Of Human Bondage

This timeless coming-of-age novel dissects, in visceral detail, the agonies and humiliations of unrequited love. Cupid really does a number on Philip Carey who falls desperately in love with a churlish tea server named Mildred. Here is a woman of no apparent redeeming quality. There is no reason why Philip should love Mildred and that is precisely the point. Love is unreasonable. Love is blind.

Mildred lets Philip take her to dinner and a show, but it’s only out of boredom and a lack of better options. When she gets a marriage proposal from a man of greater means, she casually tosses Philip aside and runs away with her new beau.

It would be easy to judge Mildred for her pathological self-centeredness and for her blunt, heartless rejection of Philip. But I don’t think we’re meant to blame her for the state of affairs. She is simply acting in accordance with the immutable laws of love and attraction. Love cannot be willed into existence, nor can it be argued away. Love is a sub-conscious process that is fully out of our control.

To illustrate the point, Maugham places Philip on the other side of the equation earlier in the novel. He has a fling with an older, more experienced woman and is shocked when he discovers she’s developed real feelings for him. He cuts her off abruptly. The woman is crushed, but further involvement is unthinkable to him, so what is he supposed to do? Maugham seems to suggest that there is nothing to be done about it. The nature of love, especially first, unrequited love, is brutal. There is no way around it. Mildred’s cruel treatment of Philip merely highlights the fact.

After the shock and awe of Mildred’s departure wears off, Philip is able to pull himself together and he settles into a comfortable relationship with a warm, maternal woman who loves him unconditionally. Happy ending? Not quite. The moment Mildred reappears in his life, broke, homeless and pregnant, Philip runs to her, as much in love as ever, leaving his dear Nora in the dust.

You’d think Mildred, in her condition, would be ready to settle down with Philip. And for a time, she does. They keep house together and make arrangements for after the baby comes. He introduces her to his best friend and, do I even need to say what happens next? This final betrayal unlocks the chains of love that had shackled Philip for so long. He is finally out from under the crushing weight of love that had burdened him.

Of Human Bondage conveys, with startling immediacy, the ways in which romantic obsession can overwhelm our better judgment. Love trumps reason, common sense, even common decency. It’s a force of nature, our wits no match for its engulfing flames, and there is nothing to do but hope you come out the other side in one piece.

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