Book Review: Of Human Bondage

December 16th, 2015 18 Comments

Somerset Maugham


I’ve been reading practically nothing but history lately and I realize now that compulsive focus seems to have colored my thinking, for I’ve written very little on my website except about the fripperies and follies of modern politics and the stupidity and violence that pass for world affairs these days. But I took time away from the equal violence and stupidity of the Reformation (and if you haven’t studied it, you would be amazed by some of the parallels between the excesses of that religious upheaval and much of what ISIS is doing today) to reread Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

“Reread” is a relative term. Technically, I have read the book before (the handwriting of my name on the title page tells me it must have been when I was about fourteen or fifteen; the capital “P,” the “k,” and the “r” all hint at the Germanic penmanship smacked into my head and hand in a grey classroom in a small German town long, long ago) but half a century makes it a new and fresh read. And what a read!

I’m a big fan of Somerset Maugham’s short stories (I think Mr. Know-All is one of the most perfect short stories ever written) but I’ve never read any of his novels other than The Moon and Sixpence and, obviously, Of Human Bondage when I must have been far too young to understand or appreciate or even remember it. It wasn’t until well along, about the middle of the book, when I suddenly had a flash of absolute certainty of what was going to happen that I realized I had been there before. So I can write about it now as if it were a completely new experience.

Somerset Maugham was an astonishingly versatile writer. Mr. Know-All is a scant six pages, without a single extraneous syllable, yet at the end you know more than you would have believed possible about three different people, and all three of those people have changed radically from what they presented themselves as at the beginning. Of Human Bondage, on the other hand, meanders leisurely on for over seven-hundred and fifty pages, following Philip from orphaned child too young even to really understand at first what orphaned means, to a man in full (as Tom Wolfe might use that phrase), a man who has passed through the manifold furnaces, great and small, that shape a man and give him, if he is wise enough to look at himself honestly, an understanding of who he is, what he needs, and what he needs to do.

But beyond his technical versatility, Maugham was a many-faceted man (doctor, World War One medic and ambulance driver—if I have the story right, he proofread the galleys for Of Human Bondage while he was waiting to be evacuated at Dunkirk—art connoisseur and collector, spy, playwright, screenplay writer) who traveled the world restlessly, gleaning everywhere he went a unique understanding of the human animal in all his many and varied aspects, both good and evil. For most of his adult life those travels, and more importantly, those gleanings were in the company of, and facilitated by, a much younger male companion whose vivacity and gregariousness made up for Maugham’s shyness and apparently taciturn personality.

Much has been made of Maugham’s homosexuality, his irascibleness, his propensity and skill for hurting people savagely with his comments, but I don’t think it is ever productive to judge the artist by the man or the man by the artist. Much has also been made of his propensity for using autobiographical material in his work, particularly in Of Human Bondage, but that too I think is unproductive. Louis L’Amour made use of stories he had heard and characters he had met while working on different ranches. Hemingway once sold as a short story a letter, untouched and verbatim, he had received from a fan. I’d be willing to bet much of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction had its roots in things seen and done and experienced by the author on this planet.

It is not an easy novel. We follow the physically deformed (club foot) Philip as he endures the cruelties of childhood, loss of faith, incredibly self-destructive relationships (the human bondage that comes from not balancing the longings of desire and the reality of the desired object, the balancing of emotion and self-control—though that same loss of self-control is ultimately instrumental in leading him to the happiness he seeks), through his flailings as he attempts one profession after another, his attempts to regulate his ambitions by the limits of his life and circumstances, setbacks of various kinds, and primarily, his search for an understanding of what life is supposed to be about. How is one supposed to reconcile life’s opposites, particularly good and evil, if one has “freed” oneself from the bondage of faith? A friend gives Philip a small Persian rug, telling him it holds the secret of the meaning of life, but it takes Philip many years to discover the secret is neither as complex as the design of a Persian rug, nor as simple as the making of one, but that the meaning is a little of both.

Again, it is not an easy novel, but it has never been out of print, and is regarded as one of one hundred best novels of all time, an encomium that relies more on Maugham’s story-telling ability than his actual writing. Don’t look for the breathtaking sentence, the memorable quote, the way you might with, oh, Dickens, Faulkner, Wodehouse, McCarthy, McEwan, Doyle, Trevor, Mantel… The list goes on, but does not include Somerset Maugham. What it does offer are moments that resonate. Twice I came to upsetting scenes that so closely paralleled events from my own life that I had to put the book down and turn to other things. Consider now that this is a book written over one hundred years ago (it was originally published in 1915, but actually written several years before that). Consider too how little man changes through the centuries that the actions of men and women in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period can still cause distress in a small ranch house in the mountains of California in the twenty-first century.

Finally, having criticized Maugham’s syntax (in my next column, I’ll give God a few tips on how to run Heaven) I would point out that the book is bracketed, at its opening and at its close, by some of the most evocative writing you could hope for. This is the bleak opening that sets the tone for Philip’s childhood:

“The day broke gray and dull. The clouds hung heavily, and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. A woman servant came into a room in which a child was sleeping and drew the curtains.”

Now contrast that to the joyousness of his description near the end of Sally, one of the most comfortable and comforting of all heroines, with her calm common sense and her down-to-earth earthiness:

“She stopped and came to the stile, and with her came sweet, clean odors of the countryside. She seemed to carry with her scents of the new-mown hay, and the savor of ripe hops, and the freshness of young grass. Her lips were soft and full against his, and her lovely, strong body was firm in his arms.”

Oh, yeah. That’ll do.


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  1. Anonymous says:

    German town you say, JP?

    I grew up and am living in one of those.

    Polka / Old Time music on the radio on Sunday afternoons.

    My pet parakeet enjoys it more than I do.
    She loves to chirp to it!

    Me? I’m a ZZ Top / classic rock fan.
    “Sharp Dressed Man” gets me a chirping! 😉

    And the German Food! Yum! Don’t indulge too often but sometimes just got to:
    Fry Sausage, sauerkraut, knoephla, and, kuchen.

    The bleak opening that sets the tone for Philip’s childhood sounds too much like the weather around here in late fall and winter.
    I’d probably lay that novel aside for a summer day.

    Sally sounds like a lovely June day.
    I can smell the sweet scent of the bluish-purple alfalfa flowers now.
    If only I could bottle it!

    Oh, how I HATE snow! But, I’ll tough it out.


    –from SoDak

  2. Anonymous says:

    Very nice. I read that a few years back. Great book. It is actually free now if you can get your hands on it in digital format, being that it has hit the 100 year since initial publication.

    Here is a link for the free Kindle edition:

    TD Bauer

  3. Anonymous says:

    I keep thinking “Wasn’t there a movie about this?” I looked it up and there was more then one. This one is from 1964 with Kim Novak.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This might be a strange question. Was that boarding school you went to for English speakers? I assume it was. Where there other students from America? I was just curious about that.

    I never read this book so I will have to check it out. I remember reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Moby Dick.” The problem with reading books in high school is that I really don’t remember much about these books.

    • The school in Germany was a German public school and no English was spoken there. The boarding, my first boarding school, was in Switzerland and was French speaking only, though there were four or five other American students.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t know how you could learn any thing in a school that did not speak English.

        • Anonymous says:

          Heck, Anonymous Dec 19th, I never went to a school that spoke English! We-uns always done spoke UH-MARE-IKIN!….But seriously folks(ahem!)–on the language-in-school subject, I took a Cherokee Language course while in college(the Eastern Band of Cherokees’ reservation was located near my college), and it was taught by the BEST TEACHER I ever had, hands down, kindergarten-through-college! And ironically, “Professor” Robert Bushyhead had been whipped at missionary schools as a kid if he DARED speak his native tongue–and here he was, years later, teaching Unegas(whites) his language and getting paid for it! I NEVER saw a man with such PATIENCE and KINDNESS!, And I did FAR BETTER in Cherokee language than I ever did the French I was required to take! A funny thing(among many!) he told us, was that on job applications where it asks you to list “foreign languages” one is fluent in, Mister Bushyhead always wrote “English”!!! Well, he WAS a Native American, after all!…..L.B.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I started to read that once but have to be honest I only got through the first few pages. When I saw how long it was I found it a daunting task and I turned it back in to our library. It sounds like I missed a pretty good read the way you write about it.

    Nancy Darlene

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks to your review of this book Jameson when we were at the library today I did check it out again and have made it past the first chapter so hopefully this time I will read the complete book. I might have just not been in the proper mindset when I tried to read it the first time.

      Nancy Darlene

  6. Anonymous says:

    Love this! I’ve missed this.


  7. Anonymous says:

    I did get it free on the Kindle. Have never read it but look forward to reading it. By the way, I thought I would hate a Kindle and resisted them until 4 years ago. There is nothing quite like holding a book in your hands! But, I am really enjoying my Kindle. I go back and forth between books and the Kindle. I find myself touching the side of the book so the page will electronically turn and trying to physically turn the page on my Kindle. Haha.

    On another topic, my husband and I are watching Simon and Simon episodes on Netflix. (We were busy in the 1980’s…college, getting married, etc…so we are just now watching them.) We are enjoying them immensely. We watched “Sam Penny’s Shadow” tonight and kept pausing it as we recognized all the old actors that co-starred in that episode. (We love black and white movies!)


  8. Anonymous says:

    You have made me want to re-read this book!


  9. Anonymous says:

    This parenthetical:

    (in my next column, I’ll give God a few tips on how to run Heaven)

    made me laugh out loud.

    I believe wholeheartedly that the world is in dire need of humans who are so well rounded they are equally at home in a saddle, with a (symbolic) pen, and with classic literature. Thank you for being one of them, and sharing your perspective.

  10. Anonymous says:

    On peut encore constater que vous avez une excellente mémoire !!!! Bien sûr, j’ai déjà entendu parler de Somerset Maugham mais je n’ai jamais lu un de ces livres !!! Quand je pense qu’il a vécu en France et que c’est vous, américain, qui en parlait si bien !!!
    Cette semaine en débarrassant mon grenier, j’ai retrouvé un livre de Charles Dickens, alors que je croyais l’avoir perdu !!!! Il est complètement usé à force de l’avoir lu, mais il va retrouver sa place, dans ma bibliothèque !!!! Tous mes souvenirs vont rejaillir !!!

  11. Anonymous says:

    ….and the FUN of rereading books you first read as a kid! I LOVE to do that! It is often, for me, like visiting an old friend, and a different, beautiful time. Sometimes rather poignant, as when I first read the book, many beloved people(and animals) who have since passed were still alive, and times have changed enormously(and not necessarily for the better!). One of the funniest rereads I ever did was of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Keep in mind I had limited access to books in those long ago days–no Amazon, and bookstores had very limited(in MY interests, anyway) selections. Being a total animal geek since birth, I DEVOURED anything and everything I could about animals, including the entire Adult sections of libraries, long, long before I even heard about “puberty”. Even so, I often had to scrounge for a book about animals in those times. So I quickly snatched up “Animal Farm”(at 8?, 9? years old?) and LOVED it, though still just in elementary school! And my interpretation of it as a child was quite literal–how cool! Animals revolting and taking over the farm! I was soon emulating what I’d read, and staging violent coups with my toy farm set, and naming my plastic toy animals after characters in the book! I had so much fun staging animal revolts that I kept having to go back to the toy store to buy new human farm hands, as they kept meeting horrible demises! In fact, I still have my “Napoleon” and “Snowball” pigs, and “Boxer” the draft horse! Two legs bad! Four legs good!…. Then, of course, years later for high school I had to reread the book(which I already practically knew by heart!), and what a laugh I had(and still have!) realizing it was a satire(and NOT a positive one!) on communist takeovers!…..L.B.

    • Anonymous says:

      I seem to recall an animated version of “Animal Farm” from probably the 1970’s that “Disney-fied” the story into more a kids tale which it clearly was not as you point out. Not a musical mind you, just a very watered down version. Maybe I just need to go back and find it and see if my memory is correct.

      The problem with reading “adult” books when you are young it often they mean something different or are over most of us at a young age. Even into high school and college this can be true. Heck that can be true of children’s books, but then with those it is great to have those childhood views of them. I have gotten more of the few “adult” books I’ve had time to reread in my 30’s, 40’s and later. Just wish I had the time to go back, but there is just too much to read. Need to decide which JP book to read next. 😉


  12. Anonymous says:

    The challenge is getting through a reading list now so large it will take multiple life-times….

    I still have several of JP’s books to read first. I have enjoyed what I’ve read thus far.

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