Of Human Bondage

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For the film adaptations of this novel, see Of Human Bondage (film).
Of Human Bondage
First edition
Author W. Somerset Maugham
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher George H. Doran Company
Publication date

Of Human Bondage (1915) is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. It is generally agreed to be his masterpiece and to be strongly autobiographical in nature, although Maugham stated, "This is a novel, not an autobiography, though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention."[1] Maugham, who had originally planned to call his novel Beauty from Ashes, finally settled on a title taken from a section of Spinoza's Ethics.[2] The Modern Library ranked Of Human Bondage No. 66 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.


The book begins with the death of Helen Carey, the mother of nine-year-old Philip Carey. Philip's father Henry had died a few months before, and the orphan Philip, born with a club foot, is sent to live with his Aunt Louisa and Uncle William Carey.

Early chapters relate Philip's experience at the vicarage. Louisa tries to be a mother to Philip, but his uncle takes a cold disposition towards him. Philip's uncle has a vast collection of books, and Philip enjoys reading to find ways to escape his mundane existence. Less than a year later, Philip is sent to a boarding school. His uncle and aunt wish for him to eventually attend Oxford. Philip's disability makes it difficult for him to fit in. Philip is informed that he could have earned a scholarship for Oxford, which both his uncle and school headmaster see as a wise course, but Philip insists on going to Germany.

In Germany, Philip lives at a boarding house with other foreigners. He enjoys his stay in Germany. Philip's guardians decide to take matters into their own hands and they convince him to move to take up an apprenticeship. He does not fare well there as his co-workers resent him, because they believe he is a "gentleman". He goes on a business trip with one of his managers to Paris and is inspired by the trip to study art in France. In France, Philip attends art classes and makes new friends, including Fanny Price, a poor and determined but talentless art student who does not get along well with people. Fanny Price falls in love with Philip, but he does not know and has no such feelings for her, and she subsequently commits suicide.

Philip realizes that he will never be a professional artist. He returns to his uncle's house, and eventually decides to go to England to pursue his late father's field. He struggles at medical school and comes across Mildred, who is working as a waitress. He falls desperately in love with her, although she does not show any emotion for him. Mildred tells Philip she is getting married, leaving him heartbroken; he subsequently enters into an affair with Norah Nesbit, a kind and sensitive author of penny romance novels. Later Mildred returns, pregnant, and confesses that the man for whom she had abandoned Philip never married her.

Philip breaks off his relationship with Norah and supports Mildred financially, though he can ill afford to do so. To Philip's dismay she falls in love with his good friend Harry Griffiths, and disappears. Philip runs into Mildred again when she is a single mother and, feeling sympathy for her, takes her in again, though he no longer loves her. When he rejects her advances, she becomes angry at him, destroys most of his belongings, and leaves forever. In shame, and quickly running out of money, Philip leaves the house for good. He meets Mildred once more towards the end of the novel, when she summons him for his medical opinion. As she is probably suffering from syphilis due to her work as a prostitute, Philip advises Mildred to give up this life. Mildred declines and exits from the plot, her fate remaining unknown.

While working at a hospital, Philip befriends family man Thorpe Athelny. Athelny has lived in Toledo, Spain. Enthusiastic about the country, he is translating the works of St. John of the Cross. Meanwhile, Philip invests in mines but is left nearly penniless because of events surrounding the Boer War. Unable to pay his rent, he wanders the streets for several days before the Athelnys take him in and find him a department store job, which he hates. His talent for drawing is discovered and he receives a promotion and raise in salary, but his time at the store is short-lived. After his uncle William dies, Philip inherits enough money to allow him to finish his medical studies and he finally becomes a licensed doctor. Philip takes on a temporary placement at a hospital with Dr. South, an old, cantankerous physician whose wife is dead and whose daughter has broken off contact with him. However, Dr. South takes a shine to Philip's humor and personable nature, eventually offering Philip a stake in his medical practice. Although flattered, Philip refuses.

He soon goes on a small summer vacation with the Athelnys at a village in the countryside. There he finds that one of Athelny's daughters, Sally, likes him. They have an affair, and when she thinks she is pregnant, Philip decides to marry Sally and accept Dr. South's offer, instead of traveling the world as he had planned. They meet in the National Gallery where, despite learning that it was a false alarm, Philip becomes engaged to Sally, concluding that "the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect."


Maugham had borrowed the title of his book from Spinoza. Part IV of his Ethics is titled "Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions". In this part, Spinoza discusses people's inability to control their emotions which, thus, constitute bondage. He also defines good and bad categories basing on the people’s general beliefs, connecting it to their “emotions of pleasure or pain”. He defines perfectness/imperfectness starting out from the desire, in its meaning of particular aims and plans. Philip Carey, the main character of Of Human Bondage, was seeking this very useful end, and became satisfied only after realizing what his aim had been, and having found a person to share this aim with.

Autobiographical features[edit]

Maugham had a stammer (instead of a club foot), lost his mother early and was sent to his aunt and uncle, studied medicine, and his literature tastes coincide with ones of the main character. Although Maugham had never been an artist, he was rather interested in it. The writer possessed in his private collection works of four painters mentioned in the book: Pissarro, Sisley, Monet and Renoir. In the Summing Up, we get to know that he read Ruskin and became acquainted with plenty of European art pieces. A lot of his other works are much focused on this field: The Moon and Sixpence (main character possesses some resemblance with Paul Gauguin), he wrote an article for Life Magazine's “Painting I Have Liked”. Of Human Bondage is, probably, the most vivid instance of the Maugham inclination towards arts. According to Stanley Archer, the book names more than thirty artists, 10 famous paintings by name and refers to many others: "Of the thirty-three artists named in the novel, over half were painters whose careers were primarily nineteenth century. Thirteen of these were French, five were English, Whistler is the only American artist named. Eleven were living at the time of the plot, and five – Carolus-Duran, Degas, Monet, Rafelli and Renoir – were living when Of Human Bondage was published in 1915".[3]

Film versions[edit]

In other media[edit]


  • In J. M. Coetzee's novel Youth, one of the narrator's landlords makes an oblique reference to Of Human Bondage, prompting a connection between the two texts.
  • In Philip K. Dick's science fiction novel Dr. Bloodmoney, the character Walt Dangerfield reads Of Human Bondage to humanity from his spaceship orbiting the Earth.
  • In Sadie Jones' novel The Outcast, the character Kit spends the first two weeks of the summer holidays reading Of Human Bondage while her older sister spends all her time arranging her hair and talking about frocks with her mother.
  • A similarly subtle connection to Of Human Bondage is made in V. S. Naipaul's novel Half a Life, when the narrator's father encounters Maugham at a temple in India.
  • The book was mentioned in J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye; the protagonist Holden Caulfield states that he read Of Human Bondage last summer.
  • The novel is contrasted with Sex in the Married Life in Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha


  • Of Human Bondage is mentioned in the film Seven. The character William Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, is named after W. Somerset Maugham as he was screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's favourite author.[4]
  • Of Human Bondage was mentioned as the book that brought Lieutenant Blandford and Hollis Meynell together in S. I. Kishor's Appointment with Love.


Short stories[edit]

  • In a short story written by Gloria Sawai, Of Human Bondage is the example the narrator gives of "a great book" that "unsettles you and startles you into thought", immediately before beginning the narrative of her encounter with Jesus.
  • Also in S.I. Kishor's Appointment with Love, the protagonist corresponds from the war with a woman whose copy of the book he has found and read; he was touched by her notes in the margin and is about to meet her at Grand Central Station.


  • Of Human Bondage was mentioned in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Freshman". A new friend mentions the title to Buffy, who, unfamiliar with the book, believes he is referring to pornography.
  • Of Human Bondage was mentioned as the book Boyd Crowder was reading in the TV series Justified (season 2, episode 4: "For Blood or Money").
  • Holden recommends the book to fellow Death Row inmate Kerwin in season 1, episode 1 of Rectify ("Always There"). Kerwin, who is unfamiliar with the book, initially thinks it is pornographic.


  1. ^ Dated 28 August 1957, author's inscription in a first edition for Californian book collector, Ingle Barr.
  2. ^ Maugham encyclopedia. 
  3. ^ Stanley Archer. Artists and Paintings in Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.//English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Volume 14, Number 3, 1971, pp 181-89 (Article). – ELT Press.// Project Muse.
  4. ^ Montesano, Anthony (February 1996). Seven's Deadly Sins. Cinefantastique. p. 48. 

External links[edit]