Of Human Bondage is a novel of adolescence, initiation, passage into adulthood,… the traditional bildungsroman, fashionable in the first half of the XXth century. It soon established itself as a classic and became a favorite of many readers in their twenties, mostly men.

Of Human Bondage introduces the hero, Philip Carey, at eight years old, as he becomes an orphan when his mother dies, soon after giving birth to a stillborn child. Philip is sent to be raised by his uncle and aunt, sixty miles from London. His uncle, a vicar, is self-centered and thinks only about fulfilling his appetites and attracting people to his church. His aunt cares for him but is very awkward at showing her feelings, as she never had any children of her own.

Philip is afflicted by a handicap: a clubfoot that makes him a scapegoat in the boarding-school where he studies until he is old enough to be ordained and follow in the steps of his uncle. But Philip, growing up, develops different ambitions…

He first realizes that the almighty God who can move mountains can’t or won’t cure his clubfoot, despite his ardent prayers. Little by little, he looses his faith and starts to turn to philosophy to understand the world. Along the way, he meets people who, with their perspectives on life, make him think differently; he progressively builds his own personality. Before graduating from school, he decides that he will not go to Oxford, despite the fact that he is clever and hard-working enough to earn a scholarship: instead, he decides to spend some time in Germany.

He starts to wonder about love and gets romantic ideas and ideals, first by observing couples and then by a first-hand experience with an older woman, a friend of his aunt and uncle. But his frustration grows, when he realizes that he has not experienced love as it is described in the numerous novels he likes to read.

Training for some months as an accountant in London, he understands that this is not what he is meant to do and, since he can draw, sets his mind on becoming an artist and goes to Paris to learn the craft. The part of the book set in Montmartre reminds strongly of Zola’s The Masterpiece. Sensing and having been confirmed that he has no real talent, he gives up la vie de bohême after a while and returns to London to study medicine. Surprisingly, he shows real compassion to his patients and finally succeeds in the profession that he chose as the last resort.

But the turning-point of the book, from which the title derives, is his passionate and destructive relationship with Mildred, a waitress whom he finds common, vulgar, stupid and anemic, but whom he is desperately attracted to, against reason and his best interest. Because of this attraction, he will compromise his studies, loose his money and almost his sanity.

Of Human Bondage certainly appeals most to readers between fifteen and twenty, at the age when one spends hours philosophizing about love, arts and the meaning of life (later we turn to the Monthy Python to understand the meaning of life!)… The ideas discussed by Philip and his friends probably sound familiar to many readers, which explains why so many people are drawn to this book. I probably would have enjoyed it more a decade ago…

The main themes developed in the book are of course the passage into adulthood, the opposition between passion and reason, bondage and freedom, and we see that even if Philip is completely aware of being used and ridiculed by Mildred, he cannot get away from her… Other minor themes treated along the way are art (how does one define a piece of art? does art reproduce reality or is reality defined by the painter who gives to see?), religion (must a man abide by the law if he doesn’t believe in God, knowing that the conception of good and evil is based on Judeo-Christianism?), etc.

Of Human Bondage is largely autobiographical. Somerset Maugham started of as a doctor before becoming a novel writer, a successful play writer, and again a novelist. His mother passed away when he was eight, a very traumatic experience in his life, and he was raised, like Philip, by his vicar uncle. He didn’t have a clubfoot, but was stammering. Critics have pointed out that the clubfoot however didn’t symbolize his stammer, but his homosexuality, that was considered a handicap back then. They also argue that Mildred’s description corresponds to a very androgynous woman (flat chest, thin lips, etc.). Somerset Maugham is not the first author to describe a heroine in ambiguous terms. After all, Marcel Proust’s model for Albertine was probably a man and Poe’s Ligeia has masculine physical features (for a different reason though: Poe couldn’t conceive an actual woman clever and learned like his Ligeia is supposed to be: that is what happens when one marries his thirteen-years-old tuberculous cousin!). Since I like to get unprejudiced ideas on the books I discover, I only read the preface afterwards and I had gotten a hint that Somerset Maugham was homosexual, not through the description of Mildred though, but rather, when he describes the relationships he shares with his male friends (Philip is jealous, exclusive, enjoys to be mothered by a friend while he is sick in bed): it had seemed to me pretty obvious then…

Rating: 3/5