Tag Archives: Of Human Bondage

An Unhappy Passion for Certainty

Back in the day, when one spent an afternoon in a used bookshop, I purchased a tattered one dollar paperback of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I’d never read Maugham, but I had seen the film—long enough ago so that I can just barely recall Bette Davis’s wonderful villainy playing Mildred, but then again, that could be any number of her great films.

When my son saw the title of the book he raised his eyebrows and said, “Mother, what are you reading?” “Oh no no no,” I protested, and began to give him a synopsis of the tale. But, as I related the plot I re-thought my knee-jerk protestation, because, well, actually, the denotation of some sort of S&M story is not that far off. Maugham does in fact spin a compelling tale which rather directly describes the more sado masochistic aspects of love.

It takes a little time to get on Philip’s side, but this is what makes him an excellent protagonist—he’s flawed, and yet, his maturing moments of self-reflection are piercing and unsentimentally honest.

Maugham writes with such wit and dry humor, and with such a lovely use of vocabulary, that I can not help but adore him. That said, his underlying strength as a writer stems from the compassion with which he views our complicated species.

As I got involved in the story, I began to relate to Philip: I too have an unhappy passion for certainty, and possess a stubborn disinclination for drudgery, as well as an all-to-clear understanding of human bondage as it relates to matters of the heart, but it was the following passage that resonated most deeply. It begins with Philip’s odious guardian, his uncle Mr. Carey, a man of “somewhat less than average height, inclined to corpulence, with his hair, worn long, arranged over the scalp so as to conceal his baldness,” who is a truly awful specimen. The worst kind of fundamentally inconsequential yet horrid human. He’s hypocritical, judgmental, and completely unaware of his petty but utter selfishness. Plus he is a complete asshole to his meek and kind wife—all the while thinking himself an important and godly man. He is ever disappointed in Philip’s admitted difficulty in setting his life up in a ‘proper’ manner. In one argument he says to Philip, “I suppose you think you’re very clever. I think your flippancy is quite inane.” This comment evinces this bit of musing from Philip :

“He thought with a smile of his uncle’s remark. It was lucky that the turn of his mind tended to flippancy. He had begun to realise what a great loss he had sustained in the death of his father and mother. That was one of the differences in his life which prevented him from seeing things in the same way as other people. The love of parents for their children is the only emotion which is quite disinterested. Among strangers he had grown up best he could, but he had seldom been used with patience or forbearance. He prided himself on his self-control. It had been whipped into him by the mockery of his fellows. Then they called him cynical and callous. He had acquired calmness of demeanor and under most circumstances an unruffled exterior, so that now he could not show his feelings. People told him he was unemotional; but he knew he was at the mercy of his emotions: an accidental kindness touched him so much that sometimes he did not venture to speak in order not to betray the unsteadiness of his voice. He remembered the bitterness of his life at school, the humiliation which he endured, the banter which had made him morbidly afraid of making himself ridiculous; and he remembered the loneliness he had felt since, faced with the world, the disillusion and the disappointment caused by the difference between what it promised to his active imagination and what it gave him. But notwithstanding he was able to look at himself from the outside and smile with amusement. “By Jove, if I weren’t flippant, I should hang myself,” he thought cheerfully.”

pp.120 Doubleday edition 1915, 42nd printing 1970

It’s a long passage, I am sorry, I simple could not shorten it for all the effect it had on me. I re-read it endlessly, I thought about it for days. If I ever penned a memoir I am afraid to admit how little of that passage I would have to edit to make it mine. In fact, a couple of days after I read it, my partner and I were out of sorts, arguing and frustrated, and what did he say to me? He said my problem was— I was flippant. Well, one of my problems. Thank goodness I had the self control not to laugh at the confirmation.

I thought about titling this post. “If I Weren’t Flippant, I Should Hang Myself,” but I didn’t want to worry anyone needlessly who might not share my and Philip’s dark sense of a flippant’s survival mechanism.

Philip’s story is of a man who is trying to figure it out. Thinking there is some certainty out there, at least in love, right? He doesn’t want to waste time with half measures. He seeks the truth even when the truth is a tool of torture. The story travels his life from early schooling days, forays into the business world, academic hardships, friendships forming and failing, at one point he flees to Paris to become an artist and grapples with the problem of talent—when does one know whether they possess a talent for something? As Monsieur Foinet puts it, “It is cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it is too late. It does not improve the temper” (p 113). This is quite correct, and yet oftener than not, we simple have to go through, at our own erratic pace, our own process of discovery. Philip does; he is able to come to terms with his limitations, minor talents, and severe pecuniarily-induced hurdles, but lacking a solid foundation in love, in which he feels he belongs in love, is, through Mildred, nearly his undoing. Without that foundation to rest upon there can be no trust in oneself, never mind in the other. He can’t know his own feelings. It’s a sort of homelessness of the heart that plagues him. The opportunistic Mildred has very little to do with the cause of that.

Ultimately however, the story is very satisfying, the nod to Tolstoy with its Levin-esque epiphany is all the sweeter for centering not in the sacred realm of nature, but instead, in the profane realm of the human heart.

When at last I finished the book, I closed it and set it down firmly on the porch swing. I announced to my partner, who was sitting beside me: “It’s a love story.” “Oh dear,” he replied.

Title from p. 133