Review of Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

First read: Before the list came out (1982)
Reviewed on: 8/16/98
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I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Let me put it plainly: This is my favorite book. Ever. I read it in AP English, and loved it ever since. My college friend Ed once said that it was impossible to read the first two pages of this book and not read the whole thing. To prove him wrong, I reread the first two pages, and then wound up staying up all night rereading the entire book. I've read it a total of four times. I haven't read it more, because after reading it I am not able to write anything myself for months. What right does someone like me have to put two words together when this book exists?

So, why is it so fantastic? Philip Carey becomes completely real through the course of this novel. Like a real person, his experiences all affect him, but not necessarily blatantly. His time in Germany colors the rest of his life, but you never hear him going, "Oh, I will have some sauerkraut please… I learned to like it in Germany." Instead, the German trip is just an undertone to any future feelings and decisions he makes.

His emotions can be as complex as mine can get. He goes to his painting instructor, to ask if he has any potential or gift. The instructor tells him that he should know. Phil points out that all of his friends think they're gifted, even the most mediocre ones. The instructor agrees to review Phil's work. His judgment is words to the effect of: "You have some good qualities, but you will never be a great painter. I wish someone had told me that when I was your age." Phil is now thanking him and crying at the same time. That mixture: Total sadness that his big dream has just been crushed, mixed with total gratitude that the instructor was honest with him and saved him from a lifetime of heartache. When my fiancee left me before the wedding, I remember feeling something similar. I was so sad she left, yet I was so grateful she didn't allow family and peer pressure to force her to go through with the wedding so we could be divorced in a year. That would have been far worse. People asked me how I felt, and all I could think of was Philip Carey.

The relationship with Mildred seemed false to my friends in the class, but I was in one at the time and understood exactly. If you were to read the book without any experience, you would think that Phil was not acting realistically. But most adults who read it know EXACTLY what was up with Mildred, and what it was in Philip's life until then that had him ripe for that sort of relationship. We cringe with Philip, we yell at him, but we understand him.

Speaking of Mildred, in high-school we all thought of her as kind of a villianess. The last time I read it, in my early thirties, I found myself disliking her less. She was pretty straightforward in her attitude: "I like you, but not that much, and if you give me a gift I'm going to take it." Philip was the obsessed stalker. She was just a shallow person who didn't love him.

Every once in a while, I run across someone I knew in my younger days. So did Philip. And Maugham really captures the feeling of what that is like.

And then the ending! When I read this book in high school, we all remarked how surprised we were at the ending. When Mr. Mularski asked us why, we said that we didn't think works of Literature were allowed to have happy endings. He thought that very funny. And then fifteen years passed, and I am no longer convinced the ending was happy at all. Phil was certainly happy. But if you think about it, his bride-to-be never answered that last question he asked her. And her general attitude, cute to me when I was in high-school, triggers warning sirens for me now.

The thing that is most frustrating to me is that Maugham doesn't use any words I don't know, and his language is not flowery or ostentatious, but for some reason he can put words together and make them do things that I can't, and I don't know why.

I understand that this book is Literature. I even understand that there are people who wouldn't find Philip's early childhood as riveting as Ed and I did. But I would recommend that every person in the world who loves the English language and has been around people read this book.

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