Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by Theodore Spencer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
This section contains 1,951 words
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Critical Essay by Theodore Spencer

SOURCE: "Somerset Maugham," in College English, Vol. 2, No. 1, October, 1940, pp. 1-10.

In the following excerpt, Spencer discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Of Human Bondage.

One of the difficulties involved in writing a critical essay on Somerset Maugham is that he seems to have made such an estimate unnecessary by writing it himself. In a number of prefaces and especially in The Summing Up he has described his career, stated his beliefs, and defined his limitations. He has been as honest with his readers as he has been with himself.

Though I have had variety of invention, and this is not strange since it is the outcome of the variety of mankind, I have had small power of imagination. I have taken living people and put them into the situations, tragic or comic, that their characters suggested. I might well say that they invented their own stories. I have been incapable of those great, sustained flights that carry the author on broad pinions into a celestial sphere. My fancy, never very strong, has been hampered by my sense of probability. I have painted easel pictures, not frescoes.

Such frankness, as Maugham himself points out, is likely to be dangerous to a writer's reputation. The Anglo-Saxon public likes its authors to have some mystery or romance surrounding them, to be less explicit and less rational about themselves than Maugham has been; it is not wise for an English writer to show that he has too much common sense. "Anthony Trollope ceased to be read for thirty years because he confessed that he wrote at regular hours and took care to get the best price he could for his work." And it is true that Maugham has been slighted or ignored by the critics. "In my twenties the critics said I was brutal, in my thirties they said I was flippant, in my forties they said I was cynical, in my fifties they said I was competent, and now in my sixties they say I am superficial." But the critics have not only branded Maugham with unflattering epithets; they have done something more harmful to his reputation than that—they have neglected him by putting him to one side of the main current of literature in his age. The age has been an age of experiment, and criticism has followed many of the writers in being more interested in experiment than in accomplishment along relatively traditional lines. It is easier to make critical comments on experimental than on conventional writing; there is more to explain and therefore more to say. And recent critics have been so conditioned by the historical sense, by the feeling that literary art, like evolutional biology, must be continually developing new forms if it is to progress, that they conclude that an author who does not experiment with new forms is worth little attention. Most histories of contemporary literature give only a brief notice to Maugham.

But Maugham deserves better than this, and popular opinion has recognized the fact by not agreeing with the critics. One of Maugham's books, Of Human Bondage, is probably the most universally read and admired of modern English novels, and his plays have more vitality than those of any of his contemporaries, except Shaw. The problem for anyone trying to judge Maugham's permanent value is to decide whether the critics or the public are right….

Of Human Bondage … is by common consent Maugham's best novel and the one which gives him a claim to being considered a first-class writer. It remains to be seen whether this claim can be justified.

There are, we may say, four things which we look for in a serious work of fiction: (1) an organization of incident which produces the illusion that the sequence of events is necessary and inevitable; (2) a set of characters whose relation to the events is equally inevitable and in whom we can believe; (3) a physical, social, or geographical setting which forms a fitting background for the events and characters; and (4) a moral, intellectual, or metaphysical climate which creates the standard by which, more or less unconsciously, both the author and the reader judge the behavior of the characters. This last requirement, one which is usually overlooked, may be for a certain type of novel the most important of all. For example, the implications of the characters and the action in Moby Dick are in a sense more significant than the action that the characters perform. They universalize the individual events by giving them a symbolic meaning; we have, in other words, the feeling of a fourth dimension to which I have already referred. The problem in criticizing Of Human Bondage is to determine whether or not this quality can be found in it or whether it is merely, like the Forsyte Saga, a kind of sublimated reporting limited to a given time and place.

There is no doubt about the conviction of reality which we receive from the book; Philip Carey's childhood, his uncle, the school at Tercanbury, his years abroad, and his struggle to find a satisfactory way of existence are all described with honesty, fidelity, and conviction. The material is almost entirely autobiographical, and Maugham has told us himself that he was virtually forced to write the book in order to get the subject matter out of his system. The difference between the first three-quarters of the book and the last quarter, the part describing Philip's marriage, which, according to Maugham, is largely wish fulfilment, shows how necessary it is for Maugham, if he is to write convincingly, to rely fairly solidly on what he himself has seen and felt. For the last section of the book, "competent" as it is, has not the strength and the authority of the earlier part. Like the happy ending of Hardy's Return of the Native, it is a kind of excrescence on the original organic structure.

It is, then, the first three-quarters of the book that we must consider most seriously. Apart from the fact that we can believe without question in the people and the events which Maugham describes, there are two things in this part of the novel which impress most readers: the love affair with Mildred, and the search for a pattern in human experience. There is no doubt that Maugham's description of his hero's violent infatuation has more intensity than that which he has given to any other similar situation. The odi et amo of Catullus has found no more vivid presentation in modern fiction than this. The contrast between the strength of emotion and the unworthiness of its object, which is one of the most painful of human experiences, Maugham here describes in a manner which all who have shared that experience can recognize. Not only are the individual scenes between Mildred and Philip admirably handled but their sequence—the development of the relation between the two—is as psychologically true as it is powerfully described.

And yet, excellent as it is, if we compare it with another handling of the same situation, it may perhaps be clear why it is difficult to attribute to Maugham's description the final, inner artistic vision which I have mentioned as the fourth requirement of a great novel. When Shakespeare's Troilus realizes that his Cressida is unworthy of his feelings for her, he makes that realization the opening wedge for a frightening view into the gulf between appearance and reality which involves every range of thought and feeling. To him it is merely one aspect of a whole view of life; the most excruciating, but not the only, evidence of the gap between what the will and the mind can desire and what the limited, hampering body can perform.

Shakespeare, of course, is writing a poetic drama, not a novel, and as a result he has more opportunity for creating poetic intensity. The comparison between him and Maugham has only a limited value. Nevertheless, there is a "fourth-dimensional" character to Shakespeare's view of Troilus which is missing in Maugham's view of Philip, and we must recognize this lack if we are to keep our standards clear. The difference, to be sure, is not merely a difference in individual ability or vision; it is also a reflection of a difference between two periods in history. Shakespeare's world was based on a concept of unity; when that unity, through the realization of individual perfidy, was apparently smashed, tragedy was the result. Maugham's age gave him no unity; the only order known to Philip—that of his uncle's beliefs—was a shoddy sort of order, and the smashing of it brought, not tragedy, but freedom. Life, like the famous Persian rug given to Philip by Cronshaw, has no pattern at all. "Life was insignificant and death without consequence," Philip discovers; and this discovery is a release and a satisfaction: "His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty…. He had not been so happy for months."

Obviously this kind of resolution lacks the intensity of a tragic resolution, and the success of Of Human Bondage as a whole is a limited success. It has not, for example, the lyrical intensity which we sometimes find in such a comparable work as Arnold Bennett's Old Wives Tale; there is nothing in Maugham like Sophia's reflections over the body of Gerald Scales. Of Human Bondage is not one of those novels which press us urgently into new areas of awareness; it merely fills out, in its moving, efficient, and vivid way, those areas of awareness which we already possess. Superior as it is to anything else Maugham has written, it is still, to use his own words, an "easel picture" and not a "fresco."

Maugham has rounded out his life's work in his intellectual and artistic biography, The Summing Up. We find here, as we would expect, a reflection of the same temperament that is expressed in the novels. It is an admirable book; sensible, clear, and full of an honest and not too worldly wisdom. Next to Of Human Bondage it is the most likely of his works to survive, for it is not only an expression of Maugham's own point of view, it is also representative of what many people in Maugham's generation believe. It is, truly, "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed." But it too is not the work of an imaginative mind; its philosophy is the philosophy of the present and the practical—it does not play with original concepts or mold any unity that does not already exist. For Maugham there are no eternal silences.

But if we are to exclude Maugham from the very top rank of contemporary writers that does not mean that we can dismiss him entirely. His honesty, his craftsmanship, and his admirable gifts for arousing interest and holding attention make him the kind of writer whom it is always a pleasure, and sometimes a stimulus, to read. If literature is to flourish, there must always be, in any given generation, a number of writers who take their work seriously as a craft, who look with unfailing curiosity and interest at human behavior, and who consider the description of that behavior one of the chief justifications for living. Writers of this kind are essential both for keeping our sensitivities alive and for preserving that common basis of value and tradition which must always be the groundwork for writing of the superior kind. Among such writers Maugham holds a high place, and to deny him our respect were to deny respect to the art he has served so long and so well.

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This section contains 1,951 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Theodore Spencer