Of Human Bondage | Critical Essay by Archie K. Loss

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Of Human Bondage.
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Critical Essay by Archie K. Loss

SOURCE: "Major Themes: Bondage and Troubled Grace," in Of Human Bondage: Coming of Age in the Novel, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 15-20.

In the following excerpt, Loss argues that Of Human Bondage meets the criteria for a bildungsroman and examines Maugham's twin themes of bondage and grace in regards to Philip's relationship with Mildred.

Implicit in the concept of the bildungsroman is the idea of growth. It is not enough that the main character should simply experience a succession of adventures or suffer from the pangs of unrequited love; he must grow in understanding and sense of responsibility as a result of his adventures or loves. In the broadest sense, that is what the bildungsroman is about: following the main character to the point at which he is ready to assume responsibility for his life.

Of Human Bondage follows this pattern. It begins with the death of Philip's mother when he is a boy of ten and ends with Philip in his late twenties, his medical training complete, ready to assume adult responsibilities, his bride-to-be by his side. Thematically, it shows the growth of Philip's sense of reality, of his ability to distinguish what is true from what is false in the world around him and in his innermost being. It is only when Philip is able to reconcile to some extent the contradictions he perceives in himself and in the world that the novel achieves its end. To reach that goal, Maugham develops two major themes.

The first of these centers on the idea of bondage. Philip's relationship with Mildred is the primary vehicle for the development of this theme. Philip's bondage to Mildred is both physical and emotional—physical in the sense that he needs to have her by his side or be with her even if she doesn't want him around, emotional in the sense that whether he is with her or not she dominates his thoughts and actions as if she were actually there. From the beginning of their relationship, when Philip finds he cannot keep himself from going back to the tearoom where she works as a waitress, till the penultimate episode in their career, when Mildred, having had an affair with Griffiths, leaves Philip with the hated epithet "cripple," his feelings are the same.

Even after Philip realizes (fairly early in the relationship) that his attraction to Mildred is sick, he is still bound to her. Philip never has sexual relations with Mildred, yet he wants to assume the role of provider to her and father to her baby. In the terms of psychopathology, Philip is both a masochist and a voyeur. As a masochist, he needs to suffer to justify a love relationship. As a voyeur, he enjoys creating an opportunity for Mildred to have pleasure with another man. Even the love of a woman who genuinely cares for him—Norah Nesbitt—is not enough to change the pattern of his behavior. Before that can change, he has to hit bottom emotionally and economically.

The bondage theme also appears in relationship to other characters. Philip's Aunt Louisa lives in bondage to his Uncle William, the Vicar of Whitstable. Catering to his every whim, denying herself things she needs, Louisa is almost a parody of the wife as doormat so common to Victorian fiction. Hayward, Philip's friend from Heidelberg days, lives in bondage to a false ideal: an aesthetic view of life that prevents him from acting. He is the eternal dilettante, fluttering like a butterfly from flower to flower. Fanny Price, whose devotion to art is so misplaced and whose failure provides such a lesson to Philip in his Paris years, lives in bondage to an ideal she can never realize. Foinet's advice, savage as it is, is right: she is no artist, and chooses suicide over admitting the truth of his judgment. Cronshaw, another Paris friend who greatly influences Philip's view of the world, is in bondage to alcohol and a way of life that will ultimately destroy him. Cronshaw shows the dark side of the Bohemian life that appealed to Philip so much in his reading. These characters and others illustrate the pervasiveness of the bondage theme.

At the same time Philip puts himself into a state of bondage, however, he seeks independence. At King's School, he will not agree to try for an Oxford scholarship despite his admiration for the headmaster, Perkins, because he does not want to be ordained. Time and time again, in decisions about his studies and career, he asserts his independence from his uncle, who despairs of exerting any influence over him. Philip ultimately chooses medicine as his profession, much as he had tried art, because he believes it will give him the freedom he needs to survive. At the end of the novel, on the other hand, he almost decides against marriage because he is afraid it will limit his horizons and keep him from doing what he wants.

In describing Philip's ruminations on the subjects of marriage and personal freedom, Maugham makes use of the phrase "a more troubling grace." It occurs late in the novel, in chapter CVI, after Mildred has left Philip for the last time and he has come under the hedonistic influence of Thorpe Athelny. Running through the novel as a metaphor of Philip's frequent confusion of purpose is the image of a Persian carpet, first suggested to him in Paris by Cronshaw. In such a carpet, Cronshaw suggests, one might find the meaning of life. Philip, pondering his fate, thinks of that carpet again:

In the vast warp of life …, with the background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern. 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.

The "more troubling grace" of Philip's thoughts suggests at least a halfway point between the bondage of his relationship to Mildred and the ideal of a relationship, like the Athelny's, in which a lifetime is spent with a single partner. Like that ideal, Philip's more troubled grace is also an alternative of sorts to the absolute meaninglessness of life to which he has by now assented, after the death of Cronshaw and his friend Hayward ("There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence.") Instead of the bleak prospect of a life totally without meaning, Philip can envision at least some figure in the carpet, "intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and success was not attempted."

Given these thoughts of Philip's is it reasonable for him to choose the pattern that is "the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man … married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died," especially since he has made other plans and Sally is in fact not pregnant? In other words, is the ending of the novel honest? Or is Maugham pandering to his reading audience, giving it what he thinks it wants rather than what, logically, it should have? Every reader has to make his or her own decision on this matter.

Inevitably, in reaching that decision, the reader will be influenced by what he or she knows about Maugham's own attitudes toward marriage, love, and life. Of Human Bondage is an autobiographical novel: "fact and fiction are inextricably mingled," Maugham wrote in his foreword; "the emotions are my own, but not all of the incidents are related as they happened, and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate." But to what extent does Philip Carey constitute Maugham's alter ego?

In terms of his physical characteristics and psychology, Philip is remarkably similar to his creator, though some details may have been altered. To cite only one example, Maugham suffered from a stammer that made ordinary spoken communication extremely difficult for him, especially when he was a child. In Philip's character, that difficulty is transformed into a clubfoot that makes him self-conscious and the butt of jokes at school.

Other matters can be addressed more readily now that a definitive biography of Maugham has appeared, with Ted Morgan's Maugham (1980). Morgan had access to materials that Maugham did not wish his executors to make available to anyone, and he also had the advantage of researching and writing his biography at a time when many of Maugham's friends and colleagues were still alive. His book illuminates many characters and scenes from Of Human Bondage and helps to shed light on some of the novel's more ambiguous passages. It also helps the reader to establish the chronology of events in the novel as compared with those of Maugham's life.

One aspect of Maugham confirmed by Morgan's biography enters into Philip's character in subtle ways. Throughout most of his early adult life, Maugham was bisexual, attracted, often simultaneously, to men and to women. As he approached his marriage with Sylvie Barnardo, for instance, he began an affair with Gerald Haxton that was to outlast the marriage and contribute to its demise. In the novel, Philip shows no overt homosexual behavior, though at times he obviously feels considerable attraction to men. This attraction constitutes a kind of subtheme of the novel and may account in part for the dissatisfaction one feels at its ending.

For many characters other than Philip, it is apparent that Maugham drew directly from his own experience. Uncle William and Aunt Louisa, for example, are precise portraits of Maugham's real-life uncle and aunt. Equally precise, apparently, is the portrait of Etheridge Hayward, based on Ellingham Brooks, whom Maugham actually met in Heidelberg. For other characters, however, there is no key. Most notable among these, the model for Mildred remains unknown. One can imagine that in creating characters as in describing events Maugham employed the freedom he suggests in his foreword, in some cases perhaps for reasons that had nothing to do with aesthetics.

In terms of chronology, the novel follows Maugham's early life fairly closely, though certain events are transposed or omitted, creating gaps of several years. In the novel, Philip's father is already dead by the time his mother dies; Philip becomes an orphan on his way to the vicarage at Whitstable within a few pages of the opening of the book. In real life, Maugham's father outlived his mother by several years. Maugham's mother died in 1882 (in Paris, not London), his father in 1884; in the novel, Philip's mother dies in 1885.

Another difference occurs later in the novel, when Philip decides to study art in Paris. Although artists were to occupy Maugham's attention in more than one story, he was never an art student and did not live in Paris during the corresponding period of his life. At the time Philip is in Paris, the young Maugham was already a medical student in London. Maugham did spend a year-and-a-half in Heidelberg, but, on the other hand, only one month studying accounting as compared with Philip's year.

As interesting as such connections are, however, Of Human Bondage must ultimately be judged on its own merits as a novel; works of art are independent of the lives of their creators, no matter how closely they are allied. In the pages that follow, we will read the novel as a work of fiction with the major themes of bondage and troubled grace. If to some extent this reading repeats the events of the story, it should be kept in mind that any treatment of a novel so heavily chronological, built out of a series of incidents in the life of its main character, must itself be chronological and summary. Let us hope, however, that out of such a review will emerge the generalizations important to a critical judgment of the novel. Let us hope, too, that this reading will improve the enjoyment of the novel for a generation of readers now more than eight decades removed from the characters and events it describes.

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This section contains 2,066 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Speech by W. Somerset Maugham