Moral education in Maugham’s Of Human Bondage

I’m about halfway through Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage (1915). As the editors tell us in the introduction, the novel was originally written when Maugham was in his 20s but because Maugham couldn’t find a publisher he filed it away in his writing desk. After some commercial success years later, he returned to the novel, retaining the basic architecture but reworking the prose. This suggests a certain theatrical doubling: the genre of the Kunstlerroman (that is, the story of an artist’s coming into being as an artist) in the hands of Maugham the more mature artist.

What happens in Maugham’s more mature artistic hands is quite intriguing. The Kunstlerroman collapses. In fact, the novel, which is heavily influenced by the Bildingsroman tradition whereby the young boy develops into a grown man, reverses the whole tradition. It is not–so far, recall that I’m halfway through–the unfolding of self-understanding but that of ignorance; not the hero’s integration into society but his growing bitterness; not his finding a profession but his mucking up the ones he tries; not his finding succor through women but his experience of unrequited love for all the wrong ones.

Two themes of reversal should be underscored. First, Philip’s vocational aspirations are stymied by his inability to discover a profession that combines practicality with artistry. His club foot rules out the gentlemanly military profession, and he has ceased believing in God so there goes the church. Accounting, which he has a go at, is drudgery while painting is penury; neither will do. Work life is like a long indirect proof: Not X, not Y, not Z… Second, Philip seems incapable of learning from love inasmuch as he presupposes, with Hume, that reason is nothing but the “slave of the passions.” Hence, his impulses dictate many of his actions, and his reason explains things afterward or else it lies prone when confronted with passion’s exigent demands.

What is redeeming about all this is Philip’s trying-out-before-ruling-out approach. In our work lives, we have to work through something before we can let go of it. Of Human Bondage is thus a novel about freedom emerging out of entrapment: the shackles of meaningless work cast off. Less redeeming, however, is Philip’s passionate desire for restoration in the context of love. After he is rebuked yet again, he desires, more than anything, for her return. The paradox, then, is that while his work life is a narrative of tragic progress, his love life is one of endless, hopeless repetition.

In our time, Of Human Bondage aptly describes the condition of many women in their late 30s and early 40s. Their work lives have become unsatisfying, and they have begun, in earnest, to look elsewhere in order to achieve deeper satisfaction. At the same time, however, their love lives have reached a point of exhaustion, and they’ve yet to recognize that restoration of this failed relationship is unhappiness by another name. Moral education today would therefore consist of having the strength to throw off old conceptions of work and love despite having nothing to put in their place.

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