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Of Human Bondage Summary and Key Themes

“Of Human Bondage,” authored by W. Somerset Maugham in 1915, is an exploration of human experiences and struggles through the eyes of Philip Carey. 

Full Summary

Orphaned early, Philip’s childhood in the religious, conservative home of his uncle, a minister, in Blackstable, England, is marked by loneliness and the challenges of living with a clubfoot. This physical disability subjects him to ridicule at boarding school, deepening his sense of isolation. Yet, Philip’s adversity fuels his academic prowess and dreams of Oxford and a clerical life.

Adolescence brings restlessness and doubt. Rejecting the path of his uncle, Philip ventures to Germany, immersing himself in Heidelberg’s intellectual and bohemian circles. Here, he befriends Hayward, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship. This exposure to new ideologies, including atheism, steers Philip away from religious vocations.

Philip’s return to England marks a shift in his aspirations. He initially tries his hand at accounting in London but finds the work stifling. Heeding his artistic inclinations, he moves to Paris, despite familial objections. Paris offers a bohemian lifestyle and friendships, but also uncertainty about his artistic talent, especially as he observes the struggles of fellow student Fanny Price, whose eventual suicide haunts Philip.

The death of his aunt prompts his return to England, where he chooses to pursue medicine. In London, Philip’s life intertwines with Mildred Rogers, a waitress. Despite her apparent disinterest and materialism, Philip is captivated, leading to financial strain and emotional turmoil. Mildred’s abrupt departure for another man devastates Philip.

Mildred reenters Philip’s life, now pregnant and abandoned. Philip’s unwavering support, even in face of her subsequent betrayals and destruction of his belongings, highlights his complex feelings. Financial misfortunes and a brush with suicide follow, but Philip finds refuge with the Athelny family, who provide warmth and stability.

Employment in a despised shop role follows, as Philip yearns for an inheritance from his uncle. Mildred, now battling syphilis and persisting in sex work, crosses paths with Philip again. His eventual inheritance allows him to complete his medical training, fostering dreams of a life abroad.

However, life takes a different turn when Philip starts a relationship with Sally Athelny. Initially planning to marry Sally upon believing her pregnant, Philip realizes his true desires for a domestic life with her, even after learning she is not expecting. 

The novel concludes with Philip and Sally’s engagement, symbolizing Philip’s journey towards finding purpose and contentment in an unexpected, yet fulfilling, domestic life.

of human bondage summary

Key Themes

1. The Search for Identity and Purpose

Central to the novel is Philip Carey’s quest to find his place in the world. Orphaned and physically disabled, Philip grapples with feelings of isolation and difference from an early age. 

His journey takes him from the religious confines of his uncle’s home to the intellectual freedom of Heidelberg, the artistic circles of Paris, and finally to the medical profession in London. Each phase represents a search for identity and a sense of belonging. 

Maugham skillfully portrays this quest as a universal aspect of the human experience, one that is fraught with uncertainties, changes in direction, and ultimately, self-discovery.

2. The Nature of Human Suffering and Resilience

The novel doesn’t shy away from depicting various forms of suffering – physical, emotional, and social. Philip’s clubfoot is a source of physical and psychological pain, affecting his self-esteem and interactions with others. 

His tumultuous relationship with Mildred exemplifies emotional suffering, characterized by unrequited love and obsession. Yet, Philip’s journey is also one of resilience. 

His ability to endure hardship and emerge with a deeper understanding of himself and others speaks to the resilience of the human spirit. 

This theme resonates with readers, offering a reflection on how suffering and resilience are interwoven in the tapestry of life.

3. The Complexities of Social Class and Relationships

Maugham expertly weaves the theme of social class throughout the novel. 

Philip’s experiences across various social strata – from the middle-class respectability of his uncle’s home to the bohemian lifestyle in Paris, and later the working-class milieu of London – highlight the societal constraints and prejudices of the time. 

His relationship with Mildred, a waitress of lower social standing, further explores these complexities. 

The novel portrays how social class shapes personal relationships and individual destinies, making it a compelling study of the societal norms and expectations of the early 20th century.

Final Thoughts

“Of Human Bondage” is a powerful narrative that masterfully captures the complexities of human emotions and the quest for identity. Maugham’s portrayal of Philip’s journey from a lonely, disabled boy to a man who finds contentment in an unexpected life path is deeply moving. 

The novel’s exploration of themes such as social class, the pursuit of purpose, and the impact of personal relationships makes it a rich and enduring classic

It reflects the timeless struggle of finding one’s place in the world and the often surprising ways life unfolds.

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