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Of Human Bondage [Abridged] by W. Somerset…

Of Human Bondage [Abridged] (1950)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage

Pocket Books, Paperback, 1963.

12mo. vii+373 pp. Giant Cardinal Edition. With a new introduction [v-vii] by the author especially written for this abridged edition.

First published by Doran, 1915.
This abridged edition first published by Pocket Books, 1950.
22nd printing, 1963.


This is not a review of the novel but of this particular edition.

Let me first lay my cards on the table. I am an implacable enemy of abridged and adapted editions. The latter are completely indefensible. As soon as you adapt a classic, it is no longer a classic and therefore not worth wasting time with. For the former I do make an occasional exception, but even then only as an appetizer. Before confronting the complete Decline and Fall or Der Ring des Nibelungen, it is advisable to read a few random chapters or listen to some highlights. No reasonable reader could be expected to start a journey of 3000 pages or 15 hours of music without first consulting an “abridged edition”. All the same, if you are seriously interested, you have to read the whole. This is the case with Of Human Bondage, too. The novel has often been accused of being too long and too diffuse, but only by people, one can be sure, who didn’t read it carefully.[1] Not one of its 122 chapters is superfluous.

I am disappointed with Maugham’s decision to abridge the novel. By rough estimations, he cut nearly half of it.[2] In his preface, he tries to explain why he did it but he is not terribly convincing. He goes into unnecessary detail about the difficulties of serial publication Dickens and Balzac had to cope with or about the influence of the zeitgeist on authors and their works. Almost in the next sentence he admits that in his case neither much mattered. More interesting reasons are Maugham’s pardonable vanity to put the book “within the reach of every pocket” and especially his claim that it may contain “passages or episodes which are of too personal a nature to be of general interest or which owing to the passage of time or a change of fashion no longer have much point.” All classics contain such passages, usually a lot of them. But they require annotation, not abridgment. On the other hand, I must admire Maugham for doing without hesitation the same thing with his most famous work as with ten acknowledged classics by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Fielding, Dickens, Melville, Emily Brönte and Jane Austen.[3]

Spoilers ahead!

The abridgement is carefully done. Maugham didn’t use a hatchet or even scissors. Reminding us that he was a qualified surgeon, he took the scalpel and did the cutting stylishly. Sometimes whole chapters are dispensed with, but more often only separate paragraphs, or parts of them, are omitted.[4] Occasionally even single sentences are split and slightly revised to fit the new context. I cannot help feeling that now and then Maugham also had some fun. He leaves the first sentence of Chapter 15 (“The King's School at Tercanbury, to which Philip went when he was thirteen, prided itself on its antiquity.”), but then skips the rest of the opening paragraph with the illustrious history of the school and switches directly to the first sentence of the next: “The masters had no patience with modern ideas of education…”. This is charming.[5]

If you know only this edition, I don’t think you will have (m)any problems with continuity. The story is pretty much complete. But who cares about the story? It is the characters that make a great novel. This is where the abridged version falls very short of the original. The characters in general – and Philip in particular, of course – have lost a great deal of depth. Their growth and development may well seem sketchy and unconvincing to the reader ignorant of the complete version. For instance, the humiliation Philip suffers in school because of his club-foot is much shortened. Philip’s momentous discovery of books and the first signs of his disenchantment with religion are completely omitted. In addition to being vintage Maugham, these passages are of great importance for the formation of Philip’s character:

Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.
[Chapter 9.]

Philip got up and knelt down to say his prayers. It was a cold morning, and he shivered a little; but he had been taught by his uncle that his prayers were more acceptable to God if he said them in his nightshirt than if he waited till he was dressed. This did not surprise him, for he was beginning to realise that he was the creature of a God who appreciated the discomfort of his worshippers.
[Chapter 11.]

These are minor instances. Let me give you a few big ones. The most notable missing episode from Philip’s time in school is his friendship with Rose, an experience hardly less humiliating than the bullying by schoolmates and masters. The Heidelberg bliss is badly damaged, too: of ten chapters (22-31) dedicated to it in the original, no fewer than seven (23-25, 27-30) are skipped here. This leads to the non-existence of some of Philip’s teachers like Wharton and Monsieur Ducroz, both of them minor but unforgettable characters. Astonishingly, the vital chapter (28) in which Philip finally breaks with religion is completely omitted! The Parisian interlude (40-51) suffers just as badly. Five complete chapters (41-2, 44-5, 49) and a good deal of the others are cut, among them everything about Cronshaw, including his momentous conversation with Philip in chapter 45, the touching reunion in London later (82-85) and Philip’s discovery of the meaning of life (106). All these chapters aren’t just a bunch of “vintage Maugham” passages. They are essential for the development of Philip’s complex personality, his extreme sensitivity, his ridiculous self-consciousness, his masochistic passion for self-analysis, his pathologically intellectual make-up (cf. Hamlet), his elaborate hypocrisy, his morbid fear of humiliation, his sarcastic tongue, his outrageous egotism, his depressions, his loneliness, his callousness, his cruelty, his unexpected bouts of compassion, generosity and magnanimity.

It would be tedious to enumerate the episodes which are retained in a heavily mutilated form that hardly does them justice. Virtually everything should be included in the list. The everyday life at the vicarage, the conversations of Weeks and Hayward in Heidelberg, the affair with Miss Wilkinson, the suicide of Fanny Price, the Parisian friendships with Lawson and Clutton, the medical studies in London, Athelny’s Spanish influence over Philip, his work as a “shop-walker”, his obstetric practice in the slums (vividly drawn from life, no doubt), etc., etc., etc. All these, too, are essential. So are a number of passages about Philip’s philosophical outlook (chapters 45, 53, 106), but these are omitted as well – rightly so, for they make no sense without Cronshaw. But Philip Carey is much less interesting a character if he is not tormented by the search for the meaning of life and elated when discovering there isn’t one.

Philip’s disastrous relationship with Mildred is relatively uncut, but that’s a double-edged weapon. Compared to the original, it is unduly prominent and less convincing. Of course this is the crux of the novel, Maugham spares no effort to make it believable and you need to read the whole thing to appreciate that. But it looms nowhere near as large in the full version. Indeed, Mildred does not appear at all in the first 54 chapters: she occupies a prominent place only in 25 of the last 68. True, her despicable character or the consequences of her actions might obsess Philip’s mind or influence his actions in her absence, but only among a multitude of other incidents and influences.

Personally, I find it difficult to think of anything I would like to cut from this novel. On reading it again more than six years later, I was somewhat surprised to find it just as compulsively readable and perfectly constructed as ever. And just as affecting, exasperating and shattering.

To cut the long story short, here is the bottom line. If you want to read Of Human Bondage, I urge you to forget this abridged edition. It is a faint and blurred image of the original, never mind that it was made, or at least sanctioned, by the author himself. If you are not ready to commit yourself to reading the whole thing, you might as well not read it at all. As Maugham well said, there is no obligation to read a work of fiction. Except, one might add, in the perverse system of modern education; but that’s another story.

[1] Even John Whitehead, one of the few critics sympathetic to Maugham, could write nonsense like this: “inside [Of Human Bondage] a shorter and better novel is wildly signalling to be let out.” He goes as far as to observe that “for the most part the Paris chapters […] are extraneous to the main narrative”. What kind of superficiality and downright misrepresentation we are talking about could be divined from Mr Whitehead’s claim that Fanny Price commits suicide “when convinced she will never be a first-rate painter” and his endnote that Maugham “made better use of” this “theme” in the short story “The Alien Corn”. See Maugham: A Reappraisal, Barnes and Noble, 1987, pp. 74, 78-79.
[2] Let me try to give some quantitative idea of these rough estimations. I have compared the Giant Cardinal with a copy from Heinemann’s Collected Edition published in October 1938. The compact size belies its 941 pages. The abridged edition is more closely printed, but this is by far the less important reason for its miserable 373 pages. For example, the first four chapters are complete in both editions. They take 14 pages in the Giant Cardinal and 18 in the Heinemann volume. This makes for, roughly, 30 percent size reduction due to printing differences. Therefore, the abridged version would be about 485 pages long if printed as loosely as the Heinemann’s. 485 X 2 = 970.
[3] See Great Novelists and Their Novels (1948) or its revised and augmented version Ten Novels and Their Authors (1954).
[4] For the record, here is a list with the chapters that are completely omitted (5-7, 9, 11, 19, 23-25, 27-30, 37, 41-42, 44-45, 49, 60-62, 67, 81-85, 94, 104-105, 107-108, 110, 113-114) or in some way shortened (12-13, 15-18, 21, 32-35, 38, 40, 43, 47-48, 50, 52-59, 64-66, 72-73, 76-80, 86, 88-89, 91-93, 95-97, 100-101, 103, 106, 111-112, 116-119, 121-122). Keep in mind that the degree of abridgement varies greatly: from a single paragraph omitted to a single paragraph retained. Of course, all other chapters, 30 of them to be exact, are the ones retained complete: 1-4, 8, 10, 14, 20, 22, 26, 31, 36, 39, 46, 51 (without the first sentence), 63, 68-71, 74-75, 87, 90, 98-99, 102, 109, 115, 120.
[5] To be precise, there is no evidence that it was Maugham himself who made the abridgment. I have simply assumed that he did, or at any rate corrected and approved of the final result. ( )
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