Of Human Bondage
Overview
Of Human Bondage is a novel
Novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by W. Somerset Maugham
W. Somerset Maugham
William Somerset Maugham , CH was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and, reputedly, the highest paid author during the 1930s.-Childhood and education:...

. It is generally agreed to be his masterpiece and to be strongly autobiographical in nature, although Maugham stated, "This is a novel, not an autobiography, though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention." Maugham, who had originally planned to call his novel Beauty from Ashes, finally settled on a title taken from a section of Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza
Baruch de Spinoza and later Benedict de Spinoza was a Dutch Jewish philosopher. Revealing considerable scientific aptitude, the breadth and importance of Spinoza's work was not fully realized until years after his death...

's Ethics
Ethics (book)
Ethics is a philosophical book written by Benedict de Spinoza. It was written in Latin. Although it was published posthumously in 1677, it is his most famous work, and is considered his magnum opus....

.

In 1998, the Modern Library
Modern Library
The Modern Library is a publishing company. Founded in 1917 by Albert Boni and Horace Liveright as an imprint of their publishing company Boni & Liveright, it was purchased in 1925 by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer...

 ranked Of Human Bondage #66 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
The book begins with the death of the mother of the nine-year-old protagonist
Protagonist
A protagonist is the main character of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical narrative, around whom the events of the narrative's plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to most identify...

, Philip Carey.
Encyclopedia
Of Human Bondage is a novel
Novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by W. Somerset Maugham
W. Somerset Maugham
William Somerset Maugham , CH was an English playwright, novelist and short story writer. He was among the most popular writers of his era and, reputedly, the highest paid author during the 1930s.-Childhood and education:...

. It is generally agreed to be his masterpiece and to be strongly autobiographical in nature, although Maugham stated, "This is a novel, not an autobiography, though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention." Maugham, who had originally planned to call his novel Beauty from Ashes, finally settled on a title taken from a section of Spinoza
Baruch Spinoza
Baruch de Spinoza and later Benedict de Spinoza was a Dutch Jewish philosopher. Revealing considerable scientific aptitude, the breadth and importance of Spinoza's work was not fully realized until years after his death...

's Ethics
Ethics (book)
Ethics is a philosophical book written by Benedict de Spinoza. It was written in Latin. Although it was published posthumously in 1677, it is his most famous work, and is considered his magnum opus....

.

In 1998, the Modern Library
Modern Library
The Modern Library is a publishing company. Founded in 1917 by Albert Boni and Horace Liveright as an imprint of their publishing company Boni & Liveright, it was purchased in 1925 by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer...

 ranked Of Human Bondage #66 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Plot summary

The book begins with the death of the mother of the nine-year-old protagonist
Protagonist
A protagonist is the main character of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical narrative, around whom the events of the narrative's plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to most identify...

, Philip Carey. Philip's father had already died a few months before, and the orphan Philip is sent to live with his aunt and uncle. His uncle is vicar
Vicar
In the broadest sense, a vicar is a representative, deputy or substitute; anyone acting "in the person of" or agent for a superior . In this sense, the title is comparable to lieutenant...

 of Blackstable, a small village in Kent
Kent
Kent is a county in southeast England, and is one of the home counties. It borders East Sussex, Surrey and Greater London and has a defined boundary with Essex in the middle of the Thames Estuary. The ceremonial county boundaries of Kent include the shire county of Kent and the unitary borough of...

. Philip inherits a small fortune but the money is held in custody by his uncle until he is twenty-one, giving his uncle a great deal of power over him until he reaches his maturity.

Early chapters relate Philip's experience at the vicarage. His aunt tries to be a mother to Philip, but she is herself childish and unsure of how to behave, whereas his uncle takes a cold disposition towards him. Philip's uncle has an eclectic collection of books, and in reading Philip finds a way to escape his mundane existence and experience fascinating worlds of fiction.

Less than a year later, Philip is sent to a boarding school
Boarding school
A boarding school is a school where some or all pupils study and live during the school year with their fellow students and possibly teachers and/or administrators. The word 'boarding' is used in the sense of "bed and board," i.e., lodging and meals...

. His uncle and aunt wish for him to eventually go to Oxford
Oxford
The city of Oxford is the county town of Oxfordshire, England. The city, made prominent by its medieval university, has a population of just under 165,000, with 153,900 living within the district boundary. It lies about 50 miles north-west of London. The rivers Cherwell and Thames run through...

 to study to become a clergyman. Philip's shyness and his club foot
Club foot
A club foot, or congenital talipes equinovarus , is a congenital deformity involving one foot or both. The affected foot appears rotated internally at the ankle. TEV is classified into 2 groups: Postural TEV or Structural TEV....

 make it difficult for him to fit in with the boys at the school, and he does not make many friends. Philip goes through an episode of deep religious belief, and believes that through true faith he can petition God to heal his club foot; but when this does not happen, his belief falters. He becomes close friends with one boy; but the friendship breaks up, and he becomes miserable. Philip shows considerable academic talent and is informed by the school's headmaster that he could have earned a scholarship for Oxford, but instead he becomes determined to leave the school and go to Germany
Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

. Philip's uncle and the headmaster oppose Philip's desire to go to Germany, but eventually they give in and allow him to go to Heidelberg
Heidelberg
-Early history:Between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, "Heidelberg Man" died at nearby Mauer. His jaw bone was discovered in 1907; with scientific dating, his remains were determined to be the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. In the 5th century BC, a Celtic fortress of refuge and place of...

 for a year.

In Heidelberg, Philip lives at a boarding house with other foreigners and studies German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

, among other subjects. Philip enjoys his stay in Germany. At the boarding house he meets a fellow Englishman, Hayward, who has an interest in literature and who considers himself a poet. Philip also meets an unorthodox American named Weeks, who dislikes Hayward, whom he thinks superficial. Philip is intrigued by his long discourses with Hayward and Weeks and eventually becomes convinced that he need not believe in the Church of England
Church of England
The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St...

; a radical idea for him as he had been brought up with staunch Christian
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 values.

Philip returns to his uncle's house and meets a middle-aged family friend of his aunt and uncle named Miss Wilkinson, who is very flirtatious toward Philip. He is not particularly attracted to her and is uncomfortable about her age; but he likes the idea of having an affair with someone, so he pursues her. She becomes very attached to Philip and declares her love for him, and he pretends to be passionate about her, but he is relieved when she needs to return to Berlin
Berlin
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

. Miss Wilkinson writes letters to Philip from Berlin, to which he eventually stops responding.

Philip's guardians decide to take matters into their own hands and they convince him to move to London
London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 to take up an apprenticeship to become a chartered accountant
Chartered Accountant
Chartered Accountants were the first accountants to form a professional body, initially established in Britain in 1854. The Edinburgh Society of Accountants , the Glasgow Institute of Accountants and Actuaries and the Aberdeen Society of Accountants were each granted a royal charter almost from...

. He does not fare well there as his co-workers resent him because they believe he is above them and is a "gentleman". Philip is desperately lonely in London and is humiliated by his lack of aptitude for the work. He begins thinking about studying art in Paris
Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

. He goes on a business trip with one of his managers to Paris and is inspired by this trip. Miss Wilkinson convinces Philip that he draws well enough to become a professional artist, and he moves to Paris to study art.

In Paris, Philip attends art classes, makes a few friends among fellow art students and meets Miss Price, a poor talentless art student who does not get along well with people. Miss Price falls in love with Philip, but he is unaware and does not return her feelings. After her funds run out, she commits suicide, leaving Philip to tend for her affairs.

Philip realizes that he will never be more than a mediocre artist; at the same time, he receives word that his aunt has died. He returns to his uncle's house, and eventually decides to go to London to pursue medicine
Medicine
Medicine is the science and art of healing. It encompasses a variety of health care practices evolved to maintain and restore health by the prevention and treatment of illness....

, his late father's field. He struggles at medical school and comes across Mildred, a tawdry waitress at a local café. He falls desperately in love with her, although she does not show any emotion for him. Mildred tells Philip she is getting married, leaving him heartbroken; he subsequently enters into an affair with Norah Nesbitt, a kind and sensitive author of penny romance novels. Later, Mildred returns, pregnant, and confesses that the man for whom she had abandoned Philip had never married her. Philip breaks off his relationship with Norah and supports Mildred financially though he can ill afford to do so, but later she falls in love with a friend of Philip's and disappears.

Philip runs into Mildred again when she is so poor she has resorted to prostitution
Prostitution
Prostitution is the act or practice of providing sexual services to another person in return for payment. The person who receives payment for sexual services is called a prostitute and the person who receives such services is known by a multitude of terms, including a "john". Prostitution is one of...

 and, feeling sympathy for her, takes her in to do his housework, though he no longer loves her. When he rejects her advances, she becomes angry at him, leaves, and destroys his possessions, causing Philip to abandon that residence and move into cheaper housing. When Philip meets Mildred next, she is ill and prostituting herself again, and the baby has died.

While working at the hospital, Philip befriends family man Thorpe Athelny and is invited to his house every Sunday. Athelny has lived in Toledo
Toledo, Spain
Toledo's Alcázar became renowned in the 19th and 20th centuries as a military academy. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 its garrison was famously besieged by Republican forces.-Economy:...

 in Spain, enthusing about the country, and is translating the works of San Juan de la Cruz. Meanwhile, a stockbroker acquaintance of Philip advises him to invest in South African mines, and Philip is left with no money when the stock market crashes due to the vicissitudes of the Boer War
Boer War
The Boer Wars were two wars fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics, the Oranje Vrijstaat and the Republiek van Transvaal ....

. He wanders the streets aimlessly for a few days before the Athelnys take him in and find him a job at a retail store, which he hates. Eventually, his uncle's death leaves him enough money to go back to medical school, and he finishes his studies and becomes qualified. He takes on a temporary placement at a Dorsetshire fishing village with Dr South, an old, rancorous physician whose wife is dead and whose daughter has broken off contact with him. However, he takes a shine to Philip's humour and personableness, eventually making him an outstanding offer of a stake in his medical practice. Although flattered, Philip refuses as he is still eager to travel and returns to London.

He soon goes on a small summer vacation with the Athelnys at a village in the Kent countryside. There he finds that one of Athelny's daughters, Sally, likes him. They have an affair, and when she thinks she is pregnant, Philip decides to give up his long-cherished plans to travel to exotic lands, to accept Dr South's offer, and to propose to Sally instead. They meet in the National Gallery
National gallery
The National Gallery is an art gallery on Trafalgar Square, London, United Kingdom.National Gallery may also refer to:*Armenia: National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan*Australia:**National Gallery of Australia, Canberra...

 where learning that it was a false alarm, Philip is disappointed but proposes to her anyway; she accepts. Philip puts aside his lofty, complex artistic and philosophical ideals, coming to the conclusion that "the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect".

Film versions

  • Of Human Bondage (1934) – Leslie Howard
    Leslie Howard (actor)
    Leslie Howard was an English stage and film actor, director, and producer. Among his best-known roles was Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and roles in Berkeley Square , Of Human Bondage , The Scarlet Pimpernel , The Petrified Forest , Pygmalion , Intermezzo , Pimpernel Smith...

     as Philip, and Bette Davis
    Bette Davis
    Ruth Elizabeth "Bette" Davis was an American actress of film, television and theater. Noted for her willingness to play unsympathetic characters, she was highly regarded for her performances in a range of film genres, from contemporary crime melodramas to historical and period films and occasional...

     as Mildred, the role that established her as a star
  • Of Human Bondage
    Of Human Bondage (1946 film)
    Of Human Bondage is a 1946 American drama filmdirected by Edmund Goulding. The second screen adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1915 novel, the Warner Bros. release was written by Catherine Turney...

    (1946) – Directed by Edmund Goulding
    Edmund Goulding
    Edmund Goulding was a British film writer and director. As an actor early in his career he was one of the 'Ghosts' in the 1922 British made Paramount silent Three Live Ghosts alongside Norman Kerry and Cyril Chadwick. Also in the early 20s he wrote several screenplays for star Mae Murray and...

    , with Paul Henreid and Eleanor Parker
    Eleanor Parker
    Eleanor Jean Parker is an American screen actress. Her versatility led to her being dubbed Woman of a Thousand Faces, the title of her biography by Doug McClelland.- Early life :...

     in the lead roles
  • Of Human Bondage
    Of Human Bondage (1964 film)
    Of Human Bondage is a 1964 British drama film directed by Ken Hughes. The MGM release, the third screen adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1915 novel, was written by Bryan Forbes.-Synopsis:...

    (1964) – Laurence Harvey
    Laurence Harvey
    Laurence Harvey was a Lithuanian-born actor who achieved fame in British and American films.- Early life :Harvey maintained throughout his life that his birth name was Laruschka Mischa Skikne. However, his legal name was Zvi Mosheh Skikne. He was the youngest of three boys born to Ber "Boris" and...

     and Kim Novak
    Kim Novak
    Kim Novak is an American film and television actress. She began her career with her roles in Pushover and Phffft! but achieved greater prominence in the 1955 film Picnic...

    in the lead roles
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