Friday, August 11, 2017

Of Human Bondage: Explorations of Growth, Maturity, and Self-Destruction

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham follows Philip Carey from when he becomes an orphan in childhood and begins to live with his aunt and uncle, who is a vicar.

Set in England (and sometimes France and Germany) in the late 19th century, the novel shows Carey attempting to make sense of the world by adopting different ideologies. First comes the religion of the boarding school he's sent to. Once he sheds most of those doctrines, he tries to become an artist in Paris and subscribe to various theories of art and life. It's only later, when he works to become a doctor (and backslides into near-fatal poverty along the way), that he begins to accept the mess of human life - the behaviors that are baffling and contradictory, the great muddle of people who are all just trying to live, and who can't all be captured in abstract theories. He does this with some humor and greater compassion.

I like how, even as he sheds different creeds or ideologies, he sometimes keeps their more beneficial lessons. How does he determine what's beneficial and what isn't? It isn't always conscious. He discovers answers through difficult experiences - like his poverty, and his self-destructive love for (or obsession with) a woman who repeatedly hurts and abandons him, and just seeing the cases he comes across in his medical studies and as a doctor. He also has a clubfoot and learns early on how people use it as an excuse to be cruel to him. (His clubfoot, however, isn't his major impediment; he has a tendency towards self-destruction that battles with his thirst for life.) Pushing through the great mess of the world, Carey sometimes finds people and activities that help give his life meaning. Some signs of his increased maturity are his capacity to live with uncertainty, to take pleasure in more straightforward and wholesome joys, and to accept human frailty and the fact that no, he'll never fully understand everything and that he'll keep making mistakes, though hopefully not the same kind of mistakes (with the same magnitude) as those of his younger years.

Does he give up some of his dreams at the end, or does he find other dreams and sources of happiness that are just as good, if not better? He finds a place in the world where he can do some good. Throughout the novel, Carey tried to find a place for himself in ideas or in people who share his ideas, but never really was at home anywhere. By the end of the book, he can make a home somewhere. He may always feel different from other people (as each individual differs from any other), but he can live among people with greater peace and a sense of having a shared lot in life.

Carey's struggles in the book, his attempts to make sense of life and his tendencies towards self-destruction, moved me.

(I read this novel for the Classics Club Challenge.)

2 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Though I have not read this I have seen several of the film versions.

As I recall the 1934 version was excellent.

The idea of trying different belief systems and picking up what one finds beneficial seems very modern. I know people who seem to do that in real life.

Great commentary on this book.

HKatz said...

Thanks. I don't think he always makes these choices consciously... he rejects things more consciously, but then sometimes realizes that even after he has rejected a set of beliefs, some of the better lessons linger. (and perhaps some of the less than beneficial ones?)

Also, the author writes so well the different mindset of someone living in dire poverty vs. contemplating the world with a job and regular food.