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Literature / Of Human Bondage

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Don't piss Bette Davis off.

Of Human Bondage is a 1915 novel, a classic bildungsroman by W. Somerset Maugham. Half autobiographical and half-fiction, it was ranked #66 on the list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. There are three different film adaptations, one in 1934, 1946, and 1964.

The story begins with Philip Carey as an orphan with an unfortunate club-foot who is taken in by his pious and strict vicar uncle and aunt and raised by them. After being sent to boarding school in his uncle's hopes of him getting a scholarship to Oxford there, Philip decides to take off to Germany and leave his cruel classmates and suffocating relatives behind. He studies German there and learns of fascinating viewpoints from his new friend Hayward and the eccentric boarders. He has his first fling there with an older woman, and soon after feels guilty and leaves to become an accountant in London. This work is miserable for him, and he gives up and instead decides to become a painter in Paris. There his views are even more shaped and distorted, and he meets a number of fascinating people - his mentors, his friends, and the unhappy woman who pines for him unrequited, Fanny Price. After tragedy and the realization of his lack of talent, he goes to London to study as a doctor like his father did - and meets the toxic waitress he falls madly in love with, Mildred. Mildred breaks his heart and he moves on to have an affair with Norah Nesbitt, but Mildred continues to come back to haunt him.

Does Philip find love and purpose by the end? Does he ever figure out what the wise old drunk meant about Persian rugs holding the meaning of life? You'll have to read all 600 pages to find out.

Of the three film adaptations, the most famous is the 1934 film starring Leslie Howard (Ashley in Gone with the Wind) and Bette Davis in her Star-Making Role as Mildred. Davis had to badger Warner Brothers, which had groomed her to be a sexpot Captain Ersatz of Jean Harlow, to loan her to RKO so she could play the part. It made her a huge star. It also created the first Award Snub controversy, when Davis, whom many people thought would win the Best Actress award, wasn't even nominated. The Academy then announced that write-in candidates would be allowed. Davis finished third in the balloting, as Claudette Colbert won for It Happened One Night.

Tropes related to the novel:

  • Graceful in Their Element: Phillip is actually a great swimmer, even before his club foot surgery.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Philip's (and Fanny Price's) attempt to become an artist carries this message: if you don't have talent, you'll never be a good artist, no matter how hard you try, and it's better to give up.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: Philip's attempts to become an artist come off as this; no matter how hard he tries, he is never be able to make his dream come true, so he eventually accepts this and gives up.
  • Inconvenient Attraction: Philip's obsession with Mildred. She's selfish, shallow, cruel and doesn't love him back, so their relationship brings him nothing but misery. Philip is perfectly aware of Mildred's faults and desperately wishes he could get rid of his feelings for her.
  • Old Maid: Ms. Wilkinson appears to be attractive enough to be at first, until Philip regrettably gets to see her up close...
  • Tragic Dream: Fanny Price is absolutely determined to become a painter - but she has no talent whatsoever. She refuses to admit this and continues to study painting, until she completely runs out of money and hangs herself after starving for three days.

Tropes related to the 1934 film:

  • Beauty Inversion: Invoked for drama by Bette Davis herself. Mildred dies of syphilis in the book and tuberculosis in the film. Davis designed her own make-up so Mildred would go out looking like someone who was seriously ill as opposed to "a deb who'd missed her afternoon nap."
  • Catchphrase: Mildred's is "I don't mind".
  • Incurable Cough of Death: When Mildred shows up at Phillip's again with a hacking cough, it's game over.
  • Informed Flaw: An artist rather bluntly tells Phillip he has no talent whatsoever. The paintings we see beg to disagree. Of course this is justified by the film's setting; impressionism was still catching on, and it would be a while before photography eliminated the need for realistic portraits. Thus Phillip's paintings look good to a modern eye.
  • Kubrick Stare: Mildred gives a bloodcurdling one while at dinner with Phillip. See the page illustration.
  • Lighter and Softer: Mildred is not quite so obviously a prostitute, although it's still pretty obvious. Her disease gets changed from syphillis to tuberculosis.
  • Love Martyr: Phillip takes a while to get over Mildred. He takes her back when she turns up pregnant after her relationship with Miller went sour. He takes her in yet again after Griffiths dumps her, although this time he just lets her live in his spare room.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Bette Davis struggles with a Cockney accent. In interviews she described the accent as particularly tricky, since Mildred was someone who would try to sound higher class than she actually is.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film concentrates exclusively on Phillip's relationship with Mildred, cutting out the first part of the book that deals with Phillip's childhood, education, and time as a struggling artist in Paris.
  • Really Gets Around: Mildred sleeps with half of London while accepting money and favors from Phillip. She even comes on to Griffiths while the three of them are out to dinner together.
  • Streetwalker: Mildred's sad fate.
  • Tantrum Throwing: When Phillip finally rejects her, Mildred flips out and wrecks his apartment, smashing his things, slicing up his paintings, and burning the bonds that were meant to finance his medical school tuition.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Phillip's three love interests. Maria is the child - special mention goes to how young and innocent she is. Nora is the wife - the most mature and sensible of the three. Mildred of course is the seductress - she's The Tease.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Where Mildred was hiding the love letter that Griffiths sent her.