**Warning. This essay ended up being less of a literary critical analysis or even the book review that I had intended it to be and more of a recap of why I quite often wanted to punch this book in the face. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading it. It is very well written novel, filled with sentences that make you pause to re read them again to savor the words written there, but the main character. Ugh. He goes from being a rightfully naive and sheltered child who I liked, to a foolishly and often amusingly self righteous young man who I understood, to a self absorbed D bag who I wanted to punch in the face, to an obsessive jerk who blithely hurts those around him all the while crying himself the victim even though dude was the one making the call to stay where he is who I wanted to punch in the face and then kick in the nuts, who then some how turns into a decent human being in the last few chapters. It’s quite a ride and while there are parts of the book I loved, the second half was sometimes a difficult read. It is hard to care about someone bound and determined to constantly make the wrong calls in his life out of arrogance and blind privilege. So yes, lots of words are written here which I can basically summed up as this. I liked it, but I also wanted to punch this book in the face. Repeatedly.**
The endeavor I began 2 months ago marches on. I am happy to say I have finally finished “Of Human Bondage” by W. Somerset Maugham, parceled out bit by bit in hours stolen here and there at my local coffee shop, and I still stand by my original judgment. In many ways this book is totally “Anne of Green Gables” for dudes. The two characters start out in the same place and truly they both end up in the same place as well, it is just how they get there and who they become along the way that is where the difference between the two stories lies. Both books are the stories of a life, set a particular time and place, told by a third person omniscient narrator who holds a certain amount of fondness for the subject of thier narration. Both of the main characters in each of the books start thier stories as orphans sent to live with a seemingly cold childless couple, a foster family for Anne and an uncle who is a Vicar for Phillip. They both grow up, go to school and spend an inordinate time lost in thier romantic idealization of life and it’s many meanings. Honestly, they walk remarkably similar paths for two individuals separated by the iron walls of the established gender norms of the times they lived in. Though the way they walk it and the toll it takes along the way differs, as Indiana Jones once wisely said to the lovely and tolerant lady undressing him, “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage”. (And also I never wanted to punch any of my “Anne of Green Gables” books in the face.)
Anne’s heart goes on a more steady journey, with a few small but memorable detours along the way, to end up in a more settled but still enthusiastic and passionate place where her love of life and belief in its inherent goodness finds a home and she finally marries Gilbert Blythe, the boy who loves her and whom everyone had been telling her to marry since book one. Philip however takes a longer, darker, path as he plots his own destiny. He does this never knowing where he wants to be but possessing a singular certainty that, despite the sometimes excellent and sometimes mediocre advice he is given by those around him, only he can decide it. He is often wrong about this point, among others. After failing to successfully launch on three separate occasions Phil finally takes the advice of those around him and becomes a medical student in London before falling in love with the Standard Issue Requisite Terrible Woman (TM) who does him wrong and ends in a bad way.
Both Anne and Philip search for the truth of life along the way and neither is particularly hung up on the idea of god and church being the end all be all answer to thier big questions, but while Anne holds onto her joy and naivety Phillip dumps his some time after he gets back from Paris (Failure to successfully launch number 3, he went to Paris on his loving Aunt’s last dime to be an impressionist painter. Did not work out for him because, no matter what he may have thought, he was not that great an artist. This followed skipping university out of spite to go off to Germany just because and being a office clerk in London because business equals money, which also did not work out because he sucked at it.) and becomes in time a full on atheist who is often tormented by his attempts to figure out the big questions in life without faith or a belief in baseline human decency to fall back on. They live thier lives, figure themselves out, and both end up living peacefully far from the bustling crowds, raising families and supported by humble medical practices.
Honestly the only serious difference between the two is Phillip has more sex. Well that and he makes far more terrible decisions than Anne would ever dream of because he is kind of a d bag who has a lot of contempt for the people around him and because of that he ends up suffering more than she does. All of his mistakes are presented as part of the tapestry of his life and therefore are mistakes he had to make to live his life the way he did, but if dude had just once thought to seek the advice of a friend or even cultivated friendships that were with people other than fellow self involved d bags and neglecting or dumping the few kind and sane people in his life, he could have avoided much of the crap he brought on himself. I mean one entire quarter of the book is him falling in love with the Standard Issue Requisite Terrible Woman (TM) simply because she does not like him. That’s it. That is why he loves her so madly. Seriously. She’s mean to him and he does not get it.
When Phillip and the Standard Issue Requisite Terrible Woman (TM) meet it is though a sort of friend of his, a nice person soon vanishes from Phillips life as all nice people do, who has a crush on her so he stalks her at her job working at a tea shop. Phillip so does not get it. She’s green, literally she is bilious which he mentions often, and while she has a pretty face she has very little by way of boobs which is a deal breaker for the man and to top it all off she’s not that bright and kind of a bitch. She has all this going against her and still she dismisses Phillip because, shockingly, he is not her type. He is so arrogant and blind with the privilege of his class that the very idea that she would do so before even getting to know him is utterly infuriating to him and he quickly becomes obsessed with both her and the idea of winning her affections. The dude full on talks himself into being obsessively in love with a woman he is not particularly attracted to, does not even really like, and some times even actively hates, out of….. You know I can’t even think of a term that could encompass the levels of pathological arrogance this entails. At least Anne only tried to convince herself that she did not love Gilbert because she did not know any better. And Girlfriend got over that really fast once he got sick.
Phillip’s love of the Standard Issue Requisite Terrible Woman (TM) goes on forever, every time you think he’s finally figured out that she is toxic she shows up and bam. Love is in the air. Even after she has dumped him once again, this time for his best bud of the moment and after he helped her though her pregnancy with an illegitimate child, and he finds her working the street he still can not turn away though now he totally does not want to hit that because despite his epic love some things, like a sexual history with other men, are boner killers. He will still support her and basically treat her like his wife, just no sex or marriage because as someone who has been in gutter she is no longer worthy of his penis. She tries to get him to love her again, even though she is basically the worst that never bothered him before, but a fallen woman is damaged goods and as we all know Phillip thinks himself far better than that. This does not end well.
If he had any friends that were anything more that accessories to his memory palace, there to allow him the artistic and cultural chatter he felt only he and a few others could understand, they might have told him he was acting insane but nope. No chance of that. He is an island, no one could truly understand the passions that drove him, the rarefied impulses of kindness that moved him, the yadda yadda yadda…. You get my drift. Not that I blame anyone besides other D bags for not sticking around this guy. At one point he was so caught up in his notions about the romantic life of an artist that he did not notice when a woman of his acquaintance, a fellow student and honestly, weather he liked it or not, his friend, was LITERALLY STARVING TO DEATH. For months, he did not notice anything was wrong. Just marked it up to her being all weird, bony, and dirty. He only figured it out when she told him via a note she sent right before she hung herself because it was quicker death than starvation on the streets. Dude.
Eventually Phillip, because he does nothing but make bad decisions because he is a d bag, loses all of his money and has to get a job. In retail. The shame, the horror, that he has been brought so low as this! How does he bare this indignity that gives him money, a bed to sleep in and puts food in his mouth so he does not hang himself rather than die of starvation or be forced to work the streets like a common whore because as a young woman he has no other skills to offer and so therefore must be shunned because he kinda deserves it for being such a bitch? Oh wait, he’s a dude with other dude friends, so of course he gets job. Just one he feels is utterly beneath him in every conceivable way. He is forced to leave his studies and it is through his friendship with the Self Absorbed D Bag Prime (SAD-BP), whom he met as he treated SAD-BP at the hospital for some vague man disease and bonded with over thier educational pretension and sense of superiority, that he even gets this job. He actually is even able to parley the skills he picked up as a failed art student in Paris, where he also failed to notice his poor friend, who clearly lacked his resources, was starving to death (Never going to let that one go), to leap frog over his fellow workers into a higher paying a cushy gig as a designer, because art skills are something you are able to acquire when other people pay for everything. And still he bitches. Oh and he runs into Standard Issue Requisite Terrible Woman (TM) one last time and of course she is still working the streets because after things disintegrated with Phillip she had nowhere else to go. After all she was such a horrible person that is just assumed she has no one else to turn to besides the dude she used so egregiously, so she does as she has VD and needs help with that. Phillip is mad at her for daring to prostitute herself while she has the VD, which she most likely got from one of them men using her, and demands she stop. Because girlfriend clearly has other options. Oh and her baby died. His response is he is happy, heavily implying better dead than the child of a terrible no good destitute whore.
It is at this point that Phillips story stops resembling “Anne of Green Gables” and starts looking more like “Crime and Punishment”. He has a job, food, and a place to live but his existence among the common rabble is so terrible for him he begins to actively hope for his uncles death. By this point in time in the book it understood that his uncle is not a nice man even thought while he had a plan for Phillip, and was not happy when Phillip had his own ideas, he went along with Phillip’s plans anyway. It is true did not support Phillip as he chased his dreams but did not throw him out either, Phillip was always welcome back at the vicarage. His uncle was always warning Phillip that the money he inherited from his parents would not last, but Phillip squandered it anyway and so when Phillip ended up broke of course he refused to lend him any. Which, cold, selfish, man whose authority and judgement Phillip ignored and disregarded wanting to teach nephew a harsh life lesson? Yep, that tracks. While this move did leave Phillip briefly destitute, he was not without resources, unlike some I could mention, he was just to proud to ask for help until it was almost too late. So for this reason he hopes and dreams of his uncles death so he can get his hands on his money. At one point, as his uncle lay in his sick bed, he actually thinks about helping him along because he is so impatient to get back to his life as it was before the bottom fell out. He does not, but it is a moment of real tension over if he would cross that line or not. Because training to be a Doctor.
In the end his uncle dies, Phillip finishes medical school, gets a few nice jobs, thinks for a moment that he may have knocked up the daughter of Self Absorbed D Bag Prime (15 when he met her, 18 at the time of boot knocking), and decides that all his great dreams are silly and that what he wanted all along is to settle down with a nice simple girl with big boobs whom he does not really love but likes well enough, have lots of babies, and be a small town doctor because all of the endless hours he spent obsessing over life and it’s meaning and art and beauty and his path to his perceived greatness was just crap and everyone he had ignore his whole life had been right all along. The end.
So yeah. Would I read “Of Human Bondage” again? Probably, as I mentioned way, way above when I started this whole thing, it is a very well written book and the words within it sing. I just wish they had a better subject for thier song. Next up in my summer of reading for fun is the first book I grabbed out of the back of my car on my way to get coffee. (My car is littered with random books, like a very disorganized mobile library). It is “A Woman’s Life” by Guy de Maupassant. Which looks like another slice of life from an age gone by only with a lady who is French and how, though no real fault of her own, her life kind of sucks because men are D-bags. yay…..
Photo of Anne of Green Gables via © Sullivan Entertainment 2014