Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

I found it rather difficult to empathise with the protagonist, Philip Carey. This made getting to the end of a rather long novel somewhat tedious, but I persevered. I am not sure if it was worth the effort even though this book is considered to be Maugham’s masterpiece. Carey is not the kind of person that I would warm to in most situations. His inability to appreciate the advantages he has is not caused by his over-sensitivity to the clubfoot that be believes makes him a cripple, he is just ignorant of the situation of people less privileged than himself. For most of the book he whines about the cruelty of his life while failing at most of the things he attempts do, becoming an articled clerk, then an artist, and finally a doctor. His relationships are just as clumsy and his treatment of some of the better people in his life even gets close to being cruel.

The cold-hearted Mildred should have provoked a more sympathetic reaction, but by the time his obsession for her begins to cloud what little judgement he has it is difficult not to think that he is getting his just desserts. The pain that follows somehow seems more like a lesson that Carey has difficulty in understanding than anything else.

Maugham appears to be of the opinion that life is mostly unremitting torture and that only in realising that it actually has no meaning can this experience give way to allowing something that might be called joy into a person’s life. Unfortunately, this philosophy is not discovered by Carey until at least the last quarter of the book. There follows a rather patronising sermon on the state of the lower classes seen from the point of view of a member of the middle class. Maugham, through Carey, appears to believe that he has some knowledge of the state of being lower class due to experiencing poverty. The truth is, however, that despite Carey’s friendship with some of these lower characters, and even his better treatment of them than many of his class would have shown, his fate lacks entirely the certainty of permanence experienced by a working man. This is born out when his uncle eventually dies, giving Carey the means to complete his studies and become a doctor, an occurrence seldom likely to befall his working-class friends.

Curiously, the last quarter of the book I found to be the best. Although I thought the homily on the state of the poor rather condescending, it tended to reflect a more sympathetic attitude on Maugham’s part towards a section of society not usually treated with even the degree of humanity that he manages. His disdain for religion and the false morality that it gives rise to is worked into quite well into the narrative. There are some very good observations of human nature included, as well as others that are a little simply clumsy as well, Carey’s total obtuseness with regards to Sally Athelny being a good example.

In conclusion, I did not really enjoy reading this book, which was entirely down to such an uninteresting protagonist in Philip Carey. In most situations I failed to sympathise with him and his story felt overlong by at least a third of the number of pages it took to get to a rather understated ending.

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