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Mrs. B's Eccentric Book Reports: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Updated on January 31, 2017

A Bit about Mrs. B.

Thirty years ago I became an English teacher because I love to read and I love to share books and ideas. When someone next to me on the bus is reading, I want to see what they're reading, and I want to know what they think about it. If you invite me to your home, I’ll scope out your bookshelves. I want to share good books with people, and I want to share the meaning, ideas, and feelings that books convey.

However, although I love to read and talk about books, I've always found traditional book reports extremely boring to both read and write. And horrible to grade.

So this is my version of a “book report.”

I want to share books (and sometimes movies, short stories, paintings, and possibly other media) that have impacted my life, made me think, laugh, and cry.

I deliberately have no plan, order, or logical arrangement, so with no further ado, I’d like to introduce you to my favorite novel of all time Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham:

Plot Summary

This is usually the most lengthy and boring part of a traditional book report. I'm going to reduce the plot summary to one sentence:

A man with a physical defect goes through life looking for a good job, love, and the meaning of life--pretty much in that order.

My Inane Ramblings: Why I Love This Book

Of Human Bondage was a book in my house when I was growing up. It was old and had a plain black cover--looked musty and dusty--so I never opened it up until I was in college, home for summer break and bored. Once I started reading, I was hooked. I've probably read this book 30 times, usually at least once a year. When the weather gets cold and gloomy, I open Of Human Bondage and travel to late 19th Century England and enter Philip Carey's lonely childhood at the vicarage.

Every problem I've ever had, Philip Carey, the protagonist of W. Somerset Maugham's semi-autobiographical novel, has had worse. He is continually caught up in self-reflection, self-analysis, and self-absorption. Something about his obsessive, unrequited love really connects with a universal experience. Even if you haven't read the book, you already know Mildred, the woman Philip is obsessed with. She's the woman that a man will do anything for. She can cheat on him and steal from him: he'll still want her. Haven't we all had a Mildred in our lives? Mildred has a male counterpart, of course. His name is probably Heathcliff.

In addition to Philip's search for the perfect woman, he also searches for the perfect job. Boy, can I relate to that! I've been a bartender, a manicurist, a teacher, a grocery clerk, and a newspaper ad builder(before computers) among others. I still can't find the right job! Neither Philip nor I are cut out to be painters, but I love traveling with him to the Paris of the early Impressionist Movement, as Philip takes painting classes, hires models, frequents the cafes, and drinks absinthe.Who doesn't want to be an art student in Paris?

Is Philip Carey Everyman? Does his club foot represent the "fatal flaw" of every human being? Since the novel is semi-autobiographical, many take Philip's club foot to be a stand-in for Maugham own flaws: his homosexuality(viewed as a criminal activity during much of his life) or his stutter. Since Maugham never admitted to either one publicly, it is difficult to tell. If I had to say what,exactly, was my greatest weakness, I, too, would have difficulty. SO. MANY. CHOICES. But ultimately, Philip, Maugham, Lee B., and many other people are paralyzed by their self-conscious, over analytical indecision.

Heathcliff, is that you?

Care for a hot rum punch?

Some of my Favorite Passages from Of Human Bondage

1.) You know, there are two good things in life, freedom of thought and freedom of action. In France you get freedom of action: you can do what you like and nobody bothers, but you must think like everybody else. In Germany you must do what everybody else does, but you may think as you choose. They're both very good things. I personally prefer freedom of thought. But in England you get neither: you're ground down by convention. You can't think as you like and you can't act as you like. That's because it's a democratic nation. I expect America's worse.

2.) Nothing would have pleased him more than to sit on in the cosy, shabby restaurant, but he knew that Mildred wanted entertainment. She was restless and, wherever she was, wanted after a while to go somewhere else. He dared not bore her.

"I say, how about going to a music-hall?" he said.

He thought rapidly that if she cared for him at all she would say she preferred to stay there.

"I was just thinking we ought to be going if we are going," she answered.

3.) They ordered punch. They drank it. It was hot rum punch. The pen falters when it attempts to treat of the excellence thereof; the sober vocabulary, the sparse epithet of this narrative, are inadequate to the task; and pompous term, jewelled, exotic phrases rise to the excited fancy. It warmed the blood and cleared the head; it filled the soul with well-being; it disposed the mind at once to utter wit, and to appreciate the wit of others; it had the vagueness of music and the precision of mathematics. Only one of its qualities was comparable to anything else; it had the warmth of a good heart; but its taste, its smell, its feel, were not to be described in words.

Here's what people far smarter than I have said

Theodore Dreiser: "To me at least it is a gorgeous weave, as interesting and valuable at the beginning as at the end. There is material in its three hundred thousand and more words for many novels and indeed several philosophies, and even a religion or stoic hope."

Gore Vidal: " The best that can be said of this masterpeice is that it made a good movie and launched Bette Davis's Career."

What do you think?

Will you read this book?

See results

Should you watch the movie?

Yep. But if you love the book, the movie will leave you a bit unsatisfied--though Bette Davis IS a great Mildred. And, yeah, Leslie Howard was probably the only choice for Philip.

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