Of Human Bondage: Essay Q&A

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1. How does Philip grow as a person?
Philip’s growth is really the focus of the novel. Philip begins as helpless as any Dickens orphan in a harsh Victorian world. He becomes a young man during the Edwardian period before World War I, a last grasp at the life of gentlemanly privilege before the modernist undermining of class difference.
Philip is enclosed in a safe, warm, and unconscious world until his mother dies. He faces trauma in the world from the age of nine. Two things contribute to Philip’s difficulty adjusting to life: his great sensitivity and his handicap. He is an imaginative boy who lives in an ideal world of stories and beauty. He contrasts himself to other boys at school who are more like healthy animals, happy, savage, and unconscious.
He believes it is his clubfoot alone that makes him rejected and unloved, for everywhere he is tormented and teased about being lame. Yet as a doctor he meets a boy with a clubfoot who is not the least bit sensitive about it, and he is amazed. His early mentor is Mr. Perkins, the devout headmaster. He suggests a religious solution: give the handicap  to Christ and take holy orders. Philip tries the way of religion, but the turning point comes when God does not answer his prayer to heal him.
He finds his own positive meaning in his deformity; it teaches him to think for himself. Thus, as a teenager in Germany, he is ripe for new ideas, and his conventional religion falls away. His first independence is intellectual. He begins to absorb the modern ideas in the air in Germany and later, Paris. With the other young men—Weeks, Hayward, Clutton, Lawson—he debates the great ideas of the time, following first one philosophy, then another. Cronshaw becomes his second great mentor, who tears down pretension and advocates a more experiential life. There is no one intellectual system he can embrace. He must map out his own philosophy, and so he does, through his reading and thinking.
He is surprised however, that intellectual ideas and philosophies do not work in relationships. Suddenly he discovers subterranean and uncontrollable conflicts that sabotage him from within, like passion, jealousy, shame and revenge. His emotional education is through the painful path of love, in which he must taste the difference between bondage with Mildred, and a more healthy love with Sally. Thorpe Athelny is his third mentor, who leads him to a more natural life that embraces mind, spirituality, and human love. It is not Athelny’s philosophy that is powerful; it is his goodness that models for Philip a way out of bondage.
In the beginning of the book, Philip is selfish and self-centered, wanting revenge when he is hurt. Maugham said in The Summing Up: “I knew that suffering did not ennoble; it degraded. It made men selfish, petty and suspicious . . . we learn resignation not by our own suffering, but by the suffering of others.” Philip’s experience as a doctor treating the problems of others, opens him to compassion and acceptance: “Everyone had some defect, of body or of mind” (Chpt. CXXI, p. 659).
2. What is the significance of class distinctions in the story?
 
Class distinctions are still quite marked in England at this time. The Careys had instilled in Phillip that he was a gentleman, different from the tradespeople and farmers. At school it is something of a scandal that Mr. Perkins, the son of a tradesman, becomes headmaster. Philip is teased in Germany by Weeks and Hayward who grill him on the definition of a gentleman. It turns out Weeks does not fit the definition, though he is a brilliant scholar, because he is an American and a Unitarian. Philip remembers that his uncle says it takes three generations to make a gentleman, and he must go to Oxford or Cambridge.
In this way, Philip doesn’t quite fit either, since he doesn’t go to university and become a vicar like his uncle, but he squeaks by, becoming a doctor.  Mildred constantly refers to class, though she herself is from the lower class, a waitress, trying to adopt upper-class manners that she reads about in cheap novels. She can’t understand Philip’s mysterious ethics, which she assumes have to do with his being a gentleman. She aspires to be a lady but ends up as a prostitute.
Philip has a lot of interaction with the poor and lower classes as a doctor. He learns to respect them. Finally, he has to experience poverty and homelessness himself. He is shamed by working in a department store, something no gentleman would do. He is afraid of being seen dressing the window.
Thorpe Athelny was an aristocrat who ran off with a servant and had nine children, whom he has to support by becoming a working class man. He does not regret it, for he feels the lower class life is more natural. Philip ends up with Sally Athelny, the motherly and healthy peasant daughter. He learns to be at home in any class and take people as they are.
3. What role do various philosophies and ideas play in the book?
Maugham’s book is a survey of important ideas from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They mark the cultural shift from traditional religious society to an impersonal, commercial society.
Philip’s stay at the vicarage and King’s School introduces the debates tearing the Church of England apart between various sects and doctrines. For the boy, the significance of whether candlesticks are too devotional in the church service is remote. Perkins addresses Philip’s personal pain, however,  from the basic angle of surrender to God. This does not work for Philip because he is part of a younger generation for whom religion is no longer an explanation for life.
Hayward introduces him to some aesthetic ideas from Ruskin, Pater, and the Pre-Raphaelites for whom beauty replaces morality as the measure of truth. Hayward’s belief in “The Whole, The Good, and the Beautiful”(Chpt. XXVII, p. 119) is conveniently vague and lazy, as Philip finds out. It means he can justify what he wants to do, using the phrases from his favorite poems and authors. He teaches Philip the realistic ideas attacking Victorian morality in Ibsen’s plays. Philip holds to these rebellious notions until he goes to Paris.
There he sees the French Impressionist painters do not care about beauty; they record the life around them objectively and without moralizing.  This is liberating to a degree, for Victorian life in England had been based on collective denial. He romanticizes the bohemian life of being a poor artist until Fanny’s suicide. Then he sees poverty for what it is; artists are big on talk, and short on producing. Hayward despises action as beneath him and accuses Philip of being middle class. Philip realizes that success still means something to him. He searches for a career. Urged on by Cronshaw’s cynicism, Philip decides Darwin’s ideas make the most sense to him: people live by instinct, and the strongest survive.  His surprise at being sabotaged by hidden forces within is a nod to the psychological theories of Freud and other writers. Macalister tells him about Kant and the Categorical Imperative: Act so that every action of yours should be capable of becoming a universal rule of action for all men. Philip rejects that idea finding  free will is an illusion, for people cannot control what they do.
When no philosophy works to help him through the suffering of his love for Mildred, he remembers Cronshaw’s riddle about looking at the Persian carpet for the meaning of life. He does and finds: “Life had no meaning . . . he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power” (Chpt. CVI, pp. 571-2). He takes responsibility to make his own meaning. This existentialism is modified later by the discussion on El Greco, the Spanish painter who could paint soul. Philip has accepted there is no God, religion, or meaning, and that he must make his own pattern, but when Athelny shows him El Greco’s work, he understands that humans have a spiritual dimension of goodness that shines through. The book ends on this positive note.
4. Why does Philip have trouble with women?
Ostensibly, it is because he is disfigured and naïve. Maugham shows a lot of possessive, clutching women. Miss Wilkinson, for instance, is described as a “bird of prey” (Chpt. XXXII, p. 141). Fanny Price is totally repulsive but latches on to Philip because she feels they are two of a kind: cripples in society.  He is surprised by Lawson’s affair with Ruth Chalice, who is an exotic free spirit, but she has corns on her toes, and he does not understand how Lawson can overlook this repulsive fact. Philip is both attracted and repulsed by sexuality.
Philip wants to have his sexual initiation so badly that he ignores the signs of aging in Miss Wilkinson. He is so engrossed in his own point of view that he does not take into account her feelings or needs afterward. True, she did seduce him, but he thinks she looks at the affair as a man would—a fling. He similarly treats Norah badly when she has taken him in and healed him of despair. He cuts her off with no explanations. He seems a little ignorant of women as separate beings with thoughts and feelings. The same is shown in the scene where he makes love to Sally. He seems totally surprised, and does not know how it happened or how she feels about it. Some accuse Maugham of being a misogynist in his portraits of women.
Sally, it could be argued, is a fairytale character, tacked on to make a happy ending. She is not as realistically drawn as Mildred. Mildred was obviously based on a real relationship, which as Maugham said, he needed to purge from himself. Philip calls Sally “a milkmaid in a fairy story” (Chpt. CXVIII, p. 639). She is described as physically flawless and strong but totally undemanding, even when she thinks she is pregnant. The good women in the book are motherly—his mother, Emma, Mary Ann, Norah, Betty Athelny, and Sally.  A good wife is described by Athelny as a “halcyon,” the female bird of stronger wings who flies underneath the male and supports him (Chpt. LXXXVII, p. 469). In other words, like a mother, the loss of whom was the biggest crisis of Maugham’s own life.
Mildred is a negligent mother, dominating and cruel, anemic and sick in body and mind, sadistic, while Philip is masochistically enslaved by her. She is the only woman he seems really sexually attracted to. He calls himself a “prisoner” (Chpt. LXII, p. 326), in the grip of a “power alien to and yet within himself” (Chpt. LXXVIII, p. 419). In the story, the only cure is regaining self-esteem. It has been suggested that these reactions to women are from a homosexual bias, although to be fair, the principles of ego weakness and addiction, shown  candidly by Maugham, apply universally to any relationship of “bondage.”
5. How would you describe Maugham’s writing style?
 
The Bildungsroman, or novel of character development, has a popular tradition in both Victorian and modern literature. Dickens’s David Copperfield and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are two in this genre. The narrative is linear, beginning in childhood and ending in young adulthood. Like Dickens and Joyce, Maugham’s book is semi-autobiographical, explaining the influences on his development. Like them, it has been extremely popular. Maugham explains: “The best seller sells because he [the author] writes with his heart’s blood” (A Writer’s Notebook). Unlike Dickens and Joyce, Maugham’s style is devoid of any special ornament or rhetoric. Maugham writes more like an objective reporter in a plain style. He explained he wanted nothing between the reader and his meaning. He was not interested in experimental techniques. The words are simple, and Maugham likes to use the rhythms of speech.
Of Human Bondage is largely an internal narrative and journey. The point of view is Philip’s, though the narrator switches at crucial times, such as when he wants to get into Mildred’s mind to prepare us for her destruction of Philip’s apartment (Chapter  XCVI). Philip obviously has no idea about Mildred’s smoldering hatred when he refuses to have sex. The narrator represents the mature Philip who has worked it out and gives the analysis to us as a reporter would, without comment, that Mildred feels “powerless” when she can’t control Philip (Chpt. XCVI, p. 519).
In the 1930s Maugham was one of the best paid writers in the world, known for his realistic modern stories set in various corners of the British empire, from England to the far east. The observant traveler became his narrative persona. But the critics, especially in Britain, didn’t take him seriously. Some felt he exploited sensational topics or wrote poorly, but Americans praised him, especially Theodore Dreiser, who thought his writing realistic and important. In The Summing Up, Maugham assessed his own place in literature as being “in the very first row of the second-raters,” an opinion that has stuck.
Maugham above all, is a good storyteller. Even if not a lot of action is going on, one gets caught up in the emotional and psychological intensity. Of Human Bondage, for instance,  is a personal tale made into a case study with relevance to humanity in general. One of Philip’s main personality traits, self-analysis, is used pitilessly to reveal his own flaws and weakness. Because of the reporting of even ugly facts, like Philip’s jealousy and insults to hurt others, the reader is not always sympathetic. The narrative builds in pressure with the reappearance of Mildred four times to recreate the feeling of an obsession. Maugham said, “It seemed to me I could see a great many things that other people miss” (The Summing Up).

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