OF HUMAN BONDAGE ( W. Somerset Maugham)

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This is an amazing achievement and is rightly said to be Maugham’s masterpiece. So neatly written and with such scope. The book is an account of man’s hopeless entrapment in the human condition: our inextricable bond to our body, to carers and school, religion, society, lovers, and finally to our mortal end.

The narrative traces the life of Phillip, an orphan who is sent to an English boarding school where he is bullied because of his club foot. His defence is to withdraw into himself, and he grows into a bitter and sharp-tongued young man. Unhappy and restless, and after a disastrous affair with an older woman, he embarks on a search for himself and the meaning of life. He leaves Victorian England and settles eventually in Paris, where he finds solace in art and spends two years as a painter.

There, he discovers that his childhood tendency to form intense but unsatisfactory friendships persists. He finds a mentor and surrogate father in the charismatic, alcoholic poet Cronshaw, but Phillip’s life in Paris unravels when a casual relationship with a young Englishwoman ends in unforeseen tragedy. Shocked, and disillusioned with art and with his Parisian clique, he abandons Paris and returns to London, where he enlists in Medical School to obtain a professional qualification before his inheritance runs out.

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In London, Phillip falls under the spell of a young waitress. Hopelessly enslaved to his unrequited love, he enters another intensely unhappy phase of his life. His obsessive and selfish attempt to imprison his love object delivers them both to their nemesis: she becomes a fallen woman, and Phillip, wounded and consumed with self-loathing, falls victim to poverty and mental illness. This cements his conviction that there is no meaning to life, and that one should turn every situation to maximum personal advantage, “with due regard to the policeman around the corner.”

But Phillip is not a natural cynic – it is life that has made him so – and he emerges from his torment stronger and wiser, discovering that his innate humanity makes him a kind and popular doctor. The final piece falls into place for him when he finds the right woman to marry and have children with. I have rarely enjoyed a book more because the author knew completely how to communicate a real person to the reader. This was Maugham’s greatest creative gift: his humanity.

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