Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

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Of Human Bondage is sometimes described as a dark and erotic masterpiece, a young man’s coming-of-age through a tortured love affair. Which is entirely to mis-sell this Bildungsroman. Yes, protagonist Phillip does have an obsessive relationship with waitress Mildred. But prior to that he is orphaned, suffers from a club foot, moves to Germany to study and becomes an artist.

Philip is an exquisitely conceived character. Equal parts infuriating and sympathetic, he is confused and conflicted in his search for the meaning of life. You can clearly see the competing forces of Phillips irrational urges driving against his own interests.

There are a lot of philosophical musings, often in the form of friends who like to lecture on abstract art theory and the like. It’s also very long- it could have done with some editing down. And certainly not erotic, so don’t read this expecting a bodice ripper.

It is dark though. Mildred and Phillip’s relationship is messed up, entirely dysfunctional. She uses him for money as he seeks to possess her. Mildred has concurrent affairs, while Phillip stalks her through the streets of London. Mildred returns contrite but Philip won’t touch her. It is this interplay of light and dark, loving and loathing and all the other contradictions that make Phillip compelling and the novel a classic.

Read: As a caution to switching jobs or girlfriends to find meaning in your life.

 

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