Of Human Bondage: Chapters 52-55

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Summary of Chapters LII-LV
 
Philip is unexpectedly shaken by his aunt’s death, for she has been the closest relative since his mother died. He feels his own mortality. Thinking his uncle will be incapacitated with grief he is surprised to find him at the vicarage carrying on as usual, counting the number of wreaths his wife receives, trying to see if she will outdo the wife of the Vicar of Ferne. His uncle no longer scorns his artistic training but brags to his friends that Philip will paint his portrait. Philip perversely announces he has given up painting. Mr. Carey is astonished at his lack of perseverance and says he supposes he will then become a doctor like his father. Philip answers yes, for he has nothing better in mind.
 
Philip sees the beauty of the English landscape for the first time, because of his painter’s training. He congratulates himself on his self-control, bitterly bought by experience. He is told he is unemotional, but that is because he does not let out his feelings. He likes the idea of consciously shaping his own plan to live by. Thinking of what he learned in Paris, especially Cronshaw’s remarks about his conventional morality, he begins to read and work out for himself what his views are now. He delights in the philosophy of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Hume. (The title of the book is taken from a chapter in Spinoza’s Ethics).
 
He decides the Darwinian view of life suits him. There is no good or evil, just the struggle for survival. He makes himself a provisional rule: “Follow your inclinations with due regard to the policeman around the corner” (Chpt. LIII, p.281). Now that he has his new theory of life and sixteen hundred pounds, he sets off for London a second time to try his fortune.
 
He arrives at St. Luke’s Medical School and attends the opening lecture by Mr. Cameron in the Anatomy Theatre with sixty other students. Philip is older than most of the students and looks down on them, but they are more prepared and catch on quicker. He makes friends with Dunsford, a nice young student, who does not seem particularly bright. While dissecting a corpse together, the students chat about sports and other topics of the day. They warn Philip to be careful not to cut himself, for it could lead to blood poisoning. (This is how Philip’s father died.) Philip’s attention wanders in lectures because he is out of the habit of paying attention at school, and the knowledge bores him. He wants to be liked by the others but patronizes them.
 
Dunsford takes him to a tea shop and begins flirting with a waitress called Mildred. Mildred ignores them, and Philip thinks she is not pretty. When Mildred is rude to a remark he makes to be sociable, Philip is wounded and decides to punish her by coming back and embarrassing her. No matter what he does, Mildred insults and humiliates him, not the other way around. He doesn’t know why he is being petty, and why he can’t let it drop.
 
Commentary on Chapters LII-LV
 
Philip and his uncle do not communicate well because they have different values. Above all, the vicar believes in sticking to one thing. He does not see life as an adventure or journey of discovery the way Philip does. He has inherited his beliefs and ideas and thinks no more about them. He has duty.
 
Philip is born at the cusp between the Victorian and modern ages. He likes changing scenes and philosophies as he progresses. He feels free to experiment, to throw off what no longer fits. His uncle sees this as irresponsible. Philip moves on to each new stage of his life as a reaction to the previous stage. He can’t stand the stuffiness of England, so he goes to the continent. He hates the wasted lives of the artists in Paris, so he comes back home to be a bourgeois doctor. Nothing seems permanently charming, but like the animals in Darwin’s theory, he keeps moving and evolving, he “does everything he likes” to test out his own powers.
 
When his uncle asks if Paris was a waste of time, he says no; he learned to look at hands and trees. He is being flippant, but he has learned the art of close observation, and this serves him well as his self-analysis and analysis of others becomes sharper.
 
It is not a surprise that he does not especially take to medical school. The students are not interested in the arts or ideas. Philip is intellectual, but he doesn’t like to memorize factual information. He thinks he will become a doctor for the money and free time. He is condescending to the young students around him, thinking they are not cultured or worth knowing.
 
It is interesting that he characterizes himself as unemotional and controlled, for now he meets Mildred, one of the more intense episodes of his life, over which he has no control whatever; hence, the title of the book. His new philosophies will not help him here.
 
 

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