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An Eccentric Review of W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage"

I was a retired teacher and live-aboard in Seattle. Now I'm back to teaching in a remote area of New Mexico.

A Bit About Me

Thirty years ago, I became an English teacher. I love to read and I love to share books and ideas. When someone next to me on the bus is reading, I want to see what they're reading, and I want to know what they think about it. If you invite me to your home, I’ll scope out your bookshelves. I want to share good books with people, and I want to share the meaning, ideas, and feelings that books convey.

But although I love to read and talk about books, I've always found traditional book reports extremely boring to both read and write (and horrible to grade).

This Is My Version of a "Book Report"

I want to share books (and sometimes movies, short stories, paintings, and possibly other media) that have impacted my life and made me think, laugh, and cry. I deliberately have no plan, order, or logical arrangement, so with no further ado, I’d like to introduce you to my favorite novel of all time: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

One-Sentence Plot Summary

This is usually the most lengthy and boring part of a traditional book report. I'm going to reduce the plot summary to one sentence: A man with a physical defect goes through life looking for a good job, love, and the meaning of life—pretty much in that order.

Why I Love This Book

Of Human Bondage was a book in my house when I was growing up. It was old and had a plain black cover. It looked musty and dusty, so I never opened it up until I was in college, home for summer break, and bored. Once I started reading, I was hooked. I've probably read this book 30 times; I usually read it at least once a year. When the weather gets cold and gloomy, I open Of Human Bondage and travel to late 19th-century England and enter Philip Carey's lonely childhood at the vicarage.

Every problem I've ever had, Philip Carey, the protagonist of W. Somerset Maugham's semi-autobiographical novel, has had worse. He is continually caught up in self-reflection, self-analysis, and self-absorption. Something about his obsessive, unrequited love really connects with a universal experience.

Even if you haven't read the book, you already know Mildred, the woman Philip is obsessed with. She's the woman that a man will do anything for. She can cheat on him and steal from him—he'll still want her. Haven't we all had a Mildred in our lives? Mildred has a male counterpart, of course. His name is probably Heathcliff.

In addition to Philip's search for the perfect woman, he also searches for the perfect job. Boy, can I relate to that! I've been a bartender, a manicurist, a teacher, a grocery clerk, and a newspaper ad builder (before computers), among other things. I still can't find the right job! Neither Philip nor I is cut out to be a painter, but I love traveling with him to the Paris of the early Impressionist Movement as Philip takes painting classes, hires models, frequents the cafes, and drinks absinthe. Who doesn't want to be an art student in Paris?

Is Philip Carey everyman? Does his club foot represent the "fatal flaw" of every human being? Since the novel is semi-autobiographical, many take Philip's club foot to be a stand-in for Maugham's own flaws—his homosexuality (viewed as a criminal activity during much of his life) or his stutter. Since Maugham never admitted to either one publicly, it is difficult to tell. If I had to say what, exactly, was my greatest weakness, I, too, would have difficulty. There are so many choices! But ultimately, Philip, Maugham, Lee B., and many other people are paralyzed by their self-conscious, over-analytical indecision.

Favorite Passages From Of Human Bondage

  • "You know, there are two good things in life, freedom of thought and freedom of action. In France you get freedom of action: you can do what you like and nobody bothers, but you must think like everybody else. In Germany you must do what everybody else does, but you may think as you choose. They're both very good things. I personally prefer freedom of thought. But in England you get neither: you're ground down by convention. You can't think as you like and you can't act as you like. That's because it's a democratic nation. I expect America's worse."
  • "Nothing would have pleased him more than to sit on in the cosy, shabby restaurant, but he knew that Mildred wanted entertainment. She was restless and, wherever she was, wanted after a while to go somewhere else. He dared not bore her."
  • "I say, how about going to a music-hall?" he said. He thought rapidly that if she cared for him at all she would say she preferred to stay there. "I was just thinking we ought to be going if we are going," she answered.
  • "They ordered punch. They drank it. It was hot rum punch. The pen falters when it attempts to treat of the excellence thereof; the sober vocabulary, the sparse epithet of this narrative, are inadequate to the task; and pompous term, jewelled, exotic phrases rise to the excited fancy. It warmed the blood and cleared the head; it filled the soul with well-being; it disposed the mind at once to utter wit, and to appreciate the wit of others; it had the vagueness of music and the precision of mathematics. Only one of its qualities was comparable to anything else; it had the warmth of a good heart; but its taste, its smell, its feel, were not to be described in words."

Expert Reviews

  • "To me at least it is a gorgeous weave, as interesting and valuable at the beginning as at the end. There is material in its three hundred thousand and more words for many novels and indeed several philosophies, and even a religion or stoic hope." —Theodore Dreiser
  • "The best that can be said of this masterpiece is that it made a good movie and launched Bette Davis's Career." —Gore Vidal

Should You Watch the Movie?

Yep. But if you love the book, the movie will leave you a bit unsatisfied—though Bette Davis IS a great Mildred. And yeah, Leslie Howard was probably the only choice for Philip.

© 2010 Lee A Barton

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Read More From Owlcation


Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on January 28, 2015:

Thank you so much, Renee2015!! I haven't been doing any "hubbing" for a few years, but lately I've been feeling as if I should get back into it. Your comment is very motivating!

Renee2015 on January 28, 2015:

I happened upon this page when I googled Maugham misogyny, and I fell in love with your "book report"! I will follow your future ones with great interest. This is like a book club online.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 30, 2012:

So glad you enjoyed this book! I'm sorry I don't speak Russian because I'm very interested in how it would translate.

men from Krasnodar on April 29, 2012:

I recently read this exelent book. It's perfect for me. I read it in Russian. Sorry for my bad English.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on November 03, 2011:

Hello gradeAmerican! Love your summary!

Re: misspelling--Oooops!!! No kidding; I never noticed it. I'm VERY dependent on spell check which apparently doesn't work in the headings. Thank you for the heads up.

I'll be by to check out your hubs soon. You sound like someone I'll enjoy reading. Lee

gradeAmerican on October 30, 2011:

Maugham was a great writer and this was supposedly his most autobiographical work. The Bette Davis movie was excellent as well. Here's my summary: Man with birth defect and lofty ideals meets pretty, brassy woman with neither. She nearly succeeds in totally debasing him. And you DO know that inane is misspelled, don't you? (tee-hee)

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 06, 2010:

Yup, that's where I read it! I checked out the Modern Library version because I didn't currently have a copy of the book. I agree, it's not clear whether its a review, biography, or essay. And, yeah, some of it is crap, too, but as you say, there were some points of interest.

Alexander on July 05, 2010:

The whole essay of Mr Vidal is called ''Maugham's Half and Half'' and appears to have been a review - and damning one at that - of Calder's biography of Maugham. God knows why this strange hybrid between review, essay, biography and downright crap, surely quite short of what would expect from Gore Vidal's pen, was reprinted in his collection ''Sexually speaking'' and also - this is truly inexplicable - as a kind of introduction to the Modern Library of ''Of Human Bondage''. I remember that almost the only thing I liked from this piece was Vidal's charming explanation about Maugham's notorious misogyny, namely that when he discovered, way before D. H. Lawrence, that women enjoy sex as much as men do, and said so, he was called misogynist.

Yes, it is wonderful to know that Maugham still thrills and touches a good many hearts around the world.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 05, 2010:

So glad to see your comment, Alexander! I really enjoy knowing so many others were touched by this book and author.

I, too, disagree with Gore Vidal's comment. The whole essay (can't remember what it's called)had the same tone, but for some reason I just liked the bitchiness of that particular comment.

Alexander on July 05, 2010:

It's wonderful to see something so touching written about "Of Human Bondage". As an avid Maugham reader, it is of course one of my all time favourites.

Link to a great review, too.

With all my respect to Gore Vidal, and some of his books are among my greatest favourites as well, I venture to disagree completely with his rather sarcastic comment.

Good to know that Willie Maugham is not completely forgotten yet. I hope he will never be. I have yet to read anything more revealing about human nature and all its contradictions than Maugham's complete works.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on July 03, 2010:

Feel free to lament, BD! Don't feel bad about identifying just a little bit with Mildred. I think everyone has been there, in varying degrees, at some time during his or her life. Of course, Maugham presents a pretty extreme example in this part of the book. I hope you can continue. Philip does gain some perspective and objectivity which makes it more bearable.

BD on July 02, 2010:

I'm reading this book right now. Been reading it over the week before going to bed everyday, but it's weekend now and couldn't help staying up tonight. I broke down roundabout page 427 where Philip's offering money to Mildered to go away with Griffiths to Paris. It's just gotten too much!

I wouldn't have thought the Mildered part possible if I had read it back in high school or college but now I see it.You're right, there's lots of Mildereds and Heathcliffs around, just varying degrees of it.

It's heartbreaking to think I mildly identify with her. Thought I'd lament anonymously over the internet.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 20, 2010:

Thank you for your comments, Dolores! I, too, am a library visitor for most of my reading these days because I live aboard and don't have much room. However, OHB is one of those books I have to own because I read it every year or so.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on June 20, 2010:

Lee, it's been a long time since I read that book, but I do love older books because of the beautiful language. Your trying to sell a few books on here is a great idea. There are some books that you just have to have, to treasure. I am an avid library visitor, but still buy a book every once in a while.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 07, 2010:

Good questions, Jmath! Remember the scrap of a rug he was given by Cronshaw? It was supposed to reveal the "meaning of life." Later in the story, Philip thinks about that and decides that life has no meaning--just a pattern, like the rug. Instead of being depressed by this thought, he feels happy and free.

Also at the end of the story, Philip freely chooses to marry Sally, even though it turns out that she is not pregnant--and he doesn't love her. I guess that's a type of freedom!

Let me know what you think. Thanks for stopping by!

Jmath on May 07, 2010:

Do you think Philip ever found the meaning of life? Also, did he ever really discover freedom?

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 05, 2010:

Hi Pamela! Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. Hope you give OHB another try--BUT it can be depressing, I know. For some reason, that's one of the reasons I like it!

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on May 05, 2010:

Great hub -- as are your others. I've enjoyed reading a few of them just now.

I must not have been in the right frame of mind when I read Of Human Bondage 40 years ago. I felt like it would never end.

Thanks for a great hub.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 28, 2010:

Thank you for stopping by, James. I actually interpret the quote as referring to social pressures rather than legal--however, I do agree that the PC trend and laws are out of hand.

James A Watkins from Chicago on April 28, 2010:

I enjoyed your excellent and pithy review of this great work. Thank you for the pleasure. Oh, and in America we always could do, say, or think most anything before Political Correctness became the rage. Not so much now. We even have thought crimes now. Oh well. Such is life.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 23, 2010:

What a great idea, Jane! I think we both agree that it would be a lot better than anything else on TV these days.

Thank you so much for stopping by!

Jane Bovary from The Fatal Shore on April 22, 2010:

You've made some great choices with your reviews Lee. Somerset Maugham is a terrific writer in my view...he understands the weaknesses of human nature without judging them too harshly.

I'd love to see a tv show "The Somerset Maugham Hour" where his short stories could be brought to life, since they translate so well to screen.I think it would really take off. The foibles of human nature never date.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 17, 2010:

Thank you, loua! There is something about me that makes me want to simplify and to see how close I can get to the essence of a work of art. It's a fun little challenge. To turn over a cliche--I can see the forest, but can't always see the trees!

loua from Elsewhere, visiting Earth ~ the segregated community planet on April 17, 2010:

You should write for, "schaum's outlines", I'm more impressed with your synopsis than the hyperbola of the formalized critic...

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on April 17, 2010:

Thank you for stopping by, Micky Dee. Of Human Bondage has been such an important book for me, I like to spread the word!

Micky Dee on April 17, 2010:

True observer of the human condition. Thanks for a great hub and review!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 22, 2010:

I agree, Aley. Of Human Bondage would be a wonderful book to teach. I never have as I've mostly taught younger students. You know, I've never read An American Tragedy or ANY Dreiser. I'd better get to it! Thanks for stopping by!

Alice Lee Martin from Sumner, Washington,USA on March 22, 2010:

Thanks for this grand look at OHB. I am a HUGE fan of Maugham and hope that one day, if I can actually teach a class to English majors, I can include this wonderful book, and Theodore Dreiser's " An American Tragedy" as well.

Great HUB

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 19, 2010:

So true, Feline Prophet!

Feline Prophet on March 18, 2010:

I read the book so long ago I've quite forgotten most of it, but Somerset Maugham will always be one of my favourite writers. What he could do to a short story hardly any one else can! :)

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 07, 2010:

Thank you, Checky Girl! I'm glad I found your hubs (that sounds weird); thank you for visiting and commenting. I've got a lot to learn. Funny how I plan the writing in my head and it's brilliant--then the reality isn't quite what I originally meant it to be.

Cassandra Mantis from UK and Nerujenia on March 07, 2010:

He was a brilliant writer and he had a hard and difficult life, I think he was ahead of his time, but a brilliant observer of the human condition and of it's imperfections. What a really good hub! Many thanks! Rating you UP!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 05, 2010:

I think you will enjoy reading Of Human Bondage, hypnodude. Like us, Philip is a reader and also checks out what others are reading. Fortunately for me, I live within walking distance of a public library. I'm still in mourning because my favorite bookstore went out of business. Thank you for your kind words!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 05, 2010:

Thank you for commenting tonymac04. For many years I thought I was the only person who had ever read Of Human Bondage. Now with the advent of the internet (or at least my participation in it) I find that many people have read and loved this book. I do think it strikes a chord in all of us who analyze (or over-analyze, in my case) our thoughts and actions.

Andrew from Italy on March 05, 2010:

I do the same when I go to someone's home; and usually people take me away from bookstores because I never come out of them with empty hands. I've never read the book, but I'll definitely do. :) Great hub, thumbs up.

Tony McGregor from South Africa on March 05, 2010:

Love this book. I think it does indeed highlight a part of the human condition which is often conveniently ignored - our tendency to obsess about things or people, very often to our own destruction. So in that sense yes, Philip is indeed "Everyman." And convention does tend to "grind one down".

A very good Hub about a very interesting book.

Love and peace


Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on March 03, 2010:

I see that since every gesture begins as a thought, the two are not actually opposed. However, we are totally free in what we think(maybe!), but not always free in our actions. Thanks for stopping by, Mentalist acer!

Mentalist acer from A Voice in your Mind! on March 02, 2010:

The separation of thought and gesture as oppossed freedoms are very interesting. As it is not easy to see them one not free without the other...

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on February 28, 2010:

So true, De Greek! I also plan on reviewing The Razor's Edge which deals with many of Maugham's travels. However, I'm not a fan of his other novels; The Painted Veil, for instance, just makes me cringe. I do love most of his short stories.

De Greek from UK on February 28, 2010:

A well travelled, observant man, tortured by his personal problems, absolutely reliable in giving us a picture into

the past... His discriptions of his travels to the East are captivating..

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