Of Human Bondage: Chapters 15-21

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Summary of Chapters XV-XXI
 
At thirteen Philip goes to the King’s School itself, an ancient abbey school taught by monks, reorganized in the time of King Henry VIII. It has produced many notable people and clergymen, but there are complaints that the class quality is slipping, for more merchants, fewer gentlemen are attending. The teachers have no patience with modern ideas of education and stick to Latin and Greek. Just before Philip comes there a new headmaster is elected, Mr. Tom Perkins, who was the son of a linen-draper and was a day-boy when he had been there. It is a sign of the times that the new headmaster is not a gentleman.
 
Perkins knows the new ideas from Germany. He is a Liberal, “enthusiastic,” and ungentlemanly in the eyes of the other masters  (Chpt. XV, p. 63). He initiates reforms such as adding German and French and mathematics.  Further, he wants to attract boys from London, which is frowned upon as a corrupting influence. He tries to initiate the study of general information and practical application. He does away with corporal punishment and takes over the classes of the other masters sometimes. Philip likes that, for the changes suit his own tastes, and Perkins recognizes his precocity. Perkins is contrasted to his usual teacher, Mr. Gordon, who frightens Philip with his bullying so he can’t remember answers. He calls Philip, “Club-footed blockhead!” (Chpt. XVI, p. 68). Perkins is kind and speaks to him of his travels, trying to calm Philip down.
 
The next two years are monotonous and lonely. His classes are tolerable but he wants to be alone and sets out for long walks near the cathedral with its rooks. There are romantic scenes, and he is attracted to what is beautiful. His voice is breaking, and Perkins prepares the boys for confirmation. Philip feels he must go to hell, for he cannot read the Bible. Philip would like to please Perkins who has a passion for religion, and Perkins thinks Philip has a similar religious passion. He tells Philip he will be head boy and win a scholarship. He tells him that maybe he should thank God for his deformity instead of be ashamed of it. Philip experiences a mystical rapture; he could offer his deformity to God!
 
But he is unable to sustain this idea of self-sacrifice. He gets distracted. The other students think he is conceited because of his intellectual superiority, but he would rather change places with them and have popularity and normalcy. His wit is caustic, and he alienates those he would like to be friends with. He becomes friends with a boy called Rose who brings Philip into the circle of other boys. Rose, however, has other friends while Philip is jealous and needy. He tries not to make demands on Rose, afraid of losing him. Eventually, he starts fights with him, and Rose cools off. When Philip is taken with scarlet fever, he is out of school for weeks. When he returns, Rose has another friend. He hates Rose and for spite chooses Sharp for a friend, whom he despises. From Sharp he hears about the streets of London and travel to Germany.
 
Rose tries conciliation with Philip, but Philip’s pride makes him insult Rose. This makes him sick because he wanted to make up, but revenge was a stronger motive. The incident with Rose makes him hate school, and he wants to leave. His grades slip, and Perkins tries to rally him, saying he’ll lose the scholarship. Philip tells him he doesn’t want to go to Oxford or be a clergyman. Perkins tries hard to be a friend to the boy, but Philip is stubborn. He writes to the Careys.
 
Philip tells his aunt and uncle he wants to leave King’s. The uncle tells him to stay one more term and then he can leave for Germany. The uncle writes to Perkins for advice, and Perkins says no to the idea. Philip is furious and writes a nasty letter to his uncle. He asks the headmaster for permission to go home to talk to his uncle. Perkins refuses, so Philip runs away. He argues bitterly with the Careys, making his aunt cry. His uncle writes to Perkins confirming that Philip will leave at the end of term. Philip uses the time for revenge, to be in the position to win all the prizes, then leave because he despises them and the school. This is his first taste of power over those who have hurt him.
 
Perkins makes one more try, explaining how much it has meant to him to have a smart boy like Philip for a student. Philip is melted by his kindness and gets a flash of going on to Oxford. He feels conflicting emotions but will not back down. He walks away free at last but is depressed, not knowing if he has thrown his life away.
 
Commentary on Chapters XV-XXI
 
The Headmaster at King’s, Mr. Perkins, upholds the traditions of the clergy and religion, but he is not a gentleman who comes from one of the four gentlemanly occupations: landowner, military, law, or clergy. His father was a shopkeeper, and no one forgets it. He is a Liberal with the new ideas of education that are in vogue: modern languages, science and mathematics. Philip is inspired by him and wants to please him, though it is becoming increasingly clear to him that he doesn’t want to be a clergyman, and that King’s is stifling. It is a typical English school for the times and is trying to reform itself, but Philip is not suited for many reasons.
 
He is losing his faith and is interested in a wide range of topics. He is strongly moved by what he reads and the beauty of landscapes and would like to travel to see the world, expand his horizons. He hears about London and Germany from Sharp and makes up his mind, that though he could take top honors at King’s and go on to Oxford, he doesn’t see himself as a vicar like his uncle. All the vicars he knows are isolated in rural places and suffocated in the boring life his uncle has chosen.
 
Philip has endured loneliness because of his handicap, but almost worse is the negative cycle he gets into with people he cares about. He alienates both Perkins and Rose who reach out to him. His pride and fear of pity make him harsh and sarcastic. His tongue becomes a substitute for physical power, and he learns the taste of revenge. This was also a flaw in Maugham; he wrote barbed memoirs of people he met, making people afraid to be around him.
 
Perkins recognizes Philip’s talent and encourages him both in his studies and on a personal level. Perkins is actually a remarkable man, for though people would snub him and talk about him behind his back for not being a gentleman, as they snub Philip for his foot, he has not let it affect him. Perkins retains his innocence, enthusiasm, and is sincere about education and religion. He is a breath of fresh air. Philip would like to please him but is proud and independent. He rejects his help and holds to his own plans.
 
Another important lesson Perkins tries to impart is an alternate view of his handicap. Perhaps he needn’t be ashamed of his lameness but offer it as a gift to God. He only suffers because he is rebellious about it. This mystic idea strikes Philip, but he is unable to maintain this passionate vision: “He was tired out by the violence of his passion” (Chapt. XVIII, p. 75). He then tastes “aridity” or dryness. This trait will become important later. He is capable of violent passion but burns out from it.
 
Rose is the sort of boy Philip would like to be: popular, strong, athletic. In addition, Rose is kind and well balanced. Philip is overwhelmed by the attention from him. He has had no friends before and does not know how to handle any relationship. Sometimes he “would throw his soul as it were into the other’s body,” identifying and pretending he is someone else to escape his own limitation (Chapt. XVIII, p. 75).
 
He doesn’t know how to stay friends; he becomes jealous and pushes Rose away. He starts fights with him, and Rose finally gives up when Philip insults him. Rose cannot understand his behavior, and neither can Philip. He is sick with remorse, but he cannot apologize, as he wishes he could: “he had not been master of himself” (Chpt. XIXX, p. 82). He seems to do things against his will, such as the violent scene with his aunt and uncle, who are only trying to do the best for him.
 
This seems to be a period of his life when Philip needs to exert his will in order to grow up and be himself. He feels triumphant when the vicar yields, and he has won. He feels superior to all of them when he walks away from the prizes at King’s in revenge, but he has discovered a bitter pattern. When he hurts others, he also hurts himself. Thinking his life at school has been a failure, he longs for a fresh start.
 
 

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