Thursday, January 20, 2011

British Bildungsroman

Of Human Bondage (Vintage Classics)
Of Human Bondage 





It's asking a great deal that things should appeal to your reason as well as your sense of the aesthetic.
W. Somerset Maugham, 'Of Human Bondage'



This is one of my favorite novels; yet, strangely, even after having read and reread it over several decades time, I have difficulty understanding the hero (anti-hero?) Philip Carey. Philip, who like the author himself, is orphaned and brought up by his uncle. Harshly treated, he is burdened with liabilities, both physical, a clubfoot, and intellectual, a habit of making the least of his opportunities through bad choices and/or lack of talent.


As I read the novel I am immediately impressed by the importance of reading for the young Philip Carey. He turns to reading to escape the pain of losing his mother and father, of being different, of his inability to satisfy his uncle whose harshness rivals some of Dickens's famous hard-hearted characters. Philip seeks and finds solace in his reading and it is one of the characteristics that make him a sympathetic character for this reader. Just as David Copperfield and others before him have found reading a meaningful salve for the pains encountered in their lives - readers of this novel may find themselves.


It is written as a type of novel called bildungsroman, tracing the young protagonist's education and travels to Germany, Paris, and London, while exploring both his intellectual and emotional growth. It somewhat reminds me of Flaubert's novel, A Sentimental Education , which possibly influenced Maugham.  As Philip matures he settles into a sort of life in London, but continues to make the wrong choices. In so doing he enters a destructive relationship with an unappealing (to this reader) Cockney waitress named Mildred. In spite of all the bad choices and ensuing difficulties, Maugham's story is beautifully told and as a result I have been drawn back to it again and again over the years.  Maugham is nothing if not a great story-teller and this one, with its very personal meaning for him is his best.






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3 comments:

LifetimeReader said...

I am looking forward to reading this book and appreciate your comment about Flaubert. Characters who are transformed by reading always pull me in. And right at the moment I am fascinated by Flaubert. Sentimental Ed found its way onto my shelves just a few weeks ago.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

There's a character in Flaubert's Madame Bovary with a clubfoot, so maybe Flaubert influenced Maugham in one way or another...

Great review, btw. I recently downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg, and I'm really looking forward to this book. :)

James said...

Thanks for the interesting comments. Flaubert was an influential author in many ways on subsequent writers and readers.