Of Human Bondage Summary

W. Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage

  • This summary of Of Human Bondage includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Of Human Bondage Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

Fitting into the tradition of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, W. Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage (1915) tells the story of a disabled man Philip Carey, as he struggles through life and falls into a destructive, tormented relationship with a waitress. The novel is believed to be mostly autobiographical in nature, something that Maugham has denied.

The book begins with the death of nine-year-old Philip’s mother, Helen, a few months after the passing of his father. Philip, who has a clubfoot, is sent to live with his aunt Louisa and uncle William Carey. While Louisa does her best to welcome him, William treats him coldly; Philip takes refuge in his new home’s vast collection of books. He is sent to a boarding school where the kids make fun of him because of his foot; he prays to God to cure him, not knowing what to do with the cruelty he is faced with.

William wants Philip to go to Oxford, for which he can get a scholarship, but Philip, set on going to Germany, convinces his aunt and uncle to allow this. He enjoys his time in Germany, living with a German professor and other foreigners who expand his views on religion and morality. When he returns, his aunt and uncle arrange for him to be an apprentice accountant in London.

Philip does not enjoy the work and feels lonely in the city. After a visit to Paris, he decides to move there and become an artist, despite his uncle’s objections. He is financially cut off for this decision but does make many new friends among Paris’ bohemian artistic society. Among these is Fanny Price, a girl that is generally disliked for being conceited. Philip does not have the heart to tell her that her art isn’t good, and she takes a liking to him. She falls in love with him, a feeling he does not return, and she commits suicide soon after she realizes he is thinking of leaving.

Fanny’s suicide shakes Philip, making him question his artistic ability. Returning to England for his aunt’s funeral, he chooses to stay and following in his father’s footsteps, study medicine. He struggles in his studies but enjoys them. He meets Mildred, a rude, dismissive, and unattractive waitress, and is immediately taken with her despite her flaws. They begin to see each other regularly. Mildred allows Philip to buy her things and occasionally to kiss her, but otherwise, does not show any real signs of affection.

She soon breaks his heart by announcing she is getting married to another man. Philip meets and starts a relationship with Norah Nesbit, a kind and smart girl that helps him heal but for whom he doesn’t feel the same all-consuming love he felt for Mildred. Around this time, he also makes a new friend, Harry Griffiths, a young doctor. A pregnant Mildred returns a few months later, explaining that the man she left Philip for never married her.

Philip leaves Norah, deciding to support Mildred, even though he does not have much money. Mildred meets and falls in love with Harry Griffiths, and the two run away together, once again breaking Philip’s heart. He throws himself into his work and tries to rekindle his relationship with Norah, only to find she is now engaged. He makes new friends and carries on with his life, forming new conclusions about the meaning of life through his interactions with his patients.

About a year later, Philip meets Mildred during a trip to London. She is a prostitute on the street; he realizes he no longer loves her. He nonetheless takes her in, offering her a job as his housemaid. She is not interested in working and simply takes the money and shelter. Meanwhile, Philip makes a bit of money on the stock exchange and uses to get an operation for his foot.

Philip is clear that he simply wants to be friends, which makes Mildred determined to get him to love her again. When he refuses her, she runs away from him again. Having spent a lot of money on her, he tries to get some of it back by speculating again but loses it all when the stock crashes. Destitute and forced to live on the street, he is rescued by a friend and former patient, Thorpe Altheny.

Altheny gives Philip a job and takes him into his home. Soon after, his uncle dies, leaving him enough money to return to his medical studies. He does well and is offered a medical partnership in the practice of a Doctor South, but initially refuses since he yearns to travel. During a trip with the Althenys, he realizes that Sally Altheny, one of the daughters, likes him and they share a night together.

When she later tells him she is pregnant, he decides to marry her and accept the offer from Doctor South. As it turns out, the pregnancy was a false alarm, which leads Philip to realize that he was in fact yearning for a family. He chooses to marry her nonetheless, coming to the conclusion that his lifelong search for happiness can be satisfied by a normal family life.

Of Human Bondage is considered Maugham’s masterpiece and has become a widely studied classic since its publication. It was included in a list of The 100 Best Novels by The Guardian at number 44 as well as other similar rankings. The book was adapted into a film starring Bette Davis in 1934, which was the first to cement the actress as a star in the public consciousness.