Of Human Bondage

October 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

There are ofhumanbondagecertain books that compel us to read them again and again. Of Human Bondage is such a book. Told in Maugham’s surgically precise style it loses none of the richness and depth that one expects from a bildungsroman charting the growth of a shy, sensitive boy born with a club foot. If anything, Maugham’s simple prose enhances the beauty of the book:

“It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.”

It isn’t just the majesty of Maugham’s style that speaks to me but the very nature of Philip Carey that I find endearing. An orphan brought up by relatives, who whilst not cruel are none the less poor substitutes for his mother and her unconditional love. His romanticized view of the world and perspective are chipped away by both cruel circumstances, and his contemplative, introspective disposition. Yet the Philip that emerges is surer of himself, focused, and less of a slave to his emotions but at the same time retains some of his idealistic values. He is not utterly coarsened but a man who has finally struck a balance between his desires and reason. And it is this that makes OHB such a beautiful book: watching Philip Carey grow up and mature into a man; to experience and feel his misery and his anguish; to rejoice in his triumphs; to swell with pride at his successes. The final chapters are utterly heartwarming because for once Philip knows what it is he truly wants, and thus embarks upon a fulfilling and perhaps, happier life.

A book becomes compelling when we begin to identify ourselves with the characters; see a reflection of ourselves in them. Philip’s quest to find his place in the world he inhabits resonates within us because each and every one of us embarks upon that journey at some point.

“Whatever happened to him now would be one more motive to add to the complexity of the pattern, and when the end approached he would rejoice in its completion. It would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence, and with his death it would at once cease to be.”

And if that weren’t enough, Of Human Bondage contains my favourite passage on reading: succinct, sublime, and one that many readers will cherish.

“Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.”


Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
published by Modern Library

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