Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage
Of Human Bondage  
1st edition cover
Author(s) W. Somerset Maugham
Language English
Publisher George H. Doran Company
Publication date 1915

Of Human Bondage (1915) is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. It is generally agreed to be his masterpiece and to be strongly autobiographical in nature, although Maugham stated, "This is a novel, not an autobiography, though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention."[1] Maugham, who had originally planned to call his novel Beauty from Ashes, finally settled on a title taken from a section of Spinoza's Ethics.[2]

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Of Human Bondage #66 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.


Plot summary

The book begins with the death of the mother of the nine-year-old protagonist, Philip Carey. Philip's father had already died a few months before, and the orphan Philip is sent to live with his aunt and uncle. His uncle is vicar of Blackstable, a small village in Kent. Philip inherits a small fortune but the money is held in custody by his uncle until he is twenty-one, giving his uncle a great deal of power over him until he reaches his maturity.

Early chapters relate Philip's experience at the vicarage. His aunt tries to be a mother to Philip, but she is herself childish and unsure of how to behave, whereas his uncle takes a cold disposition towards him. Philip's uncle has an eclectic collection of books, and in reading Philip finds a way to escape his mundane existence and experience fascinating worlds of fiction.

Less than a year later, Philip is sent to a boarding school. His uncle and aunt wish for him to eventually go to Oxford to study to become a clergyman. Philip's shyness and his club foot make it difficult for him to fit in with the boys at the school, and he does not make many friends. Philip goes through an episode of deep religious belief, and believes that through true faith he can petition God to heal his club foot; but when this does not happen, his belief falters. He becomes close friends with one boy; but the friendship breaks up, and he becomes miserable. Philip shows considerable academic talent and is informed by the school's headmaster that he could have earned a scholarship for Oxford, but instead he becomes determined to leave the school and go to Germany. Philip's uncle and the headmaster oppose Philip's desire to go to Germany, but eventually they give in and allow him to go to Heidelberg for a year.

In Heidelberg, Philip lives at a boarding house with other foreigners and studies German, among other subjects. Philip enjoys his stay in Germany. At the boarding house he meets a fellow Englishman, Hayward, who has an interest in literature and who considers himself a poet. Philip also meets an unorthodox American named Weeks, who dislikes Hayward, whom he thinks superficial. Philip is intrigued by his long discourses with Hayward and Weeks and eventually becomes convinced that he need not believe in the Church of England; a radical idea for him as he had been brought up with staunch Christian values.

Philip returns to his uncle's house and meets a middle-aged family friend of his aunt and uncle named Miss Wilkinson, who is very flirtatious toward Philip. He is not particularly attracted to her and is uncomfortable about her age; but he likes the idea of having an affair with someone, so he pursues her. She becomes very attached to Philip and declares her love for him, and he pretends to be passionate about her, but he is relieved when she needs to return to Berlin. Miss Wilkinson writes letters to Philip from Berlin, to which he eventually stops responding.

Philip's guardians decide to take matters into their own hands and they convince him to move to London to take up an apprenticeship to become a chartered accountant. He does not fare well there as his co-workers resent him because they believe he is above them and is a "gentleman". Philip is desperately lonely in London and is humiliated by his lack of aptitude for the work. He begins thinking about studying art in Paris. He goes on a business trip with one of his managers to Paris and is inspired by this trip. Miss Wilkinson convinces Philip that he draws well enough to become a professional artist, and he moves to Paris to study art.

In Paris, Philip attends art classes, makes a few friends among fellow art students and meets Miss Price, a poor talentless art student who does not get along well with people. Miss Price falls in love with Philip, but he is unaware and does not return her feelings. After her funds run out, she commits suicide, leaving Philip to tend for her affairs.

Philip realizes that he will never be more than a mediocre artist; at the same time, he receives word that his aunt has died. He returns to his uncle's house, and eventually decides to go to London to pursue medicine, his late father's field. He struggles at medical school and comes across Mildred, a tawdry waitress at a local café. He falls desperately in love with her, although she does not show any emotion for him. Mildred tells Philip she is getting married, leaving him heartbroken; he subsequently enters into an affair with Norah Nesbitt, a kind and sensitive author of penny romance novels. Later, Mildred returns, pregnant, and confesses that the man for whom she had abandoned Philip had never married her. Philip breaks off his relationship with Norah and supports Mildred financially though he can ill afford to do so, but later she falls in love with a friend of Philip's and disappears.

Philip runs into Mildred again when she is so poor she has resorted to prostitution and, feeling sympathy for her, takes her in to do his housework, though he no longer loves her. When he rejects her advances, she becomes angry at him, leaves, and destroys his possessions, causing Philip to abandon that residence and move into cheaper housing. When Philip meets Mildred next, she is ill and prostituting herself again, and the baby has died.

While working at the hospital, Philip befriends family man Thorpe Athelny and is invited to his house every Sunday. Athelny has lived in Toledo in Spain, enthusing about the country, and is translating the works of San Juan de la Cruz. Meanwhile, a stockbroker acquaintance of Philip advises him to invest in South African mines, and Philip is left with no money when the stock market crashes due to the vicissitudes of the Boer War. He wanders the streets aimlessly for a few days before the Athelnys take him in and find him a job at a retail store, which he hates. Eventually, his uncle's death leaves him enough money to go back to medical school, and he finishes his studies and becomes qualified. He takes on a temporary placement at a Dorsetshire fishing village with Dr South, an old, rancorous physician whose wife is dead and whose daughter has broken off contact with him. However, he takes a shine to Philip's humour and personableness, eventually making him an outstanding offer of a stake in his medical practice. Although flattered, Philip refuses as he is still eager to travel and returns to London.

He soon goes on a small summer vacation with the Athelnys at a village in the Kent countryside. There he finds that one of Athelny's daughters, Sally, likes him. They have an affair, and when she thinks she is pregnant, Philip decides to give up his long-cherished plans to travel to exotic lands, to accept Dr South's offer, and to propose to Sally instead. They meet in the National Gallery where learning that it was a false alarm, Philip is disappointed but proposes to her anyway; she accepts. Philip puts aside his lofty, complex artistic and philosophical ideals, coming to the conclusion that "the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect".

Film versions

References in other literature

  • Of Human Bondage is mentioned by the character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.
  • In Philip K. Dick's science fiction novel Dr. Bloodmoney, the character Walt Dangerfield reads Of Human Bondage to humanity from his spaceship orbiting the Earth.
  • In Gloria Sawai's short story "The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came up and Blew my Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts", Of Human Bondage is the example the narrator gives of "a great book" that "unsettles you and startles you into thought", immediately before beginning the narrative of her encounter with Jesus.
  • In Wolfgang Bauer's theatre play Singapore Sling (1981) main character Tristan is reading Of Human Bondage.
  • In J. M. Coetzee's novel Youth, one of the narrator's landlords makes an oblique reference to Of Human Bondage, prompting a connection between the two texts.
  • A similarly subtle connection to Of Human Bondage is made in V. S. Naipaul's novel Half a Life, when the narrator encounters Maugham in a park in London.
  • Of Human Bondage is mentioned in the film Seven. The character William Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, is named after W. Somerset Maugham as he was screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's favourite author.[3]
  • Of Human Bondage is mentioned in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Freshman"; in a conversation with Buffy, a college student named Eddie calls the book his "security blanket".
  • In "The Outcast" by Sadie Jones, the character Kit spends the first two weeks of the summer holidays reading "Of Human Bondage" while her older sister spends all her time arranging her hair and talking about frocks with her mother.
  • Of Human Bondage was mentioned as the book that brought Lieutenant Blandford and Hollis Meynell together in S. I. Kishor's Appointment with Love.
  • Of Human Bondage is being read by the Boyd Crowder character in the Justified episode "For Blood or Money."

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal

External links


  1. ^ Dated August 28, 1957, author's inscription in a first edition for Californian book collector, Ingle Barr.
  2. ^ Maugham encyclopedia. http://books.google.com/books?id=H0MqigagKTkC&pg=PA199&lpg=PA199&dq=%22somerset+maugham%22+Spinoza&ct=result. 
  3. ^ Montesano, Anthony (February 1996). "Seven's Deadly Sins". Cinefantastique: pp. 48.

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