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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Honest, heartfelt masterpiece

W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage is one of the best novels I have ever read. The language is simple. The narration is subtle. The characters are real and display emotions and feelings everyone can identify with. The power of novel becomes apparent when you are reading it. You choke up every once a while, you smile for hours after you have finished reading certain passages, and you comprehend your own self, your woes and possibilities, better through perspectives that novel provides.

Philip Carey is born with a clubfoot, and as he grows up, orphaned, he struggles with his own deformity. The initial quarter of the novel is about his growing up, and details incidents and relationships that shape our hero. He then develops a fancy of becoming a painter and travels to Paris, only to quit few years later to return to London, where he studies to become a doctor. The most engrossing part of novel starts here with the entry of Mildred, the waitress.

The rest of the novel thrives on the passion of Philip, his love that carries him to the edge of self-destruction, and his coming of age. Unrequited love has never been potrayed better. Philip allows himself to become an instrument in hands of cold-hearted Mildred, who repeatedly ruins herself through absurd choices, and ruins him for not withstanding his love and care, he finds himself snubbed, ridiculed, bereft. Eventhough his reason tells him otherwise, Philip is unable to release himself from his passion for a considerable time. As is said in the novel, "But when all was said the important thing was to love rather than to be loved; and he yearned for Mildred with his whole soul."

The novel is lot more than just story of Philip and Mildred, and there are other unforgettable characters. Each person Philip encounters and each friend he makes, leaves an indelible impression on him and the reader. Be it his idealist friend Hayward, who has too much promise too little product, the poet Cronshaw who dies in poverty, Fenny Price whose hard work cannot make her draw even reasonably well, his uncle and aunt whose love is both tacit and beautifully potrayed and the writer Norah who shows Philip of a caring and loving other.

The most charming people in the novel are Athlneys. Athlney brings life and humor into the novel, and I think saves Philip from a total destruction. The novel really highlights the virtue that lies in a simple, happy married life and Anthlneys win over both Philip and readers with their goodness and simplicity. Thorpe Anthlney with his nine children is a jolly character, and be it his conversations or actions, he wins over our hearts outright.

Philip finds love in most unexpected quarters and is surprised by how help crops up from strangers. His every experience makes him as richer as the reader becomes in reading about it. The thoughts about the meaning of life, or about love or religion or about virtue or vice, and about each aspect of life that Philip encounters are spelt out with a subtlety and mastery. These thoughts find easy resonance with the reader, and make Of Human Bondage an unforgettable affair. The honesty of this piece is stunning. This novel, written without any flourishes and intricate wordplay or mystery, is I think a celebration of the deep insight and understanding of the author.

I have read his other works. The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Six Pence as well as his short stories are a proof of Maugham's ability to tell simple tales with great mastery. These, on their own, make Maugham a great novelist. But it is after reading Of Human Bondage that I realized why most novelists and readers have considered this piece as one the greatest pieces in World Literature. Maugham's aim was perhaps of catharisis and he put his own emotions into the characters, and therefore, he's created a work that is timeless and unforgettable. A must read for everyone who can read.



2 comments:

Vivek said...

From sulekha.com

requiem comments:
on May 15 2006 8:39AM

This one touches a very emotional chord with me. I started reading it about 15 years ago. I still haven't finished it yet (: Not because I find it dreary or something, but because I don't get much time to read it. This book has too many childhood memories for me. Everytime I open it, the feel and smell of yellowed pages takes me back to my childhood and I forget everything else, even reading.

And in a weird co-incidence, I just posted a short story that took me back to those times. I was thinking of Of Human Bondage when I saw your comment on the main blogs page. Weird, huh?

Vivek Sharma comments:
on May 15 2006 7:37AM
Hey Denice
Read it slowly, say no more than 10-15 pages at a time. I have discovered that all classics require slow, spaced reading. More like watching tele serials, no more than an episode at a time:)!

denice _menace comments:
on May 15 2006 12:30AM
I have this novel with me..and every time pick it up to read ..I drop it back...I just did not get to read it...may be I will read it soon.

Vivek said...

#1
Anil Menon
URL
April 30, 2006
03:05 PM

Vivek: enjoyed reading the review of what used to be an old favorite of mine. I re-read it recently and found it lachrymose and self-pitying. But I agree with you about his genius for characterization; his characters remain in memory. I think it's because he found the right balance between caricature and unpredictability, or as E. M. Forster said, between roundness and flatness. Athelny for example starts out as a dillettante and rarely deviates from that role. But then there's that scene where Philip sees him scurrying about in the department store and suddenly one is not so sure Athelny's just that.


#2
Vivek
URL
April 30, 2006
06:02 PM

Anil, it has often happened to me that when I re-read the novel, I found it very different from what my first reading told me. I guess it happens party because we weigh the novel against our nostalgia and the writing seemer weaker than before, and partly because we grow up and over perspective change. Nevertheless Maugham's self-pity is a kind of release, for these insecurities and failures of Philip make him a more memorable hero, than he would be otherwise. Athelny's charm lies in the distance between the world of his conversation and his reality, and I was in splits when he discoursed about "a man should never marry a lady."

#3
Richa
URL
May 2, 2006
07:45 AM

Wonder if you ever came across this passage from The Catcher In The Rye

"What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though .... You take that book Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham, though. I read it last summer. It's a pretty good book and all, but I wouldn't want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don't know, He just isn't the kind of guy I'd want to call up, that's all. "

I was smiling to myself when i read this. J.D Salinger so succintly put exactly what i had in mind :-)

No offence but i started Of Human Bondage a long time back and i still go back to it every once in awhile to make some headway. But its not something i can sit with for hours on end.