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#66…Of Human Bondage

November 20, 2010

All good things must come to an end.

I finished W. Somerset Maugham’s wonderful novel, Of Human Bondage, last night. Closing the book after a month-long love affair with it, I felt satisfaction at the book’s perfect ending, and at the same time, a profound sense of loss, like an empty nester whose kids have all left for college, or the house after the holidays are over. It was a profound sense of “what do I do now?” and, “why did it have to end?”

We are introduced to Philip Carey as a small boy, snuggling with his dying mother. Orphaned days later and crippled with a club-foot, he is sent to live with his cold and proper uncle the Vicar of Blackstable and his loving aunt. Philip is sent to school, where he is of course mocked for his deformity. On a whim, he leaves school to travel Europe, against the wishes of his uncle. After travels in Germany and art school in Paris, left with very little money, he decides to go to medical school in London, like his father. Upon moving to London, he has the misfortune to meet Mildred, a slatternly, rude, cold as ice waitress, and becomes obsessed with her, although she treats him like crap and uses him for his money. Through Mildred, Philip gets in touch with his stalker-esque and doormat-esque sides, throws years of his life and money away, and even ends up having to retake exams in med school because of his obsession with her. Finally, when she runs off with one of Philip’s friends, it looks like he may be on the road to recovery. He begins to like medical school and relies on his friends to keep him sane. Mildred of course turns up broke and ho-ing herself on the street corner months later. Now that he’s officially over her, but is still a chump, Philip kindly decides she and her baby can live with him, but only as a quasi-servant. Ironically, now that his obsession with her is over, it is only then that Mildred determines to have him. When Philip again reiterates that their relationship must be platonic, she trashes his house and disappears yet again.

In the meantime, Philip, glad to be rid of her, meets up with Athelny, an extravagant, over-the-top guy who adopts Philip as part of his family. When Philip bets the small remainder of his fortune on a bad stock tip, is cut off by his uncle, and is homeless as a result, Athelny and his family take him in, and Athelny gets him a job in a department store, which although humiliating to Philip, is money in hand. When Philip’s selfish uncle finally kicks it and dies, Philip is able to return to med school and get his degree. He meets up with a crotchety old private practice doctor, who takes a liking to Philip and offers him part of his practice. Philip refuses, because it has always been his dream to travel and see Spain. This dream gets sidetracked when he falls in love with Athelny’s daughter Sally. A false pregnancy alarm causes Philip to ponder putting his dreams aside to marry Sally, but when he discovers she isn’t pregnant, decides to ask her anyway, and she accepts.

There was absolutely everything to love about this book. Philip Carey is about as human a character as I’ve ever found in contemporary literature. His struggles are real and heartfelt. You have to root for Philip, because he begins life as an underdog, motherless and deformed and derided by his peers. Anyone who’s ever wasted away over someone unreliable, unloving and unhealthy knows how Philip felt when Mildred led him on and took advantage of him. Even at the end, when the obsession has passed, he still feels a twang when he sees her, and wonders if he will ever be free of her.

The parts of the book that spoke to me the most were when Philip became homeless. None of us really know what we would do or where we would go if we had absolutely nothing. He wanders around the park, listening to the bells chime the hours, wondering what he will do for the entire day, what he will eat and where he will sleep. I was unemployed for nine months, and I felt keenly Philip’s despair at lurching between job interviews and being rejected. Philip’s friendships were also painted very realistically, and as real friendships do, ebbed and flowed and evolved with changes in his characters’ lives. After Philip’s stock loss, he drifts away from his stockbroker friend (obviously) and also another friend from art school, when he is too humiliated to face him and explain his situation. I thought sure he would do the same to the Athelnys, but was glad they tracked him down and made him fess up.

Maugham’s characters were fully realized and likeable, excepting psycho Mildred and maybe his Vicar uncle, who was a selfish tightwad. It was felt that this book was somewhat autobiographical, as Maugham’s struggles with stuttering were much like Philip’s with his club foot. Maugham also lost both parents in his early childhood and spent his childhood with a cold Vicar uncle. Like Philip, Maugham dropped out of school, traveled to Germany, worked in an accounting office and disliked the work, and spent five years in medical school. Unlike Philip, Maugham had affairs with men and was able to travel to Spain as Philip had so desired to do, although he did end up marrying a woman and having a child.

Happy endings have definitely been at a premium on the Modern Library list. Some have even argued that this book did not have a happy ending. Those who don’t think so clearly weren’t paying attention. It was as perfect an ending as I could ask for. This book is my favorite on the ML list so far. If you haven’t read it, get yourself to the bookstore now, or  add it to your Xmas list. At a hefty 712 pages, this qualifies as book #5 towards the Chunkster Challenge. Only one more to go!

Grade: A+++++

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2010 4:32 pm

    I know that feeling when a great long book ends — it’s almost a little sad, isn’t it? Of Human Bondage was one of the very first classics I read for pleasure (though I must admit it was pressed upon me in college, by a boy in the dorm on whom I had an enormous crush. Of course I would have read almost anything he liked!). Seriously, ever since that book I have loved W. Somerset Maugham. If you haven’t read anything else yet, I highly recommend The Painted Veil and Up at the Villa, they’re both wonderful. I need to reread this book soon!

  2. November 20, 2010 7:21 pm

    Not only do I have Maugham hangover, I also just started reading the next book on the list, “A Clockwork Orange”, and so far absolutely detest it. It’s been like honeymooning in Mexico and then coming home to three feet of snow. 🙂

  3. Jillian permalink
    November 21, 2010 12:10 am

    Oh, I’m excited this one is so good! It’s on my list. 🙂

  4. November 21, 2010 9:17 am

    I’m not sure this book really does have a happy ending. On the surface it’s happy, but I think it’s a bit problematic in the long run. Philip gives up his dream of traveling the world for the comforts of home, and I suspect that eventually he may have a mid-life crisis with that decision. Plus, Sally, while she accepts his marriage proposal, doesn’t seem all that excited about it. I thought it was an odd and somewhat ambiguous ending.

  5. November 21, 2010 5:03 pm

    I have to disagree, Robby!!! Philip always seemed so content with domestic life. He loved Mildred’s child and cosy nights at home. He was so lonely his whole life and just wanted to be loved. He had a chance once he found out Sally wasn’t pregnant to return to his dream of going to Spain, but discovered he still wanted to marry her. And Sally, although not Miss Mushy-Gushy, had a chance to get it on with several other guys, but only gave it up to Philip. She could have said no when he asked her to marry him, but she didn’t, saying he was the only guy she would ever consider marrying. They don’t have a conventional Hallmark card relationship, and to me, that made it a little more real and believable.

  6. November 22, 2010 1:02 pm

    so glad you loved this one. I didn’t love the one Maugham I read but this one is still on the list for me to give him another try.

  7. November 22, 2010 1:11 pm

    Lovely review! Your enthusiasm has inspired me to read this one now.

  8. November 22, 2010 4:20 pm

    I’ve recently heard a couple of people talk abut how wonderful this book is. I can’t wait to read it! I’m also looking forward to Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, which a friend of mine compared to this book. Thanks for the review!

  9. November 22, 2010 6:05 pm

    Hey, I just got your entry for the classics blogger directory, and it looks like you’re already on there, with an old blogspot entry? You entered under the name Socrmom78 – I’m guessing you want me to update your entry? Your favorites and likes/dislikes information is different so I wanted to see exactly what you wanted me to do first. If you could email me at the email address above, that would be great. I’ll keep your old entry as-is for now until you tell me exactly what to do. 🙂

  10. Darlyn permalink
    December 22, 2010 3:32 am

    I’ve been looking for a copy of Maugham’s Painted Veil (I loved the movie), but all I found was a copy of Of Human Bondage. However, I found its length intimidating and its been sitting in my TBR pile for quite a while. Your review convinced me to take a whack at it, as the British say. 🙂

  11. April 24, 2011 3:45 am

    I liked “Of Human Bondage,” I did, but it was a hard slog at times. On the other hand, I flat-out LOVE Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge.” Best, best, best.

  12. April 27, 2011 3:16 pm

    I have heard that about The Razor’s Edge from other folks, too. Must be a good’un. I really enjoyed Maugham and will definitely be looking into his other works.

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