Of Human Bondage: Theme Analysis

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Human Bondage
The broader theme of human bondage concerns the power games people play. The boys at Philip’s school are cruel and torment him for his deformity. It is unthinking cruelty for the most part: the rule of the more powerful over the weaker. But though cruelty produces suffering, it is not the focus of Maugham’s analysis. He is interested in the ways in which a person creates his or her own bondage to others, and what, if anything allows someone to get free. Even when he makes a friend of Rose at school, Philip, in his insecurity loses the friendship, for he becomes jealous of Rose’s other friends and then provokes Rose into breaking it off. He is horrified by how he makes the situation worse: “he had not been master of himself” (Chpt. XIX, p. 82). Ownership, power, control, jealousy, self-abasement—these are characteristic of the kind of love that Maugham identifies as bondage. The kind of love based on these qualities produces pain, shrinking of one’s heart, a lack of freedom and happiness.
One-sided passions happen all through the story: “There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved” (Chpt.LXXI, p. 377). Norah loves Philip and Philip loves Mildred who loves Griffiths and Griffiths wants to get rid of Mildred. Maugham goes further to describe what would be called “addiction.” Philip rejects the love of Norah, which is healthy and makes him feel good, for a hopeless cycle of addiction to Mildred who is unworthy and causes him extreme suffering. Yet he seems to have no control over his passion for her. She despises him, uses him, and he asks for more: “he did not know what it was that passed from a man to a woman, from a woman to a man, and made one of them a slave” (Chpt. LXXVIII, p. 418).
Maugham knew the priniciples of masochism whereby a person seeks out that which reinforces shame and humiliation. He builds up a case for why Philip would act this way. Deprived of parents too soon, he is thrown into the world with no defenses. In addition, his clubfoot is like a magnet that attracts cruelty. He feels a lack of confidence and simultaneously shuts people out and tries to force love where there is no hope. Norah builds up his self-esteem, but he doesn’t love her; Mildred tears it down, and his soul craves her.
Maugham once said that only unrequited love lasts. He felt embarrassed when someone truly loved him. This is possibly a lack of self-love, not feeling worthy. This would fit Philip’s case since from childhood he has been abused as different and unlovable. On the other hand, sometimes Philip wants to prove his superiority to the person degrading him, as when he gives the money to Griffiths and Mildred to spend the weekend together. He creates his own misery to prove how base they are. He convinces himself he is a victim but knows that he has handed them the whip. People are often trapped in victim relationships when, like Philip, they have some past trauma they keep repeating in their behavior. Maugham shows how Philip slowly works his way out of the addiction through experience and self-analysis, but even at the last, when he thinks he sees Mildred on the street, his heart leaps, and he knows that he will never be free of it till death.
Freedom of Thought and Lifestyle
Although Philip searches for belonging and love, he has an equal need for autonomy and freedom. Because of his deformed foot and the rejection he receives, Philip “was forced to think for himself” from an early age (Chpt. XIII, p. 50). In school, “He yearned for freedom. He was weary of repeating things that he knew already” (Chpt. XX, p. 83).  When Mr. Perkins the headmaster tries to convince Philip to be ordained as a minister, he thinks, “I won’t, I won’t” (Chpt. XX, p. 85).
He escapes to Heidelberg where “He revelled in his freedom”(Chpt. XXIII, p. 100). At first, it is a freedom of lifestyle. Soon, he has a chance to discuss new ideas as well. Wharton, his math tutor, tells him, “In France you get freedom of action . . . In Germany . . . you may think as you choose. . . in England you get neither: you’re ground down by convention” (Chpt. XXIII, p. 102).
In Germany, he meets the old revolutionary, Ducroz, who has spent his life fighting for human rights but now is a broken old man with no money. Philip does not think of fighting for political freedom like this but personal freedom. When he hears Hayward and Weeks discuss religion, he realizes he no longer believes: “Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him” (Chpt. XXVIII, p.126).
His drudgery in an accounting firm in London sends him to Paris where he lives the bohemian life of an artist. He enjoys the life of the cafes and discussions. The young men are influenced by Cronshaw, an older poet, who teaches them to get their own experience of life. Philip decides he cannot rely on anyone else: “Each man was his own philosopher” (Chpt. LIII, p. 282). He comes to a new  vigor in life by accepting Darwinism: “The free man can do no wrong. He does everything he likes—if he can” (Chpt. LIII, p. 283).
His passion with Mildred teaches him the opposite, for he is a slave to her. No reason can free him from his “bondage.” In his search for the meaning of life, he looks at Cronshaw’s Persian carpet and finds there is no meaning. This sets him free, for he realizes that Mildred just follows her own nature, as he follows his.
It is when he meets the Athelnys that he finds a practical example of freedom. Thorpe Athelny walked away from his upper-class wife and found happiness with the servant Betty and their nine children, living a joyous and natural life, free of social pretension. The simple goodness of the Athelny family is the freedom he finally espouses.
The Mixed Nature of Life
As Philip matures, he sees life has both good and bad. He is always looking for a philosophy or way of life that will resolve these paradoxes for him, but it depends on the moment how he evaluates the world and people around him.
As a child first discovering the cruelty at his school, he feels “life was a dream,” a nightmare, from which he will surely awaken to find his mother (Chpt. XI, p. 46). On the other hand, when he reads books, like the one with the illustration of the Hall of the Thousand Pillars and the boat tied there, ready to “tempt the unwary,” his imagination is stirred by the many possibilities of life (Chpt. IX, p. 37). These two poles of the bad dream and the good dream are found throughout life.
When he first loses his religion, he looks down into the Rhine valley, and “it seemed that it was the whole world which was spread before him, and he was eager to step down and enjoy it. He was free from degrading fears and free from prejudice” (Chpt. XXVIII, p. 126). After Fanny Price’s suicide, however, he goes to a Paris dance, and is shocked by seeing the animal nature of humans: “the meanness of their faces, and the cruelty . . . the stupidness . . . Philip loathed them, and yet his heart ached with the infinite pity which filled him” (Chpt. XLIX, p. 261).
After stepping down into life and getting his hands dirty with its extremes, he learns to take both good and bad together. As a doctor working in the slums, he decides life is neither tragedy nor comedy. “There was neither good nor bad there. There were just facts. It was life” (Chpt. LXXXI, p. 439).

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