Of Human Bondage: Chapters 87-89

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Summary of Chapters LXXXVII-LXXXIX
 
Philip goes to the house of Athelny, the ex-patient, in a slum area that was once grand. Athelny is 5’5” and speaks eloquently on everything from Spanish literature to the seventeenth century ceiling of the slum house, built by the famous Inigo Jones. Philip meets the nine children of Athelny by his common law wife, Betty, a former servant in his upper class wife’s house with whom he ran away. Now he is poor but happy, doing odd jobs to keep his family.
 
The family takes him in, and he goes there every Sunday for dinner to play with the children and have philosophical discussions with the father. Athelny reminds him of Cronshaw with his independent thought and bohemian lifestyle. Most of all, he feels some spiritual awakening when Athelny introduces him to Spanish art, especially El Greco, the painter of soul whom he had heard about in Paris. He likes the virile idealism of El Greco, but he doesn’t quite know how to respond to its message. This is the first real family circle Philip has been part of, and it is natural and charming.
 
Commentary on Chapters LXXXVII-LXXXIX
 
This idyllic family life in the middle of a London slum is a surprise in the story, which so far seems to have centered on Philip’s ideals getting smashed one by one. He has learned a modern cynical view of life, and even the artist’s ideas of freedom have seemed contradicted by experience. Here he meets the charming Athelny family, hidden in a London slum, fuelled by a fantastic father with wild and mystic ideas. He discourses on old architecture and manners, while raising a brood of beautiful but bastard children. He gives Philip a glance into Spanish mysticism and some force of life he has not yet met: “he felt strangely that he was on the threshold of some new discovery in life” and longs to go to Toledo (Chpt. LXXXVIII, p. 475). El Greco seems to “have the power to touch the incorporeal and see the invisible” (p. 476).
 
So far Philip has disdained idealism because it seemed the weak philosophy of Hayward. He had rejected that early love for beauty for what was gritty and real: “he wanted man in his nakedness” (Chpt. LXXXVIII, p. 477). Then in Paris he wanted truth. But here was something better than realism or idealism. It was “some higher pitch, in which facts were transformed by the more vivid light in which they were seen” (p. 478). In his journey through this story, Philip is searching for the meaning of life. So far, he has had many teachers and philosophies offered. Athelny shows him another alternative that is full of light but not sentimental. He doesn’t know what it is but is attracted. Philip sees a man that should be cast down and overwhelmed by his poverty and large family; instead, he is full of life and love and energy and learning. He gives Philip an example and a lot of advice.
 
One of the more important pieces of advice he gives Philip is about the choice of wife. Athelny’s legal wife was concerned with convention and appearances. Betty is real. He tells the story of the halcyon, the female bird who carries her mate on her own wings when the male bird is tired. Betty is a true partner and help-meet. She is strong and motherly. This interlude with the Athelnys comes between two episodes with Mildred, forming a strong contrast with her, as well as an example for Philip of an unusual family group, out of ordinary convention. Athelny has praised lower class women as being better for partners than upper class women. Philip is about to find his own unconventional family bond.
 
 

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