It’s wonderful to read William Somerset Maugham as he narrates his novels, becoming your reading friend. You can feel as if you are with him as he tells you about his fascinating characters, whose depth he reveals so easily you can almost forget how complex each character actually is.
Maugham’s unique knowledge about the nature of human beings is both psychological and philosophical.
He brilliantly describes how ‘every day’ and extraordinary people go about their lives, engage with others, solve problems, and change as a result and describes people with rather fixed characters who do not, in fact, change.
A theme often found in these novels is how individuals come of age and journey through life emotionally searching for meaning.
1. Of Human Bondage
Touted by so many masterful writers as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Of Human Bondage takes us on the curious journey of the self-discovery of the protagonist, Philip Carey.
A secondary character central to Philip’s life whom he encounters on and off throughout the book is Mildred. She’s a woman whom Philip is at first naïvely drawn to and then, despite his obsession with her, gains a deeper understanding of her deceptions, moral inclinations, and impact on his psychological states of mind.
True to the origin of this novel’s title, which is taken from Spinoza’s Ethics, a central meaning behind Human Bondage is “the strength of emotions.”
Philip has a strict Christian upbringing as an orphan in an English vicarage. Early on, he begins to question not only his faith but faith in general.
With a religious uncle for a parent, Philip struggles not only with the confusion besetting every child without parents, but he learns to question why people central to his young life live their lives in certain ways that he, in time, desires to separate himself from.
Maugham’s genius as a writer in this book is his particular ability to help us get to know the growing depth of Philip’s character as he faces the benevolence and cruelty of those around him. Maugham engages us with compelling dialogue and picturesque scenes that locate us as readers inside Philip’s loneliness, isolation, and eventual growing capacity for observation of human nature.
This unusual love story will capture your mind and heart.
Here are a few excerpts to entice you to take up the pursuit of reading over 700 pages even when you question if you want to subject yourself to the arduous emotions that Maugham ingeniously draws out of his readers.
The Beginning of the Story
“Philip could not live long in the rarefied air of the hilltops…seized by …religious emotion…the desire for self-sacrifice burned in his heart…his strength [was]…inadequate to his ambition” (p. 76).
“Philip was carried away by…sordid intensity…this world…he was anxious to know…His thoughts ran on the play he had just come from. ‘you do feel it’s life, don’t you?’ he said excitedly. ‘You know, I don’t think I can stay here much longer. I want to get to London so that I can really begin. I want to have experiences. I’m so tired of preparing for life: I want to live it now.'” (p. 134).
The Middle of the Story
Phillip struggles to understand his ambitions, settle in with a career plan, and develop romantic interests and new friends.
“Philip…made a new friend, Lawson, on the look-out for models…arranged a little luncheon…Mrs. Nesbit was not more than twenty-five, very small, with a pleasant, ugly face…bright eyes, high cheek-bones, and a large mouth…separated from her husband…writing penny novelettes…Phillip was interested in her shiftless life, and she made him laugh with the fantastic narration of her struggles…’ I don’t think of the future,’ she said. ‘As long as I have enough money for three weeks’ rent and a pound or two over for food I never bother. Life wouldn’t be worth living if I worried over the future as well as the present. When things are at their worst I find something always happens'” (p. 366-367).
Philip meets Mildred.
“he poured out to her his whole heart…his adoration filled every part of him so that all his actions, all his thoughts, were touched…he knew only that when she was with him he was happy, and when she was away from him the world was on a sudden cold and grey; he knew only that when he thought of her his heart seemed to grow big in his body so that it was difficult to breathe…and it throbbed, so that the delight in her presence was almost pain… (p. 412,413)…He hated her, he despised her, he loved her with all his heart” (p.438).
“She gave him a look full of kindness. Her lips outlined a charming smile…’ D’you remember the last time we met? I treated you awfully badly—I’m dreadfully ashamed of myself’…His voice was hoarse with emotion. Sometimes he was so ashamed of what he was saying that he spoke with his eyes fixed on the ground. His face was distorted with pain, and yet he felt it a strange relief to speak” (p. 455).
As the Ending Approaches Fitfully
Philip struggles with his intimate relations.
“he felt himself on the brink of a discovery. He felt vaguely that here was something better than the realism which he had adored; but certainly it was not the bloodless idealism which stepped aside from life in weakness; it was too strong; it was virile; it accepted life in all is vivacity, ugliness and beauty, squalor and heroism; it was realism still…” (p. 511).
“For a moment he remembered all the anguish he had suffered on her account…his pain…He was very sorry for her, but he was glad to be free…he asked himself why he had been so besotted with passion for her” (p. 519).
Philip struggles not only with the impoverished souls of others but with the world of poverty.
“Philip discovered that the greatest tragedy of life to these people was not separation or death, that was natural and the grief of it could be assuaged with tears, but loss of work…” (p.657)
Maugham highlights the philosophy of life that gets Philip through his painful and arduous existence and work as a doctor.
“one could reconcile oneself to existence only because it was meaningless” (p. 658).
It is with that last quote that I leave you because reading on is the only way to confront the end of the story, Philip’s life, and Maugham’s philosophy about life.
2. Up at the Villa
This mysteriously engaging tale is such a quick read because of its suspense, intimacies, unexpected tragedy, and attempt to comprehend ‘high’ society for what it offers and for what it lacks.
The protagonist, Mary, is a confounding character who Maugham has dreamed up to excite, confuse, and delight the reader with the unexpected risks she’ll take in life and their meaning to her.
Because this book is short, too much of the plot would give it away. So, I’ll just capture your attention with a long excerpt to demonstrate how Maugham grabs the reader, holds her attention, and surprises her with, once again, the philosophy of life he lends to his main character.
“When she told Edgar what had passed between her and that unfortunate boy, his face had gone gray with anguish. He had been profoundly shocked. But she had felt that what afflicted him was that she could thus have sullied the purity which he so prized in her;… It was the sexual jealousy of the male, baulked in his desire, that had caused Rowley to give her that vicious blow; it was odd what a strange, proud feeling it gave her suddenly…She could not help giving him a look in which there was the suspicion of a smile. Their eyes met” (p. 204, 205).
That turn of phrase, “suspicion of a smile,” is but a delicately intriguing taste of Maugham’s remarkably masterful capacity to use language to surprise, delight, inform, and forewarn you of what lays ahead in this fantastic drama.
This is a book you will not put down until you’ve read it cover to cover. I promise.
3. The Razor’s Edge
Of Human Bondage is magnificent, while Up at the Villa is mysterious and enlightening. But now, with this narration, you will meet Maugham almost personally and feel The Razor’s Edge.
Maugham talks directly to you, the reader.
In so doing, he creates a fascinating and, of course, surprising tale beset with tantalizing language that gets into the hearts and minds of his strange mix of characters.
The initiation into the characters’ minds occurs so swiftly yet so profoundly that it’s hard to put this book away on a bookshelf ever again.
The main character usually has an arc, and you will keep searching for it as you get to know Isabel. Her thoughts, choices, love, and decisions are compelling and engaging. They give Maugham the opportunity he apparently wants to understand and question this woman’s motivations, emotions, capacities for love, and weaknesses as a human being.
Is she a treasure or a demon? Is she honest and forthright—or not?
Is she charming? Well, yes, in her own way, but is this enough to help her understand a man she purports to love but fails to understand?
Why can she not understand Larry, whom she prizes throughout her life? Her failure to understand him (if that’s what you think is happening) is enough of a story in itself worth reading for sure, but I dare not give anything more away.
Larry comes of age and grows older before your eyes, pressing you to be open-minded (unlike Isabel, by the way) and profoundly interested in a man’s search for the meaning of life.
This independently wealthy young man is stunned by tragedy in the armed forces so early on in the book that Maugham gives you the will to get to know him in depth as Larry finds many uncommon people to guide him.
Larry is strong-minded yet confused. He is romantic, but love is not what he is after. He works hard to learn throughout his life but never wants for a standard college education.
Larry adores Maugham, as do all the characters (and the reader) who come in and out of our stunning narrator’s world that becomes our world.
Larry visits many worlds, that is, ways of life carry through with his laborious physical jobs despite his wealth or because the wealth allows him, searching and discovering who he is and wants to be.
Since we all spend our lives searching and discovering who we are and want to be, Larry becomes a challenging man to get to know. He or as Maugham creates and depicts Larry, gives the reader and himself, the author, the opportunity to get to know oneself.
Like Maugham, you may love Larry, root for him, allow for his life outside the box, and have a chance to live through him in ways you may or may not ever experience in your own life.
A quick quote from Maugham, Larry’s confidante:
“I knew him well enough by then to know that when he felt like telling you something he did, but when he didn’t he would turn off questions with a cool pleasantry that made it useless to insist. For I must remind the reader that he narrated all this to me ten years after it happened” (p. 115).
There are several other very divergent and fascinating characters who face life in such different ways that they will either drive you mad or help you understand the madness. This may be an exaggeration, but without revealing who is speaking to whom, I will close with touching words to try and compel you to take on The Razor’s Edge:
“‘My dear, I’m a very immoral person,…When I’m really fond of anyone, though I deplore his wrongdoing, it doesn’t make me less fond of him. You’re not a bad woman in your way, and you have every grace and every charm…You only lack one thing to make you completely enchanting.’
She smiled and waited.
“‘Tenderness'” (pp. 305, 306).
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