Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage

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Somerset Maugham’s classic Of Human Bondage is everything implied by it’s high standing as Number 66 on the Modern Library list of 100 best novels of all time. It is a beautiful story of life; the pain and struggles of dealing with uncontrollable circumstances, the challenges of conquering personal goals, the achievements, the conflict of inner emotions and outer obstacles, the beauty of love, and the glory of discovering the meaning of life.

While Of Human Bondage is purely fiction, it is vastly based on Maugham’s own personal experiences. It is the story of Philip Carey from Kensington, England. He suffers two tragedies from the onset of his life. He is born in the late 1800s with a club foot- for which there is no remedy- and he is orphaned at a very young age. Philip becomes the ward of his uncle, the vicar of a small English village, where he is raised properly but with little personal attention and even less warmth and love.

The reader follows Philip Carey on his journey in life, the school years, a year of study in Germany, and several adventurous years in Paris where he struggles to become an artist, and back to England as he studies to become a physician. This is a heavy novel with Maugham delving into observations about religion, relationships, and life in general… both philosophically and emotionally.

According to the theory of Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, man is a slave to his own emotions with his inability to control them, creating a state of human bondage. This is clearly illustrated in the book when Philip falls in love with a despicable woman and finds it literally impossible to break away from her. He ponders the question, just what is love? Is love ever equal between partners? Is it more important to love or be loved? And is it possible to fall in love with someone you don’t really like? And if so, how could this be possible? “He had thought of love as rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness; but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was a painful yearning.” Perhaps, Plato had similar thoughts when he introduced his theory that he considered love to be a mental illness.

Struggling with his unfortunate handicap, unrequited love and confusion about his career, Philip searches for the meaning of life and of appropriate conduct to achieve success and happiness. His conclusion… “instincts could not be trusted. People acted according to their emotions, but their emotions might be good or bad; it seemed just a chance of whether they led to triumph or disaster. Life seemed an inextricable confusion. Men hurried hither and thither, urged by forces they knew not; and the purpose of it all escaped them; they seemed to hurry just for hurrying’s sake.”

But have no fear. Philip does eventually discover the answers to all these questions.

Of Human Bondage is Somerset Maugham’s opus… a timeless classic. Having read it many years ago, I found it just as captivating the second time around.

Rated 5 Stars May 2016

All contents © 2016 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.

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