Of Human Bondage: Chapters 103-109

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Summary of Chapters CIII-CIX
 
Philip is given a company room in a dumpy boardinghouse with the other workers. It is a degrading life, and he is never alone for a moment. The work is tiring, and the food is bad. He drags himself to the social evenings with the other workers so he will not seem a snob. It is quite a Dickensian scene of good-natured lower-class people enjoying themselves. Philip has to turn off his mind and not think of the life he is leading, though the other workers are kind to him and accept him. His one consolation is to go once a week to the Athelnys.
 
He tries to keep up with his medical books, but he is too tired to focus. He begins to fixate on the death of his uncle, the only thing that will free him. He might inherit enough to finish medical school. He is humiliated when he is asked to be the window dresser of the store, afraid some acquaintance will see him, but he does so well, with his artist’s eye that they make him continue.
 
One day he runs into Lawson and explains his disappearance and new job. Lawson sees his embarrassment and does not know what to say. He asks Philip to come to his studio for a chat, but Philip refuses, realizing it would make it worse for him to discuss what he is going through. Lawson mentions that Hayward died in the war of typhoid fever, and Philip is shocked, for he has not lost friends his age before.
 
On days off he goes to the British Museum and looks at the Greek sculpture. He tries to get over his nerves at being bombarded all day with the masses of people who look ugly and mean to him. They do not look evil, only petty. The marble statues tend to quiet him, though they remind him of human mortality. The statue of two men holding hands reminds him of his friendship with Hayward. He is struck by the futility of life when death is waiting.
 
Pondering once again the meaning of life, he thinks of Cronshaw’s Persian rug, and suddenly he solves the riddle: “Life had no meaning” (Chpt. CVI, p. 571). He feels suddenly free: “his insignificance was turned to power” (p. 572). Life is just life and needs no justification. Success and failure are equal.
 
Mr. Sampson, the buyer, gives Philip a chance to become a designer since he can draw. He begins to design clothes after the Paris fashions. He enjoys the work. Occasionally he goes to the hospital for his mail, and there is a letter from his uncle, asking if he will spend his vacation at Blackstable. Philip realizes his uncle is lonely, and decides to go. His uncle has aged significantly, and Philip begins to obsess about his dying. The doctor does not say how much longer he will live. Philip senses his uncle is afraid of dying.
 
Philip gets a letter from Mildred asking for help. At first he ignores it, but he knows he will get no peace until he answers. She is back to being a prostitute and very ill. She is terrified, for she understands she could die. It is implied that she has syphilis, and he gives her a prescription and tells her she must quit this work. She says the baby died, and he says he is glad. She understands that he means the baby is spared this suffering and degradation. He cares for her till she is better, but he spies on her and sees she is continuing her work as a prostitute. He is angry that she exposes others, but she does not care; she is lost. He realizes he has done all for her he can. “He did not see her again” (Chpt. CIX, p. 593).
 
Commentary on Chapters CIII-CIX
 
Maugham paints the portraits of Philip’s vulgar co-workers at the store with no comments. It is obvious to the reader that he would be feeling out of his own sphere, but he tries to bear his hardship with the thought that one day he will go back to medical school. He talks with Athelny of trips to Spain and dreams of going there someday. This is how Athelny keeps himself going as well. He talks about his travels and philosophy with Philip.
 
Lawson is hurt that Philip refuses his friendship, for he is trying to reach out. Philip curses his own pride but thinks it would be too hard on him to go backwards and grasp at what is lost to him. He has to keep on going with fortitude. He lets Lawson go, along with his past. Hayward is gone. His uncle is dying, and finally, he sees Mildred for the last time. She ends as a tragic figure, unable to alter, not only dying from syphilis herself, (which Maugham does not name because at the time of the publication such diseases were not named), but Mildred is so hardened, she doesn’t mind passing the disease on to others. He feels only pity, but finally, washes his hands of her.
 
Philip, as usual, contemplates the meaning of life and this time solves the riddle of Cronshaw’s Persian carpet, which, he had said, held the meaning of life. Philip has the aha! notion that life is meaningless, and this frees him. He reaches a sort of existential understanding that life is not good or bad; it just is. What defeats us is our expectations that it must be one way or another. He had been thinking that Hayward’s death was as useless as his life, and feeling sick at all the lost years. His work at the store had also filled him with the sordidness of life as he watches all the people: “their features were distorted with paltry desires” (Chpt. CVI, p. 569). If life is actually meaningless, then “the world was robbed of its cruelty” (Chpt. CVI, p. 572). At the same time, he feels a great energy to make something of life, for it “would be a work of art, and it would be none the less beautiful because he alone knew of its existence” (p. 573).
 
There is an elegiac note in his considering the loss of Hayward’s and Lawson’s friendships, and even his passion for Mildred. One does not know in the beginning enthusiasm that disillusionment and then indifference will set in, and that finally, a relationship, which once meant everything, means nothing, and life just goes on as if it had never happened. Things come and go.
 

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