In an effort to expand my horizons, understand more literary references and challenge my brain I am attempting to read some of the Classics this year. The first book I chose was Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.
The back cover describes the book as a “classic bildungsroman” – a novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character. Having to look up the definition of a word on the book jacket made me wonder what I was getting myself into. I persevered, started the book and found it to be a very engaging story.
First published in 1915, this book tells the story of Phillip Carey, a young man who is forced to bear many crosses.
He is born with a club foot, a handicap that he is very sensitive about. Orphaned at a young age, he goes to live with his uncle and aunt – a childless Vicar and his wife. As a young adult he sets out on several different paths before finding his calling in medicine. Like all humans, he has to make his own journey. His time spent studying art in Paris and later living in abject poverty while working as a dress designer contribute to the formation of his character, which later makes him a successful doctor.
Throughout the book he befriends various artists and intellectuals. He gets drunk on conversation and is invigorated by new concepts and ideas.
One of the prominent story lines in this novel is Phillip’s obsession with the despicable Mildred. Although he can find no redeeming quality in her, he cannot stop his infatuation. Their affair vastly alters the course of Phillip’s life. Although Phillip knows that Mildred is only using him, he so desperately wants to spend time with her that he enables her to exploit him again and again. When the affair was finally over, I was thrilled to see her go.
In Chapter XXVIII, Maugham does justice to the struggle of man losing his faith. Some of the character’s reasoning was similar to my own processes. I really enjoyed this chapter and read it several times.
Later in the story, Phillip contemplates the concept of abstract morality, that was first put forth to him in Chapter XXVIII :
“When Philip ceased to believe in Christianity he felt that a great weight was taken from his shoulders; casting off the responsibility which weighed down every action, when every action was infinitely important for the welfare of his immortal soul, he experienced a vivid sense of liberty. But he knew now that this was an illusion. When he put away the religion inwhich he had been brought up, he had kept unimpaired the morality which was part and parcel of it. He made up his mind therefore to think things out for himself. He determined to be swayed by no prejudices. He swept away the virtues and the vices, the established laws of good and evil, with the idea of finding out the rules of life for himself…”
Certainly writing a book about sexual obsession and the loss of one’s religion in 1915 was quite scandalous. Maugham was one of the great Realists of his time and I fully intend to read more of his work.