Of Human Bondage: A Review

He was thankful not to have to believe in God, for then such a condition of things would be intolerable; one could reconcile oneself to existence only because it was meaningless.

Maugham’s autobiographical novel ‘Of Human Bondage’ revolves around the life of Philip Carey, in a search for the meaning of life. Orphaned at the age of 9, club footed and alone, sent to live with a religious uncle and aunt, Carey is set as a classical Dickensian character. His uncle, the vicar of Blackstable, is uncompassionate, stingy and  self centered, while the aunt comes off as a feeble little thing, wholey devoted to the vicar.

Being brought up in a religious household, it is not surprising that in the beginning, Philip is accepting of the believes that are imparted to him, however, disillusionment is soon to follow as his impassioned prayer to be healed of his clubfoot is unanswered. The beauty of the novel comes through in this part because it is highly relatable  to any and all who have at one point or another prayed for a miracle only to wake up and find their prayer unanswered. This sets the stage for Philip’s complete rejection of faith and acceptance of a Godless world.

Sent to boarding school, where to a certain extent he gets on fine though his deformity haunts him and makes him a subject of ridicule. Philip is characteristic of every teenager ready to self destruct out of self pity or just sheer stubbornness, he rejects the path his aunt and uncle have chosen for him and goes on to study art in Paris after a failed attempt at pursuing a career in accountancy. Here, though he enjoys the life of an artist, the realization of his mediocrity at it and the death of fellow student Fanny Price pushes him to call it quits and move to London to pursue his late father’s career: medicine.

For me, this is where the book picked up pace and made me truly appreciate the complexity of Philip’s character. He becomes embroiled in an affair with a waitress (Mildred), which almost leads to his destruction, yet also brings his personality to the surface. It is clear from the start that Mildred is a shallow, cold and uncaring person who has no feelings for Philip, yet he cannot forget her or let go of what he believes is his love for her. In pursuit of Mildred, Philip goes through the various stages of life: poverty, hunger, desolation, unemployment, realization, till his life takes a turn for the better after his uncle’s passing.

In the beginning I couldn’t understand why the book was so highly acclaimed since it was pretty winded and monotonous at times, however, on finishing it, I believe that it is the way that the character of Philip is developed that makes the book so beautiful.

The vicar, with his staunch believe in God and all his glory, being afraid to die was a wonderful use of irony and a very amusing inverted play on the very common saying that it is on death that the unbelievers become believers.

Philip’s highly complex character is extremely difficult to explain. While some traits are pretty explanatory such as; his repeated generosity to Mildred and Cornshow can be attributed to having developed an abhorrence for his uncle’s stinginess as a child, others, like his unrequited love for Mildred, are harder to explain specially considering there was not one redeeming quality in her and the fact that it was not as if he was completely disregarded by women.

The simplest explanation I can come to is that Mildred was an obsession for Philip and being with her was a boost for his self esteem. Since she was no great beauty, stupid and unattractive in every way possible, Philip next to her could feel better about his deformity.

Philip’s realization about the meaning of life was unorthodox and so simple that it makes all the great searches and explanations people give for the meaning of life seem inherently pathetic.

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. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free.

The realization that life has no predefined meaning and you can choose to live it with no meaning is indeed a liberating thought because only then is it that man becomes master of self.

The ending of the novel, for me, was a disappointment. For all his rejection of social constructs and breaking away from the chains of restraint, Philip in the end by choosing to marry Sally gave into all that he had denied. Yet, it could also be said that since he chose to do so, he did not give in rather, he remained master of self.

Overall the book is a good read, in touch with reality and very eye opening.

 

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