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  • Katherine Dahl

Of Human Bondage: A Heart-Warming Tale in 4 Songs


Now that we’re over two weeks into 2024, the time has come for me to reflect on some of my top reads of 2023. I’ve never been one of those people who sets an obnoxiously impossible reading goal for each year—I would only be disappointed come December when I realize how slow I’ve been—but I do keep track of my finished books each year. Of all the forty I finished in 2023, Of Human Bondage (initially published in 1915) rises to the top. Although not technically an autobiographical novel, author W. Somerset Maugham has admitted to drawing heavily from his own life to inspire the main character, Philip. An epic novel, the story follows Philip through the first thirty or so years of his life as he searches for the meaning of it all. Part of what makes the book so memorable to me is not only the slightly philosophical nature of Philip’s thoughts but also the relatable feeling of getting beat down by life only to scrounge up the grit to get to your feet again to fight another day. A life beginning in hardship—in the death of his mother on the first few pages—eventually ends with mature, content happiness.


During his schoolboy and teenager years, Philip is bullied relentlessly for his foot deformity, and he feels distinctly friendless at every turn. Even those whom he befriends here or there do not seem to last beyond the end of the school term. This only grows worse when he enters young adulthood and feels unwanted in the romantic sphere, too. He perceives himself as “Somebody Nobody Wants," which is the title of a song by Dion. He spends time in Germany and France, all the while “[sitting] up in [his] lonely room” and wondering why “life [treats him] so wrong."


In fact, this only grows worse when he returns to England, only to find himself soon obsessed with a waitress named Mildred. Mildred wants nearly nothing to do with him and takes all of his affections for granted. She even states that she goes to dinner with him only for the sake of a free meal. Philip is painfully aware of her icy indifference, and thus he “hates [himself] for loving [her]” for how she treats him. As the speaker claims in the song “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Mildred leaves Philip “hanging” as she cancels plans and runs around with other men without a care for the man she is hurting. He realizes he should “break free” of her effect—that he doesn’t actually like her much when he’s not blinded by attraction and affection—but he cannot.


Even when he helps care for her baby—whom he is not the father of—she treats him with thinly veiled contempt. He shoulders her rent, buys her copious amounts of gifts, and feeds her and her baby without complaint, even though he himself is struggling with poverty. He is lost, looking for the metaphorical escape to "America," the main symbol for contentment and happiness in the song (of the same title) by Simon & Garfunkel. He speaks to her and asks for her advice, only to be met with a deaf ear like “she was sleeping.” He loses his job, and, finally unable to support Mildred, she runs off with her child. It takes many years for Philip to remove himself from his young love, even in his memories.



While impoverished to the point of starving, Philip becomes acquainted with a kindly, boisterous family by the name of Athelny. The Athelnys take him under their wing, and he realizes that the pursuit of eternal or infallible happiness is perhaps impossible to satisfy, and he settles with the family with a new mindset. The final song for this book is “KICK” by INXS, which itself exemplifies this new outlook; he realizes that “sometimes you kick / sometimes you get kicked,” and all you can do is take the world as it is. He ends the novel by “[making] peace” with himself and his life, signifying how he has matured into a thoughtful adult from a dreamy-eyed child.


I think about this book frequently, even though I finished it months ago. The story sticks with you, and Philip feels like a good friend—perhaps even a brother—whom you watch grow up right before your eyes. A story about contentment and life in general, I found a lot to relate to in the story, despite being over one hundred years old. Some themes never die, I suppose. 


Runner-ups: “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana’; “Hard Times” by Paramore

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