One of my closest friends is always telling me not to take off hand remarks or things that people say personally. It’s a good piece of advice but one that is much easier said than done. I think he is gently trying to teach me what Spinoza says in his Ethics about emotions being a type of human bondage:
Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse. Why this is so, and what is good or evil in the emotions, I propose to show in this part of my treatise. But, before I begin, it would be well to make a few prefatory observations on perfection and imperfection, good and evil.
W. Somerset Maugham uses this phrase from Spinoza, “Of Human Bondage” as the title of his novel about a young man who is born at the turn of the 20th century with a club foot and is orphaned at the age of nine. Philip Carey, when both his parents die within a year of each other, is sent to live with his aunt and uncle who live in the vicarage of a small fishing village. Although his aunt, who is childless herself, nurtures and cares for Philip, his uncle, the pastor, is a stern and rigid man who quickly sends the boy off to boarding school at the age of ten.
Philip’s club foot is a constant source of humiliation since he can’t participate in most of the other boys’ games. He spends a great deal of time by himself reading books. His ostracism, loneliness, and the indignity he suffers from his disability often drive him to fits of anger which he directs at the people who are closest to him—his aunt, his school friend, his love interest. But this is not a “feel good” story about the life of a person who is heroic, humble or brave because of his deformity. But instead, Maugham adroitly develops the character of a flawed man who is self-reflective enough to work through his negative emotions—his “bondage.” Much like the ancient Greek tragedies—Oedipus especially comes to mind—his anger leads him to pain and heartache and he must learn to tame these negative emotions.
Philip’s other emotional bondage is revealed when he is smitten with a waitress in a coffee shop he frequents in London. Mildred is uncouth and cold to him, but she uses his feelings to her advantage. He starts out by buying her gifts, nice dinners and tickets to music halls. But his obsession with her drives him to the extreme of supporting her and a child she has with another man. Maugham hints several times in the text that Philip is mostly drawn to Mildred by pure, animal attraction. The crueler she is to him and the worse she treats him, the more he wants to possess her and relieve his physical desires: “It seemed to him that he was swayed by every light emotion, as though he were a leaf in the wind, and when passion seized him he was powerless. He had no self-control.”
Philip’s character is further tested and developed as he tries to decide what he should do with his life. He hates boarding school and leaves before he graduates to spend a year in Germany. He learns languages and reads voraciously there but when he returns to England he is a miserable failure when he tries to be an accountant in an office in London. He then enrolls in art school in Paris where he thinks about a career as a painter. It’s in Paris where he encounters authors and artists who are miserable, drunks who have wasted away their lives in the unrealistic pursuit of a famous career. His time in Partis is the turning point in the book, when Philip becomes especially contemplative as he reflects on the meaning of life and what his purpose in it might be. Philip returns to London after two years and he decides to attend medical school and become a doctor like his father that he barely knew.
Philip doesn’t get his medical degree until he is nearly thirty and persists in this career despite suffering multiple setbacks. Because of the things he has learned through his experiences he becomes master of his emotions and can appreciate all that he has been through. He is no longer quick to anger and he becomes known among his patients for his kind and gentle bedside manner. His awful experiences with Mildred do not make him bitter, but instead when he finds a remarkable woman who loves and adores him he is able to return that love with equal affection.
He accepted the deformity which had made life so hard for him; he knew that it had warped his character, but now he saw also that by reason of it he had acquired that power of introspection which had given him so much delight. Without it he would never have had his keen appreciation of beauty, his passion for art and literature, and his interest in the varied spectacle of life. The ridicule and the contempt which had so often been heaped upon him had turned his mind inward and called forth those flowers which felt would never lose their fragrance. Then he saw that the normal was the rarest thing in the world. Everyone had some defect, of body or of mind.
Maugham’s novel is a remarkable piece of literature not only for its development of a complex character but his writing is that of excellent literature at its finest. It may sound a little silly, or cliche, to say this but the best books always make me look at the world a little differently; Of Human Bondage has certainly made me appreciate my friend’s advice against getting pulled down by negative emotions.