Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
This section contains 2,869 words
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Critical Essay by Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell

SOURCE: "Time Passes," in Adventure or Experience: Four Essays on Certain Writers and Readers of Novels, Columbia University Press, 1930, pp. 39-75.

Brewster was an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, part of a longer essay illuminating the differences between "chronicle" novels and "dramatic" novels, Brewster and Burrell classify Of Human Bondage as a dramatic novel, citing what they consider the reader's ability to sympathize with the self-pitying, imperfect Philip Carey.

Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage is no family chronicle, no slow birth to death progression. Its very title suggests an emotional involvement, a struggle for escape, that promises a dramatic development. Fill out the title from Spinoza's Ethics—"Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions"—and one is prepared for a plunge into some intense form of human experience. And one takes it, too; such a deep plunge that there are probably few characters in modern English fiction with whom readers more readily identify themselves than with Philip Carey. But for all that, there are qualities in the novel—to be noted presently—that leave one at the end in a mood very different from that in which, for example, a Dostoevsky novel leaves us, though Philip's emotional entanglements are almost Russian.

The most lasting bondage in which Philip is held is that of his own temperament, and his temperament is determined largely by the accident of his deformity—a club foot. Thinking over his life towards the end of the book, he realizes how this deformity has warped his character, and yet how it had developed in him a power of introspection that has given him as much delight as misery. One of the pitfalls of his nature is self-pity. A little boy, just after his mother's death, he weeps, yet keenly enjoys the sensation he is causing among some sympathetic ladies by his sorrow, and wishes he could stay longer with them to be made much of. Awakened to acute self-consciousness by the brutality with which he is treated by curious boys in the school dormitory, his school life becomes one of intermittent torment. He soon learns that when anyone becomes angry with him for any reason, some reference will be made to his foot. He finds himself doing odd bits of playing to the gallery, to excite compassion; as when a schoolmate accidentally breaks a penholder belonging to Philip, and Philip, with tears, declares it was given to him by his mother before she died—though he knows he had bought it a few weeks before. "He did not know in the least what had made him invent that pathetic story, but he was quite as unhappy as though it had been true." The habit continues even after he has learned to understand it, and he lapses into it whenever he is weakened by suffering. When Mildred is irritated by his persistent love on one occasion, "he hesitated a moment, for he had an instinct that he could say something that would move her. It made him almost sick to utter the words,"—but he utters them nevertheless—"'You don't know what it is to be a cripple. Of course you don't like me. I can't expect you to.' He was beginning to act now, and his voice was husky and low." And she softens at the pathos.

He develops ways of escape and defense: reading, first, in his uncle's queerly assorted library, where he forgot the life around him and formed "the most delightful habit in the world—reading. He did not know that he was thus providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment." The wide knowledge gained from his books made him contemptuous of his companions' stupidity, and he found he had a knack in saying bitter things, "which caught people on the raw." Thus he could defend himself, but he couldn't make himself popular, and he longed for easy inter-course with his schoolmates, and would gladly have changed places with the dullest boy in the school who was whole of limb. He develops a cool ironic manner; he evens learns to control his sensitive blushing; he can protect himself, but he is still in bondage. When the physician at the hospital where he is studying asks Philip casually to display his foot, to compare it with that of the patient under examination in the clinic, Philip forced himself to appear indifferent, allowed the students to look at the foot as long as they wished—"when you've quite done," said Philip with an ironical smile…. "And felt how jolly it would be to jab a chisel into their necks." He becomes an adept in self-analysis—"a vice as subtle as drug-taking."

What Philip suffers from his deformed foot is mild compared with the misery he undergoes when he falls in love with Mildred. It is an emotion so different from anything he has ever dreamed or read about—this aching of the soul, this painful yearning—that he is profoundly shocked when he is forced to identify it as love. Mildred, with her insolent pale thin mouth and anaemic skin, has been described somewhere as an implacable pale green worm who crawls through the book. The very fact that Philip is blinded by no illusions about her, that he sees how unhealthy, commonplace, odiously genteel, vulgar and selfish she is, convinces us that the passion is irresistible. Lovers of unworthy objects in fiction are usually clearly deluded; we, the readers, see that, and look for the waning of the passion with the discovery of the truth. But Philip knows the truth from the beginning, and we agonize with him over this divorce between reason and emotion, this split in consciousness where the reason watches, disgusted, repelled, estimating the passion at its true value, but unable to affect the emotions, which go their own lamentable way. "His reason was someone looking on, observing the facts, but powerless to interfere; it was like those gods of Epicurus, who saw the doings of men from their empyrean heights and had no might to alter one smallest particle of what occurred." There are moments when he loathes Mildred, moments again when he feels noble because of the sacrifices he makes for her, other moments—like the blessed pauses in an illness—when the temperature falls and he thinks he is released. Once when she treats him with an insolence that humiliates him, "he looked at her neck and thought how he would like to jab it with the knife he had for his muffin. He knew enough anatomy to make pretty certain of getting the carotid artery. And at the same time he wanted to cover her thin pale face with kisses." He tastes the depths of voluptuous self-torture when he gives Mildred and Griffiths—his friend for whom the apparently passionless Mildred has a violent infatuation—money to go off together on a week-end trip. He is sick with anguish when he makes the offer, yet "the torture of it gave him a strange subtle sensation." The devil of self-torture always lurks in him. There is a strange sequel when he later takes Mildred and her baby into his little flat and supports them, though he no longer has any desire for Mildred. This physical indifference so piques Mildred that she throws herself at his head, and rejected, takes a vicious revenge by utterly destroying all the furnishings of the apartment, even slashing Philip's few paintings, relics of his art studies. But even that is not the end of Mildred; she comes back again and again, with each reappearance more degraded. When she is finally lost, Philip sometimes wandered through the streets haunted by prostitutes, wishing and dreading to see her, catching a glimpse of someone resembling her that gave him a sharp stab of hope or of sickening dismay—he scarcely knew which. Relieved when it was not she, he was yet disappointed and seized with horror of himself.

Would he never be free from that passion? At the bottom of his heart, notwithstanding everything, he felt that a strange desperate thirst for that vile woman would always linger. That love had caused him so much suffering that he knew he would never, never be quite free of it. Only death could finally assuage his desire.

There are times in the course of this strange passion when Philip could step over into Dostoevsky's world and feel at ease with the most accomplished masochist of them all.

Compelling as is the drama of Philip's struggle, it is to other aspects of the novel that the final impression is due. There is the sense of change, of relentless moving on, that marks the chronicle, though the space of years actually covered in Of Human Bondage is not great—perhaps twenty-five or thirty. Philip moving from one group to another, in his restless search for adjustment, loses sight of this or that person for a time; then sees him again, changed, older. There are his clergyman uncle and his aunt, middle-aged when they take the orphaned nephew into their home, growing into old age, dying; there is Hayward, fascinating and brilliant in the eyes of twenty-year-old Philip, gradually revealing himself as Philip grows more astute to be a shallow poseur, whose mind grows more and more flabby and his charm more and more tarnished. There is Cronshaw, the poet of the Montparnasse cafés, center of a little circle of the initiated; leading an ever shabbier and more sordid life, coming to die wretchedly in London. And Mildred herself, who runs rapidly through the stages that take her from a curiously attractive waitress in an ABC teashop to a diseased prostitute haunting Piccadilly. It is Philip's reflective attitude towards all these mutations that helps to create the effect of philosophic detachment characteristic of the chronicle novel.

Then Philip's career is so varied and experimental that he seems to have led several lives. And there is such richness of detail in the account of his art studies in Paris, his medical training in London hospitals, his dismal interlude as a shop clerk; there are so many people in each little universe whose lives Philip observes with the same sort of interested detachment with which Maugham himself observes Philip,—that we feel we are watching the unrolling of an elaborate panorama. There is not the rigid selection of detail that in the dramatic novel makes everything bear directly on the main conflict. For the interest is not so much in the final resolution of the conflict as in Philip's arrival at a comprehension of its nature and its place in some general scheme of human existence. He begins quite early seeking consciously to understand the meaning of life, as well as to make his own difficult adjustments to it. Often this intellectual need—stimulated by his emotional difficulties—is more pressing than a decision about his career or an escape from the degrading bondage to the unspeakable Mildred. The reader begins presently to share Philip's philosophic concern with what life is all about.

It is towards the chapter that follows "Of Human Bondage" in Spinoza's Ethics that the novel is moving, though one can scarcely say that it arrives—"Of Human Freedom, or the Control of the Understanding." From time to time Philip feels that he understands himself and life and can control both. When he talks with Cronshaw in Paris, he is challenged to say what he really thinks he is in the world for, and he answers vaguely—to do one's duty, to make the best use of one's faculties, and to avoid hurting other people. This he calls abstract morality, and he is indignant with Cronshaw for ridiculing his weak reasoning, and for setting up a thoroughly self-centered philosophy—that men seek but one thing in life, their pleasure. Philip had always believed conventionally in duty and goodness. As he goes on through his own difficult experiences, and especially as he watches day after day the procession of humanity through the clinic of the hospital, he comes to see only facts. The impression was

neither of tragedy nor of comedy…. It was manifold and various; there were tears and laughter, happiness and woe; it was tedious and interesting and indifferent; it was as you saw it; it was tumultuous and passionate; it was grave; it was sad and comic; it was trivial; it was simple and complex; joy was there and despair; the love of mothers for their children, and of men for women; lust trailed itself through the rooms with leaden feet, punishing the guilty and the innocent, helpless wives and wretched children; drink seized men and women and cost its inevitable price; death sighed in these rooms and the beginning of life, filling some poor girl with terror and shame, was diagnosed there. There was neither good nor bad there. There were just facts. It was life.

So Philip cultivated a disdain for idealism, which he had found meant for the most part a cowardly shrinking from life. But meeting a man with a passion for Spain and particularly for the painting of El Greco, Philip began to divine something new, to feel on the brink of a discovery, a new kind of realism in which facts "were transformed by the more vivid light in which they were seen." There was some mysterious significance in these paintings, but the tongue in which the message came was unknown to him.

He saw what looked like the truth as by flashes of lightning on a dark stormy night you might see a mountain range. He seemed to see that a man need not leave his life to chance, but that his will was powerful; he seemed to see that self-control might be as passionate and as active as the surrender to passion; he seemed to see that the inward life might be as manifold, as varied, as rich with experience as the life of one who conquered realms and explored unknown lands.

These remain but flashes. He finds most satisfaction in the conviction that life has no meaning. "Life was insignificant and death without consequence." He exulted as he had in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders. He felt free. "If life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty." But Cronshaw had once given him a little Persian rug, and told him that the meaning of life was hidden in its pattern; and now he thinks he discerns it.

As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no need but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life, or if one was forced to believe that his actions were outside his choosing, so might a man look at his life, that it made a pattern…. Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful; and though it might be no more than an illusion that he had the power of selection, though it might be no more than a fantastic legerdemain in which appearances were interwoven with moonbeams, that did not matter: it seemed, and so to him it was…. 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 there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace.

Philip felt he was casting aside the last of his illusions in throwing over the desire for happiness. Measured by that desire, his life was horrible, but it might be measured by something else. Happiness and pain were details in the elaboration of the design. Anything that happened to him henceforth would simply be one more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern. When the end came and it was completed, he would find it none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence and "with his death it would cease to be."

Philip's final acceptance of the most obvious pattern is brought about by his meeting with Sally, a girl with a very simple pagan attitude towards living, as radiantly healthy as Mildred was sickly, as tranquil as Philip is restless, as soothingly maternal as any man could wish his ideal woman to be—yet not as convincing as the dreadful Mildred, who seems the reality, whereas Sally is one of the dreams belonging to the Golden Age. Freedom to Philip suddenly takes on the aspect of lonely voyaging over a waste of waters; a quiet home with Sally is a fair harbor.

He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

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This section contains 2,869 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Dorothy Brewster and Angus Burrell