Of Human Bondage | Speech by W. Somerset Maugham

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
This section contains 3,071 words
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Speech by W. Somerset Maugham

SOURCE: "Of Human Bondage with a Digression on the Art of Fiction," in The Maugham Enigma, edited by Klaus W. Jonas, The Citadel Press, 1954, pp. 121-28.

In the following transcript of a speech Maugham delivered on April 20, 1946, when he presented the manuscript for Of Human Bondage to the Library of Congress, he explains the genesis of the novel both literally and thematically.

                                            April 20, 1946

Ladies and Gentlemen:

You will remember that one of the characters in Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed remarks that at a literary gathering, such as this, no one should be allowed to discourse for more than twenty minutes. It is true that he is the most odious character in the book, but there is a lot in what he says. I shall try not to exceed this limit. I start by telling you this in case these typescript sheets I have in front of me fill you with misgiving. A year or two ago I was invited to give a lecture at a great and ancient university, and for reasons with which I need not trouble you I chose the somewhat grim topic of political obligation. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and went into the lecture hall without even a note. It was crowded to the doors. I think I got through the lecture pretty well and I reached my peroration without mishap. But having been at one time of my life a dramatist, I have been inclined to end a discourse with a curtain line. Well, I reached my curtain line with a sigh of relief and began very confidently: The price of liberty is—and then I had a complete black-out and I could not for the life of me remember what the price of liberty was.

It brought my lecture to a humiliating conclusion and, unless in the interval someone else has told them, the students of that great and ancient university do not to this day know what the price of liberty is.

I thought I would not let myself be caught in that way again and I am no longer prepared to trust in the failing memory of the very old party you know I am.

I am very grateful to you for coming here tonight, since you are not only paying me a compliment, but you are paying a compliment to a form of fiction which is badly in need just now of encouragement.

I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many. But as you know, story telling just for the sake of the story is not an activity that is in favour with the intelligentsia. It is looked upon as a debased form of art. That seems strange to me since the desire to listen to stories appears to be as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property. Since the beginning of history men have gathered round the camp fire or in a group in the market place to listen to the telling of a story. That the desire is as strong as ever it was is shown by the amazing popularity of detective stories in our own day. For the habitual reader of them can generally guess who the murderer is before he is half way through, and if he reads on to the end it is only because he wants to know what happens next, which means that he is interested in the story.

But we novelists are on the whole a modest lot, and when we are told that it is our business, not merely to entertain, but to deal with social security, economics, the race question, and the state of the world generally, we are pleased and flattered. It is very nice to think that we can instruct our fellow men and by our wisdom improve their lot. It gives us a sense of responsibility and indeed puts us on a level of respectability with bank presidents. For my part, I think it is an abuse to use the novel as a pulpit or a platform, and I think readers are misguided when they suppose they can thus acquire knowledge without trouble.

It is a great nuisance that knowledge cannot be acquired without trouble. It can only be acquired by hard work. It would be fine if we could swallow the powder of profitable information made palatable by the jam of fiction. But the truth is that, so made palatable, we can't be sure that the powder will be profitable. I suggest to you that the knowledge the novelist imparts is biased and thus unreliable, and it is better not to know a thing at all than to know it in a distorted fashion. If readers wish to inform themselves of the pressing problems of the day, they will do better to read, not novels but the books that specifically deal with them.

The novelist is a natural propagandist. He can't help it, however hard he tries. He loads his dice. By the mere fact of introducing a character to your notice early in his novel he enlists your interest and sympathy in that character. He takes sides. He arranges facts to suit his purpose. Well, that is not the way a book of scientific or informative value is written. There is no reason why a novelist should be anything but a novelist. He should know a little about a great many things, but it is unnecessary, and sometimes even harmful, for him to be a specialist in any particular subject. The novelist need not eat a whole sheep to know what mutton tastes like; it is enough if he eats a chop. Applying then his imagination and his creative faculty to the chop he has eaten, he can give you a very good idea of an Irish stew, but when he goes on from this to give you his views on sheep raising, the wool industry and the political situation in Australia, I think it is well to accept his ideas with reserve.

But please do not misunderstand me. There can be no reason why the novelist should not deal with every subject under the sun so long as it enables him to get on with his story and to develop his characters. If I insist on the importance of the story, it is partly because it is a very useful rail for the author to cling to as page follows page and it is the surest way for him to hold his reader's interest. The story and the persons of the story are interdependent. They must act according to character or the story will lose its plausibility, but it seems to me that the author is at liberty to choose his characters to fit his story or to devise his story to fit his characters. Which he does, probably depends on the idiosyncrasy of his talent, if any.

I suggest to you that it is enough for a novelist to be a good novelist. It is unnecessary for him to be a prophet, a preacher, a politician or a leader of thought. Fiction is an art and the purpose of art is to please. If in my quarters this is not acknowledged I can only suppose it is because of the unfortunate impression so widely held that there is something shameful in pleasure. But all pleasure is good. Only, some pleasures have mischievous consequences and it is better to eschew them. And of course there are intelligent pleasures and unintelligent pleasures. I venture to put the reading of a good novel amongst the most intelligent pleasures that man can enjoy.

And I should like to remind you in passing that reading should be enjoyable. I read some time ago a work by a learned professor which purported to teach his students how to read a book. He told them all sorts of elaborate ways to do this, but he forbore to mention that there could be any enjoyment to be got out of reading the books he recommended. In fact he made what should be a delight into an irksome chore, and, I should have thought, effectively eradicated from those young minds any desire ever again to open a book after they were once freed from academic bondage.

Let us consider for a moment the qualities that a good novel should have. It should have a coherent and plausible story, a variety of probable incidents, characters that are living and freshly observed, and natural dialogue. It should be written in a style suitable to the subject. If the novelist can do that I think he has done all that should be asked of him. I think he is wise not to concern himself too greatly with current affairs, for if he does his novel will lose its point as soon as they are no longer current. H. G. Wells once gave me an edition of his complete works and one day when he was staying with me he ran his fingers along the many volumes and said to me: "You know, they're dead. They dealt with matters of topical interest and now of course they're unreadable". I don't think he was quite right. If some of his novels can no longer be read with interest it is because he was always more concerned with the type than with the individual, with the general rather than with the particular.

Nor do I think the novelist is wise to swallow wholesale the fashionable fads of the moment. I read an article the other day in which the author stated that in future no novel could be written except on Freudian principles. It seemed to me a very ingenuous statement. Most psychologists, though acknowledging liberally the value of Freud's contributions to their science, are of opinion that he put many of his theories in an exaggerated form; but it is just these exaggerations that attract the novelist because they are striking and picturesque. The psychology of the future will doubtless discard them and then the novelist who has based his work on them will be up a gum tree. How dangerous to the novelist the practice is, of depending too much on theories that a later generation may discard, is shown very well in the most impressive novel this century has produced, Remembrance of Things Past. Proust, as we know, was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson and large stretches of his great work are taken up with it. I think I am right in saying that philosophers now regard Henri Bergson's more striking ideas as erroneous. I suppose we all read with a thrill of excitement Proust's volumes as they came out, but now when we re-read them in a calmer mood I think what we find to admire in them is his wonderful humour and the extraordinarily vivid and interesting characters that he created. We skip his philosophical disquisitions.

It is obviously to the novelist's advantage that he should be a person of broad culture, but the benefit to him of that is the enrichment of his own personality. His business is with human nature and he can best acquire knowledge of that by observation and by exposing himself to all the vicissitudes of human life.

But I have not really come here to give you a discourse upon the art of fiction. Dr. Luther Evans asked me to talk to you about Of Human Bondage, and if I had so long delayed to do so it is because I have now to tell you that I know very little about it. I corrected the proofs in the autumn of 1914—thirty-two years ago—in a billet near Ypres by the light of a single candle, and since then I have only opened the book once. That was when, some months ago, I was asked to read the first chapter for a record that was being made for the blind. I did not make a very good job of it because I was moved, not because the chapter was particularly moving, but because it recalled a pain that the passage of more than sixty years has not dispelled. So if you will have patience with me I will content myself with giving you the history of this book.

While still a medical student I had published a novel which had some success and as soon as I had taken my degrees I went to Seville and settled down to write an autobiographical novel. I was then twenty-three. Following the fashion of the day I called it rather grandly The Artistic Temperament of Stephen Carey. Then I took it back to London to get it published. Life was cheap in those days, but even then you couldn't live for nothing, and I wanted a hundred pounds for my year's keep. But I could find no publisher who was willing to give me more than fifty, I daresay that was all it was worth, but that I obstinately refused to accept. It was a bit of luck for me, for if the book had been published then—and it was certainly very crude and very immature—I should have lost much that I was able to make better use of later.

Years went by and I became a popular dramatist. But those memories of an unhappy past burdened me and the time came when I felt that I could only rid myself of them by writing them; so I retired from the theatre and spent two years writing the book you know now. Then I had another bit of luck. I had called it Beauty for Ashes, which is a quotation from Isaiah, but discovered that a novel with that title had recently been published. I hunted about for another and then it occurred to me that the title Spinoza had given to one of the books of his Ethics would very well do for mine. So I called it Of Human Bondage.

It was published in England in 1915 and was well enough reviewed. But we were then engaged in a war and people had more important things to occupy themselves with than the characters of a work of fiction. There had been besides a spate of semi-biographical novels and the public was a trifle tired of them. My book was not a failure, nor was it a success. It did not set the Thames on fire. It was only by a lucky break that it was published in America. George Doran, then a publisher who specialized in English books, brought it back to this country for consideration, but it was very long and nobody read it. Then Mrs. Doran got an attack of influenza and on asking for something to pass the time, George Doran gave her Of Human Bondage to read, chiefly, I believe, because of its length. She liked it and on this he decided to publish it.

It came out and Theodore Dreiser gave it in The Nation a very long, intelligent and favourable review. [In a footnote, the editor adds that the article by Dreiser "actually appeared in The New Republic of December 25, 1915."] Other reviewers were more moderate in their praise, but on the whole sympathetic. The average life of a novel at that period was ninety days, and about that time Of Human Bondage appeared to die. For two or three years, perhaps more, it was to all appearance forgotten. Then again I had a bit of luck. For a reason I have never known it attracted the attention of various writers who were then well-known columnists, Alec Woollcott, Heywood Broun and the still living and still scintillating F. P. Adams. They talked about it among themselves and then began talking about it in their columns. It found new readers. It found more and more readers. The final result you know. It has now gained the doubtful honour of being required reading in many educational institutions. If I call it a doubtful honour it is because I am not sure that you can read with pleasure a book you have to read as a task. For my own part, I once had to read The Cloister and the Hearth in that way and there are few books for which I have a more hearty dislike.

It is because the success of Of Human Bondage is due to my fellow writers in America and to a whole generation of American readers that I thought the least I could do was to offer the manuscript to the Library of Congress.

When I asked Dr. Luther Evans if he would accept it I told him that I wanted to present it in gratitude for the hospitality I, my daughter and grandchildren have received in this country. I was afraid it would seem presumptuous if I said more. I did not expect this celebration. I thought that if Dr. Evans was agreeable to my suggestion, I would make the manuscript into a neat parcel, despatch it by parcel post, and then he would put it on one of the shelves in the Library and that would be that. But since you have been so good as to come here, since I have had a signal honour conferred on me, I am encouraged to say what was really my wish to say at the beginning. You know, we British are on the whole honest people, we like to pay our way and we do not like to be in debt. But there is one debt that we can never hope to repay, and that is the debt we owe you for the kindness and the generosity with which you received the women and children of my country when in fear of a German invasion they came to America. They were lonely and homesick and they were unhappy at leaving behind them those who were dear to them. No one knows better than I how much you did for them, how patient you were with them and what sacrifices you made for them. So it is not only for my own small family, but for all those of my fellow countrymen who found refuge on these shores that I wish to offer this manuscript to you, not as an adequate return, not even as a token payment, but just as an acknowledgment of the debt we owe you. Thank you.

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This section contains 3,071 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Speech by W. Somerset Maugham