was introduced into a special edition of works that seem to be in permanent demand. In this last edition, which is a fixture of its publishing house, it has gone through three printings. The universities just seem to have discovered the novel, libraries report an increasing call for it, second-hand book dealers number it among the old novels that still sell easily, and the price in London of a first edition of it has multiplied itself by three in the past five years. In New York's clubs and drawing rooms and at exoteric dinner tables, one is a bit surprised to find so old a book talked of as if it had been written yesterday, surprised that any volume could have resisted for so long the gigantic flood rushing every second from the printing presses. The explanation, perhaps, is that Of Human Bondage has become a classic.

A short time after Heinemann in England and Doran in the United States simultaneously published Of Human Bondage in 1915, the perfunctory unenergetic ripple that it had caused in the critical puddle had smoothed out. The book was allowed to go unpublicized on its quiet way down the trail to oblivion, while the critics turned to raddle themselves in more spectacular rouge pots. In England the critics evidently had felt that something was expected of them, but most of them just did not seem to be very much interested. They admitted generally that it was a realistic character study. Richard King in the Tatler, as was to be expected, dismissed it facetiously in a short commentary that ended with the information that "Of Human Bondage is scarcely a story." The Westminster Gazette decorously passed on the word that it had "excellence"; The Saturday Review admitted that it was "arresting"; The Nation, in a flabby article, pronounced it to be an experimental attempt to follow in the steps of Compton Mackenzie; and Punch inquired plaintively, "Why have so many of our novelists taken to producing enormous volumes marked by a pre-Raphaelite fidelity to detail?" In the United States the case was pretty much the same. The New York World in four careless, little unsigned paragraphs intimated that the novel was not worth all the space it took up and complained of the title. Harper's Weekly printed: "Of Human Bondage is a fat, comfortable volume that will hold the attention of all those who read fiction seriously." The Dial commented sententiously on its length and said that "the book is far from being compellingly great." The Outlook devoted a few lines to the opinion that the book "shows marked ability in its own way." Most of the papers throughout the States contented themselves with minor, routine observations that the book was "startingly realistic," and with excerpted paragraphs let it go at that. In several journals appeared the same, mild, stereotyped review that had probably emanated from some syndicate; but what might be held up as the symbol of the whole critical attitude, both here and in England, leaked off the pen of the critic on The Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph:

The reviewer has looked at this book time and again, and just as often has refrained from looking into it. The reason is that there are 648 pages of the story—300 pages too many for careful reading and candid review. But this much can be said: It opens with a funeral and ends with a wedding. As the author is one of the most successful of the younger dramatists, and is said to have made several fortunes from his plays, it may be taken for granted that his novel will repay the reading of it by those who have the time to do so.

Both abroad and in the United States, however, there were some who were fired into eloquent approval of Mr. Maugham's novel. The journals in Dublin, Ireland; Los Angeles, Cal., and Chicago, Ill. The Boston Evening Transcript and Theodore Dreiser in the New Republic came out flatly with the news that a great and thrilling masterpiece had been born into the world.

When Mr. Maugham, after fashioning a monument of such stoical brilliance as Of Human Bondage unmolested by overmuch critical booming, went down among the critics and burst out in their midst with The Moon and Sixpence, his fleshy, vivid gesture was not, perhaps, so much a normal literary development, as it was a comment on the middlemen who stood between him and promptly rewarded literary achievement.

After coming face to face with the universal, simple beauty and verity that rears itself symmetrically through the 648 pages of Maugham's book, one realizes that he confronts a tremendous emotional, not merely sensual, upheaval. He has seen life, if not defined, at least epically epitomized.

That Of Human Bondage suffered tardy intellectual approval, may be due to the gaudy critical methods that began to come into vogue about the time Mr. Maugham started writing. The chief impetus behind these methods seems to be, as somebody has pointed out, an intent on the part of the critic to call attention to himself rather than to the work he is criticizing. A book received the spotlight if it were capable of reflecting sensational and startling colors back upon him who directed the light. There are in Maugham's novel no color splashing areas nor purpureal periods that could be used to decorate the sort of spectacular critiques inspired, for instance, by the efforts of Messrs. Huxley, Hergesheimer and Firbank. But Of Human Bondage is built with pure, meagre-syllabled phrases that twist and cling thrillingly in their unsensational contexts. It is only when the simple; almost primitive, words sum up into the whole absorbing performance that they partake of the nature of sensation. Without once relapsing into dullness, Maugham has consistently passed by the opportunity to indulge in poster effects, so that in the end he might attain to a vital sweep of living, effulgent, integral color. He has succeeded. Even in those passages wherein he depicts events and situations than which there are no more spectacular in man's existence, he maintains his Homeric restraint to an extent that almost makes them seem flat when extracted from their contexts. Here is an example:

Philip felt on a sudden sick with fear. He hurried to the house in which she lived. He was astonished that she was in Paris at all. He had not seen her for months and imagined she had long since returned to England. When he arrived he asked the concierge whether she was in.

"Yes, I've not seen her go out for two days."

Philip ran up stairs and knocked at the door. There was no reply. He called her name. The door was locked, and on bending down he found the key was in the lock.

"Oh, my God, I hope she hasn't done something awful," he cried aloud.

He ran down and told the porter that she was certainly in the room. He had had a letter from her and feared a terrible accident. He suggested breaking open the door. The porter, who had been sullen and disinclined to listen, became alarmed; he could not take the responsibility of breaking into the room: they must go for the commissaire de police. They walked together to the bureau, and then they fetched a locksmith. Philip found that Miss Price had not paid the last quarter's rent; on New Year's Day she had not given the concierge the present which old-established custom had led him to regard as a right. The four of them went up stairs, and they knocked again at the door. There was no reply. The locksmith set to work, and at last they entered the room. Philip gave a cry and instinctively covered his eyes with his hands. The wretched woman was hanging with a rope round her neck, which she had tied to a hook in the ceiling fixed by some previous tenant to hold up the curtains of the bed. She had moved her own little bed out of the way and had stood on a chair, which had been kicked away. It was lying on its side on the floor. They cut her down. The body was quite cold.

As in The Way of All Flesh, the hero of Maugham's book emerges from the household of an English country clergyman and climbs through public school, college, violent youth and rugged London up onto the peaceful level agony of disillusionment. In this case the climber was handicapped by a badly deformed foot. The Way of All Flesh, it has been said, is one of the most terrible indictments of parenthood that man's mind has ever produced. Of Human Bondage is not merely that.

The novel takes up the life of one Philip Carey when he is almost a baby in arms, living with his newly widowed mother in a middle-class section of London. In the first few pages the mother dies and leaves Philip, sensitive and club-footed, in the hands of his uncle, the Rev. William Carey, and his childless wife. When the boy is about thirteen he is sent to King's School at Tercanbury, from there he goes to Heidelberg. After that he tries accountancy in London, then art in Paris. The last half of the novel is built about his vivid, impecunious struggle to graduate from St. Luke's Hospital in London. Through this half of the story an implacable, pale, green worm, named Mildred, crawls unhealthily: a truly remarkable character.

The book has no plot in the sense that a short story has one, but it fills splendidly that function traditionally ascribed to the novel of recording the development of a character from the moment he becomes conscious to the moment when life has finished its major operations upon him.

Mr. Maugham was born in Paris, where his father was a counselor at the English Embassy. When he was between the ages of 10 and 13, he was confronted with his native land for the first time on the occasion of his going to England to become a student in King's School at Canterbury. From King's he went to the University of Heidelberg, and several years later the records of St. Thomas's Hospital in London record his graduation as a physician. His literary career began when he was twenty-one with a novel called Liza of Lambeth. It was written some time before he had finished with his medical studies at St. Thomas's, induced, it is reported, by a sudden pressing and romantic need for money. He has since written thirteen books, numerous short stories and twenty plays, one of which was written in German and produced in Berlin.

Well-read people often have the habit of remarking that they get a great deal more satisfaction out of reading the biography of an actual man than out of reading the most skillfully written novel. There seems to be an authenticity about the biography that is lacking in the novel. One of the striking things about Of Human Bondage is that it does not lack this authenticity. But there is more evidence than even this to indicate that Mr. Maugham's book may be his own thinly disguised autobiography. The meaning here of the phrase "thinly disguised" is illustrated by this example: in the novel the boy, Philip, is sent to King's at Canterbury; the first town's name may be manufactured from the second by inverting its first two syllables. Once during an interview with Mr. Maugham, a reporter asked him: "What did you do at Heidelberg?"

Mr. Maugham, who in his early youth stuttered clumsily and consistently, started out on what promised to be a long stretch of talk, when he suffered an attack of his youthful affliction; he stopped, and then said:

"Oh, you'll find it in Of Human Bondage."

To further questions as to whether he found studying medicine very interesting, what he did in Paris, and what he thought of the public school he attended, he said impatiently, as he tried to end the interview:

"You'll find it all in Of Human Bondage."

If the reporter's effrontery had had the complete courage of its conviction, he might have asked Mr. Maugham:

"Didn't you find that your stuttering made life somewhat difficult?"

And his answer, no doubt, would have been,

"That's in Of Human Bondage too"—screened, perhaps, behind the symbol of a clubbed foot.

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This section contains 2,382 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Marcus Aurelius Goodrich