Of Human Bondage

by W. Somerset Maugham

Jane Smiley says of Of Human Bondage, in the introduction to my copy, that the story is—are you ready for your lesson in literary terminology for the day?—a bildungsroman. That's German (what gave it away?) for: "a novel of formation." For our purposes, Of Human Bondage may be thus described because it's the story of the development of a young man's character via his life experiences. I would say that the Modern Library must go in for this sort of thing, or it's overrepresented in literature as whole, because so many books on the list (even just this far) could be described by this piece of German vocab. Anyway, all that is to say that that is what Of Human Bondage is about: the early life, faith, education, travels, studies, work experiences, & passions of a boy as he becomes a young man in the world (and the "world" here is England & Europe circa the turn of the century). Here are just a couple other things to know if you are considering reading it. Somerset Maugham confessed that Of Human Bondage is largely autobiographical and was written to exorcise the demons of his own childhood...and it worked! Importantly, the title comes from Spinoza's Ethics & is fitting in that the book asks in many different ways: Can reason defeat emotion? Or even, more simply, what is the interplay between the two? If you're interested in this question as it pertains to your own life, Classic Bitch recommends that you read this book.

I have read this book before...about fifteen years ago. I admit that it may have made a stronger impression on me then than now. And while I had forgotten much of it, it surprised me that I had remembered some of the more trenchant scenes & could anticipate them as they were coming. At the time of that first reading, I was dealing with being on the butt end of a longstanding relationship that caused me a pain that is even today nearly unfathomable to me—something that the main character knows all about in this story. So I do recall feeling the book more keenly in my 20s. I suppose if I were to weigh in on the reason vs. emotion continuum, I would say that the two are related differently for different people, with one being generally stronger & able to supersede the other, or vice versa. In my own adolescent yet formative case of intense suffering for another, reason finally trumped emotion. But, boy, was it a long haul.

Now, I'll share with you some of the things that grabbed me about the book this time around. I love the beautifully human & organic process of losing one's faith that plays out in the life of the main character. This is undoubtedly a thing I can relate to now, but couldn't fifteen years ago. This book also has a strong thread that concerns itself with the concept of "starting one's life." As in: Are you living your life as it is right now, or waiting until you believe it will really begin? Indeed, one of the very last chapters of the book yet contains the line: "'Now I'm really going to begin life,' he thought." (For another book laden with this theme, see A House for Mr. Biswas. Curiously, I find Biswas—though suffering from the same delusion—unsympathetic, whereas Maugham's main character, Philip, is at the very least self-reflective on it & thus likeable.) Finally, I find Somerset Maugham's depiction of love affairs—especially those early ones—to be brutally honest here. Their reality is so different from their ideal. The former can be unexpectedly full of horror, the grotesque, & a lack of satisfaction. And this is love we're talking about here, folks!! Here are three citations to wit:
• "He did not know what it was that passed from a man to a woman, from a woman to a man, and made one of them a slave: it was convenient to call it the sexual instinct; but if it was no more than that, he did not understand why it should occasion so vehement an attraction to one person rather than another. It was irresistible: the mind could not do battle with it; friendship, gratitude, interest, had no power beside it. Because he had not attracted Mildred sexually, nothing that he did had any effect upon her. The idea revolted him; it made human nature beastly; and he felt suddenly that the hearts of men were full of dark places."
• "He had no self control. He merely seemed to possess it because he was indifferent to many of the things which moved other people."
• "'I don't know what it is that makes someone love you, but whatever it is, it's the only thing that matters, and if it isn't there you won't create it by kindness, or generosity, or anything of that sort.'"

It is enjoyable to me now to look back and realize that, with respect to my take on Of Human Bondage at two very different times in my life, one finds in a story what one most needs.