an autobiographical novel by Maugham, W. Somerset.
Somerset is a great writer. His plot flows smoothly, his descriptions are vivid and his characters are real people of flesh and blood. They are not caricatures and at the end of the book one wants to meet with Philip. Minor characters are introduced and done away with when they are no longer useful so creatively that one only realizes this after several chapters. It is a book that is hard to put down and not good to start when you have work to do.
He tells us the story of Philip Carey orphaned as a boy. Philip was born with a deformity which will affect his life sometimes in almost tragic ways but also help him to have such a deeper understanding of human nature. After the death of his mother, he is left to the care of his uncle W. Carey who is a clergyman at Blackstable parish and aunt Louisa who are childless.
His early education involves preparing him for work as a minister. On one of the school holidays, he inquired of his uncle if it the words of the promise of Jesus,
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am
were true to which the uncle responded in the affirmative. Philip decides to pray to have god heal his club foot. This should be easier than moving mountains you reckon. When after a month nothing happens, he confronts his uncle who does not give him a satisfactory answer. He doesn’t seem too pleased but lets it pass.
At the time that Philip was to go to Oxford to undertake studies in theology, he tells his uncle he is not going. By this time Philip no longer believed in god. He opts to go to London to apprentice as an accountant, a job he soon discovers he isn’t tailored for. After 6 months, he gives up this pursuit and tells his uncle he feels he can paint and draw. He goes to France where he meets with Fanny, Lawson, Cronshaw and Hayward a group of people with whom we will see his life revolve around for almost the rest of the book.
Fanny is a student in the art class who is hated by everyone. Philip tells us she has no talent and does not understand why she keeps trying. She must have fallen in love with Philip. She hangs herself either because she was so poor or because the words of M. Foinet who told her plainly she was wasting her time.
To Philip, after M. Foinet told him he had no talent, he added
There is nothing so degrading as the constant anxiety about one’s means of livelihood. I have nothing but contempt for the people who despise money. They are hypocrites or fools. Money is like a sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. Without an adequate income half the possibilities of life are shut off. The only thing to be careful about is that you do not pay more than a shilling for the shilling you earn.
After 2 years in Paris, Philip has also realized he is not made for art. He can’t draw nor paint properly. This time however wasn’t wasted. It is during the stay in France and the evening discussions they held in the taverns with Cronshaw and the others that he arrived at the conclusion that life is meaningless. This moment was so profound to him, as it should be to all of us, that a meaningless life had no more sting. He was happy. He was almost free. His first freedom had come at the moment he concluded there was no god. This marked a second great moment in his life. HE also learnt to appreciate colour, lines and beauty.
Their discussions were varied and interesting. They covered several aspects of human life. For example while having beer one evening, they were having a discussion about art and Cronshaw says
What you are here for I don’t know, It is no business of mine, But art is a luxury. Men attach importance only to self-preservation and the propagation of their species. It is only when these instincts are satisfied that they consent to occupy themselves with the entertainment which is provided for them by writers, painters and poets.
Cronshaw continues to say
Art is merely the refuge which the ingenious have invented, when they were supplied with food and women, to escape the tediousness of life.
Elsewhere Cronshaw tells him
The illusion which man has that his will is free is so deeply rooted that I am ready to accept it. I act as though I were a free agent. But when an action is performed it is clear that all the forces of the universe from all eternity conspired to cause it, and nothing I could do could have prevented it. It was inevitable. If it was good I can claim no merit, if it was bad I can accept no censure.
There are several such conversations between the group of friends.
Our hero returns to London after quitting art to try his hand in medicine. He meets Mildred, a waiter who for reason we will never he fell so madly in love with that regardless of what humiliation he suffered in her hands, he still loved her. He was a hero for love.
He drops out of medical school in his fourth year after he lost some money and for 2 years he waited patiently for his uncle to die. He couldn’t understand why the man of god held so hard to a life that was no longer worth living. Why didn’t he go to heaven to meet with his maker sooner or did he at that last moment realize all this was in vain and that he was only certain of life on this side of death. It is an interesting question I guess.
Finally we meet the family of Athelny Thorpe who Philip makes friends with and with who he spends most of his days when he is not working at the hospital. We meet their daughter Sally who Philip marries at the close of the book and we can only hope they lived happily ever after.