“Of Human Bondage” and its trove of… parenting wisdom?

One reads the classics because

Actually, I won’t presume to know why anyone else reads a classic novel.*

Having long since passed the stage of life wherein, to quote the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine:”

…I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free

Very much in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling, but with deep regard for the great investment of time and energy—of inestimable value!—into the bettering of my mind by more than my fair share of gifted teachers, I remain a student, if not a scholar, and a committed autodidact.

For this reason—and because I suffer from an oscillation between stultifying malaise and desperate, yearning agitation when I don’t have a good book at hand, preferably with a few more queued upI read and re-read the classics.

book novel Of Human Bondage coverLast month, I embarked upon the reading of W. Somerset Maugham‘s hefty tome, Of Human Bondage.

The wholly inadequate summary of the novel in the library catalogue says:

“The story of a deformed youth whose handicap causes loneliness.”

I would laugh if such a shallow skimming over of the depth of this story didn’t leave me wanting to sob. It’s almost a caricature of the isolation and lack of understanding that torments Phillip, Of Human Bondage‘s orphaned protagonist, during his youth.

With little interest in literary criticism, let me come directly to what moved me so deeply as I worked my way—slowly, because it deserved thorough attention—through this weighty novel:

Phillip needed a caregiver.

He really could have used a mother. He flailed because being orphaned left him to learn for himself what most of us are taught by even mediocre parents.

He was born with a less than stellar internal compass for interpreting the giving and receiving of any kind of love. He wasn’t what we might call today a “people person.” He was one of those kids who most need explicit help to interpret the social world, and take a full role within it.

Reading Of Human Bondage made the importance of the part I can play in my sons’ lives more unequivocal to me than ever before. I should be mature enough not to doubt it; I remain insecure enough that I do.

I’m grateful that I didn’t read Maugham’s masterpiece as a student.

I believe that, in my youth, I would’ve found the protagonist foolish and fundamentally unsympathetic. He brought so much pain upon himself! As a girl with a loving family, I wouldn’t have understood Phillip very well. I might even have been one of his tormentors, if not intentionally.

But now, I am a mother; I am a mother of sons.

I have watched the way a child is born with his own temperament, and his own tendencies, regardless of parentage or nurturing. I don’t discount the value of a good nurture, but I also find it obvious that some traits are innate.

We come into this world set up to encounter our own preordained batch of struggles. Some of our tendencies can be mitigated with input from caring adults or wiser peers, but certain kinds of issues will recur for each of us as we learn and grow.

Some of our weaknesses can be overcome; some of them are destined to remain with us until we die.

I’ve grown more sympathetic to characteristics that seem to be, statistically speaking, more commonly male. I have a better understanding of the unique needs of boys because I have made a study of my own sons during so many hours with them and their male friends.

Mothering sons provided me with insight into Of Human Bondage that I wouldn’t have had before. Reading the novel offered me clues for ways I can empathize with young men, and justification for working hard toward the same. Perhaps, now, I am also empowered to help my sons, or other men, more in the future.

I am a feminist, and a committed egalitarian. I would strike down every barrier to full participation in civic life for all people, if I could. What I won’t do is ignore realities that show a rich variety of human strengths and weaknesses; I can’t pretend that one size fits all. Not in education; not in interpersonal relationships; not in work or even play.

We trivialize what is great about humanity when we propose dangerously simple solutions to infinitely complex problems. Averages can be used to allocate resources, but they rarely help us teach any individual child. Children must be viewed as individuals and individually understood before they can be effectively taught. Maugham’s novel brilliantly illustrates this fact.

When I open up my expectations from that which I know to best suit myself to that which I perceive can best suit another, I become a better person. I can do more good. I can make the world a slightly better place.

Read Of Human Bondage and see what it has to offer you.

*I would, however, be delighted to hear from you on the subject in the comments! Why do you read the classics?

2 thoughts on ““Of Human Bondage” and its trove of… parenting wisdom?

  1. Why do you read the classics?
    I can honestly say that–after compulsory schooling–I have never read anything (chosen by myself, and not by a university reading list), for anything but interest and pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they have been anything but interesting and pleasurable, but those were the reasons I chose them 🙂

    Also, I couldn’t agree more with your in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling. Our curriculum was very big on classic literature, but not so big on interesting, engaging, or even particularly good, teachers. As a result I’ve revisited a lot of what I read in school (Shakespeare, Dickens, Arthur Miller, Orwell, Steinbeck), and found that I really rather enjoyed it after all.

    • Sometimes I read books because I have a knee jerk reaction *against* the premise. Not pop/pulp “journalism” usually, but more thoughtful academic or editorial content.

      I’m very opinionated and often blurt out said opinions. It seems wisest to keep my inputs varied to avoid becoming just another partisan puppet. That’s my usual reason for reading contrary to pleasure or interest!

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