Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Of Human Bondage is, like many other novels, a story about growing up. Don't let all the pit stops along the way fool you; at the end of the day, this is your classic bildungsroman, or coming of age tale. We follow Philip Carey from the country roads of Blackstable, England, to the cobbled streets of Paris, and back to the bustling avenues of London. Where some people seem to take life at an easy sprint, Philip stumbles, both literally (club foot) and metaphorically. His path is rife with roadblocks, from the common (poverty, unrequited love, the usual suspects) to the more personal (the constant agony of existing in the world as something other than what society dictates as 'normal', living your entire adult life without parents). Despite his penchant for poor decisions and a noticeable lack of sidekicks or consistent friends, Philip perseveres in the end, settling down with a nice gal named Sally and doctoring to a small British town.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
This was a very up and down read. Many parts I sort of slogged through, a few I rather enjoyed, and most were akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion. Still, while Philip isn't the most likable protagonist I've ever encountered, he's not without redeeming qualities, and I found myself rooting for him despite his astounding ability to make mistakes. If you don't mind the occasional downer, and the kind of story where everything does not turn out just right for everyone in the end, then I say GO FOR IT! (I know, a Winning review. Sorry, Somerset. That's the best I've got.)
A few thoughts, in no particular chronology...
Writers were the original readers (but Not the original hipsters)
I'm frequently struck by the great emphasis writers put on reading. Here are a few of my favorite quotes (from characters we've met previously) on reading:
Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird:
"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing."
Philip Carey, Of Human Bondage:
"Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life."
"Whenever he started a book with two solitary travellers riding along the brink of a desperate ravine he knew he was safe."
"But on the whole the impression was neither of tragedy nor of comedy. There was no describing it. It was manifold and various; there were tears and laughter, happiness and woe; it was tedious and interesting and indifferent; it was as you saw it; it was tumultuous and passionate; it was grave; it was sad and comic; it was trivial; it was simple and complex; joy was there and despair; the love of mothers for their children, and of men for women; lust trailed itself through the rooms with leaden feet, punishing the guilty and the innocent, helpless wives and wretched children; drink seized men and women and cost its inevitable price; death sighed in these rooms; and the beginning of life, filling some poor girl with terror and shame, was diagnosed there. There was neither good nor bad there. There were just facts. It was life." I thought this was such an exquisite depiction.
On the meaning of life
As you might expect, this question comes up QUITE a bit. I can assert, after having read 82 novels on this list, that NO ONE HAS GIVEN ME THE ANSWER. I know, Bummer! What good are these novels, anyway? Well, that's not entirely true. According to the computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the meaning of life is 42. So that's at least some help.
Here are Maugham's contributions to this deep query.
Cronshaw: "Pray tell me what is the meaning of life?"
Philip: "I say, that's rather a difficult question. Won't you give me the answer yourself?"
Cronshaw: "No, because it's worthless unless you yourself discover it." Oh gee, thanks, Cronshaw. You're NO HELP.
"In the vast warp of life (a river arising from no spring and flowing endlessly to no sea), with the background to his fancies that there was no meaning and that nothing was important, a man might get a personal satisfaction in selecting the various strands that worked out the pattern. There was one pattern, the most obvious, perfect, and beautiful, in which a man was born, grew to manhood, married, produced children, toiled for his bread, and died; but there were others, intricate and wonderful, in which happiness did not enter and in which success was not attempted; and in them might be discovered a more troubling grace." While this ultimately gets a lot deeper (and darker) in Philip's musings, I loved this part of his philosophy. A life does not require happiness and regularity to be beautiful and full of meaning, and perhaps that 'troubling grace' is something we should spend more time exploring.
"Perhaps religion is the best school of morality. It is like one of those drugs you gentlemen use in medicine which carries another in solution: it is of no efficacy in itself, but enable the other to be absorbed. You take your morality because it is combined with religion; you lose the religion and the morality stays behind." I don't mean to diminish others' faith or capacity for spiritual belief, and to be frank, I admire them for it. For me, though, this depiction of religion was very apt. I frequently wonder whether I will raise my children with some sort of 'morality school', or whether I will draw on the morals from major religions to inform their lives. I think I may use books of all kinds (including spiritual texts) to probe issues of morality. (I know, #nerd ;))
Med school - apparently some things never change!
On the pervasive smell of formaldehyde in the cadaver room:
His hands smelt of that peculiar odour which he had first noticed that morning in the corridor. He thought his muffin tasted of it too.
'Oh, you'll get used to that', said Newson. 'When you don't have the good old dissecting-room stink about, you feel quite lonely.' Diana and my roomie's brother, both med students, have referenced this particularity of anatomy class and the clinging quality to this odor.
So... I watch too much Grey's Anatomy, and these two bits were straight out of a Grey's episode:
The surgeon for whom Philip dressed was in friendly rivalry with a colleague as to which could remove an appendix in the shortest time and with the smallest incision. This reminded me of George's disastrous 'appy' in the first episode. Watch out, 007!
What the dresser could manage himself he did, but if there was anything important he sent for the house-surgeon: he did this with care, since the house-surgeon was not vastly pleased to be dragged down five flights of stairs for nothing. I had an image of Bailey zonked out on a gurney and Izzy trying to decide if it was worth it to wake her to put in a central line.
Philip only has super healthy relationships:
Philip: "Love was like a parasite in his heart, nourishing a hateful existence on his life's blood; it absorbed his existence so intensely that he could take pleasure in nothing else." Ah yes, that's the kind of love I strive for, Philip! A good ole parasite kind of love.
Philip, to Mildred: "If you only knew how heartily I despise myself for loving you!" Stop, Philip! That line makes ALL the girls swoon. ;)
Mildred, Philip's boomerang of an on-again, off-again gf: "Oh, I don't mind your kissing me now and then. It doesn't hurt me and it gives you pleasure." Wow. That sounds like AWESOME logic. Make him feel great, Mildred.
Philip, to Mildred, after she reads him a letter that his best friend, Griffiths, wrote to her, professing his love:
"It's a little awkward for me, isn't it?" ahgahgahghagha JUST A LITTLE BIT, Philip.
Worst Breakup ever
"My dear Norah -
I am sorry to make you unhappy, but I think we had better let things remain where we left them on Saturday. I don't think there's any use in letting these things drag on when they've ceased to be amusing. You told me to go and I went. I do not propose to come back. Good-bye.
OUCH, Philip. Let's not let things DRAG ON, shall we? Some of us had to PERSEVERE when your life was Dragging on, didn't we?
Philip falling into a SPIRAL of worsening poverty:
Step 1 - Confusion: "He began to be too dazed to think clearly and ceased very much to care what would happen to him. He cried a good deal."
Step 2 - All of the Emotions!: "He was in a hysterical state and almost anything was enough to make him cry."
Step 3 - Your friends get hip to the sitch and SAVE your sorry ass:
Athelny: I wrote to you last Sunday to ask if anything was the matter with you, and as you didn't answer I went to your rooms on Wednesday.
Philip turned his head away and did not answer. His heart began to beat violently. Athelny did not speak, and presently the silence seemed intolerable to Philip. He could not think of a single word to say.
'Your landlady told me you hadn't been in since Saturday night, and she said you owed her for the last month. Where have you been sleeping all this week?'
It made Philip sick to answer. He stared out of the window.
'I tried to find you.'
Philip was afraid he was going to cry. He felt very weak. He shut his eyes and frowned, trying to control himself.
'Now you're coming to live with us till you find something to do,' said Athelny.
Philip did not answer. He had refused instinctively from fear that he would be a bother, and he had a natural bashfulness of accepting favours.
'Of course you must come here', said Athelny. 'Thorpe will tuck in with one of his brothers and you can sleep in his bed. You don't suppose your food's going to make any difference to us.'
Philip was afraid to speak, and Athelny, going to the door, called to his wife.
'Betty,' he said, 'Mr. Carey's coming to live with us.'
'Oh, that is nice,' she said. 'I'll go and get the bed ready.'
She spoke in such a hearty, friendly tone, taking everything for granted, that Philip was deeply touched. He never expected people to be kind to him, and when they were it surprised and moved him. Now he could not prevent two large tears from rolling down his cheeks. The Athelnys discussed the arrangements and pretended not to notice to what a state his weakness had brought him." As pathetic as Philip had become by this point, this was probably my favorite scene in the book. It exposed his utter vulnerability and basically the ONLY time that someone was actually reliable and ready to help him out of trouble.
Over the course of reading, I started to compare myself to Philip (I know, BAD IDEA, RIGHT?). Here's the Venn diagram I came up with.
Some striking similarities
- Mrs. Carey: "What are you going to be, Philip?
- He welcomed wet days because on them he could stay at home without pangs of conscience. Nothing makes me happier than a rainy (or snowy!) day to break up a long stretch of sunshine.
- Now and then it made him restless to be with people and he wanted urgently to be alone.
- When he put away the religion in which he had been brought up, he had kept unimpaired the morality which was part and parcel of it. This line makes me think of this line from Sabrina, on Linus Larrabee: He thinks morals are paintings on walls and scruples are money in Russia.
- Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off... It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one's dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent. I concur, Philip. Just enough to preserve my dignity, be generous, and independent, and I'm good to go!
- Philip had an unfortunate trait: from shyness or from some atavistic inheritance of the cave-dweller, he always disliked people on first acquaintance; and it was not till he became used to them that he got over his first impression. It made him difficult of access. Aw, poor Philip. You would have made a great Ford!
- People told him he was unemotional; but he knew that he was at the mercy of his emotions: an accidental kindness touched him so much that sometimes he did not venture to speak in order not to betray the unsteadiness of his voice. Philip really needs some friends.
- He was infinitely grateful for one word of kindness. I mean, we all like kindness, but Philip seems to crave it like a drug, which puts him in some awkward situations.
He develops a kinship (I won't say love, because love is apparently not quite the same for Philip) with his buddy Athelny's daughter, Sally. Here's their relationship in a stop motion film:
Their first meeting while vacationing together picking hops in the field:
Philip, to Sally: You look like a milkmaid in a fairy story.
Finally, something Philip is good at (WHAT? It's True!) - Bathing in the lake with Athelny's other children:
"Swimming was his only accomplishment; he felt at home in the water; and soon he had them all imitating him as he played at being a porpoise, and a drowning man, and a fat lady afraid of wetting her hair. The bathe was uproarious, and it was necessary for Sally to be very severe to induce them all to come out." One time, Lexie and Dinah and I refused to get out of the pool at Iona (I own a pool - did you know that?) and Mommy left without us, to show us who was boss. #truestory #wefiguredoutitwasher
A nighttime tryst in the hop fields:
- They turned a corner, and a breath of warm wind beat for a moment against their faces. The earth gave forth its freshness. There was something strange in the tremulous night, and something, you knew not what, seemed to be waiting; the silence was on a sudden pregnant with meaning.
- He did not know what there was in the air that made his senses so strangely alert; it seemed to him that he was pure soul to enjoy the scents and the sounds and the savours of the earth. He had never felt such an exquisite capacity for beauty.
I'm not exactly sure why, but this scene reminded me of when Montag meets Clarisse in Fahrenheit-451. Here's that interaction:
"The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and the leaves carry her forward. Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and it it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered."
Passages that struck me:
- The summer came upon the country like a conqueror.
- It was June, and Paris was silvery with the delicacy of the air.
- Fate seemed to tower above them, and they danced as though everlasting darkness were beneath their feet.
- Philip, on coming home: He was thankful for the beauty of England. He thought of the winding white roads and the hedgerows, the green meadows with their elm-trees, the delicate line of the hills and the copses that crowned them, the flatness of the marshes, and the melancholy of the North Sea. He was very glad that he felt its loveliness.
- Cronshaw, to Philip, on dying while destitute: What do the circumstances of your life matter if your dreams make you lord paramount of time and space?
- on the mystical writers of Spain: Life was passionate and manifold, and because it offered so much they felt a restless yearning for something more; because they were human they were unsatisfied; and they threw this eager vitality of theirs into a vehement striving after the ineffable.
I'll leave you with this line about young Philip:
"The summer was come now, and the gardener, an old sailor, made him a hammock and fixed it up for him in the branches of a weeping willow. And here for long hours he lay, hidden from anyone who might come to the vicarage, reading, reading passionately."
I don't have a weeping willow, or a hammock for that matter, but like Anne, I will simply have to IMAGINE them as I delve into Weight's Spectrum. Join me if you will!