Book review: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Philip Carey was born with a club foot. That fact — that handicap — colored his every perception. We see the world through Philip Carey’s eyes and experiences. Philip is only 5 when his mother dies. He is placed with an uncle and aunt who not only do not have children, but also don’t want any. That said, they do their best for Philip.

Philip’s uncle is a vicar and as such has formal duties to attend to and an obligation to bring up Philip a certain way. His aunt’s role has been to support the vicar’s every whim; she works hard at the role of surrogate mother but shows little affection. When Philip is sent to boarding school, he finds it a harsh environment. He is often verbally abused because of the deformed foot. Eventually he leaves school and is allowed to go abroad.

In Germany, Philip lives with a professor and her husband. It is here that he begins to doubt the religion he has been taught. That pits him against his uncle’s wishes, and he refuses to enter Oxford to study to become a clergyman. It is in this context that he begins to wonder about the meaning of life. Since he is not going to school, it is arranged that he apprentice to be an accountant. He shows no natural skill in this area and so he quits.

Against his uncle’s wishes, he goes to Paris to study art. After some considerable study and the observation of fellow students, Philip concludes that while he is a good artist, he is not so talented that he is likely to succeed. Upon the death of his aunt, he returns to England. While there he decides not to return to Paris. Following that decision, Philip is still looking for a profession. Consequently, he goes to London to study at a hospital there to become a doctor. He shows real skill at the medical profession, but that is complicated by his private life.

He falls in love with Mildred, a waitress, and spends a good deal of time and money on her just to have her tell him she intends to marry another man. After a time, he finds another girl. It’s then that Mildred comes back into his life. She has been abandoned and is pregnant. Sympathy for her situation causes him to invite her to stay in his extra bedroom until the baby comes. After the baby is born, Philip becomes quite attached to him. Mildred, however, falls in love with one of Philip’s friends and again leaves him.

Philip’s source of income is a small stipend that he was to get after turning 21.

To make some additional money, Philip invested a little money in the stock market. The investment performed as his friend has suggested, and Philip makes a nice profit. Investing worked so well that he puts all of the money he has in a stock dependent on the war’s end. As a result, he lost all of the money he has. Now he had to deal with real poverty. He was forced to drop his medical studies without obtaining a license. At the point of despair, a friend, Atheiny, takes him in and helps him get a minimum-wage job in a shop. It is Atheiny’s family and family life that become a great influence.

There is more to the story. What of Philip’s uncle? Does Philip find the real meaning of life? Is he able to finish his medical education?

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