Of Human Bondage, and the Lost Art of Melancholy

I caught an old black-and-white movie on cable TV last night, Of Human Bondage, based on the popular 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham and starring Leslie Howard as a tragically depressed young intellectual and Bette Davis as a flighty waitress who breaks his heart.

I didn’t expect or even want to spend two hours watching this movie, but I was drawn in by the lucid photography and exquisitely mannered acting of the 1934 drama, in which at least four people utterly fail to find love. Bette Davis’s sharp-tongued waitress is several steps below Leslie Howard’s crabby medical student on the social scale, and when he falls in love with her she suspects he’s slumming and subjects him to a painful regimen of indifference. He presses his pursuit, but it turns out she’s in love with an older and gruffer man who cares for her as little as she cares for our hero. To complete the never-ending chain of unrequited love, a timid but perfectly acceptable young romance magazine writer pines for Leslie Howard even as he pines for Bette Davis, and he rejects her as coldly as Davis rejects him. Bette Davis acts her heart out in this film, while Leslie Howard makes an impression mostly by staring into the camera with limpid wet eyes, a look of bitter sadness on his sensitive face (the noble passivity that so impressed Scarlett O’Hara when Howard played Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind is displayed here as a sign of weakness, and the character is unlovable).

A happy ending is tacked onto this film, but this ending is so forgettable as to barely register. The pattern of infinitely recursive longing for those who don’t love us (human bondage, indeed) is already firmly established, and the film’s ending serves only as a salve for the aching pain of its bleak message. This bleak message is also hammered home by Maugham’s novel, which covers a wider expanse of time (we meet Leslie Howard’s character as a child, and follow him further into adulthood) but does not have a larger emotional scope; melancholy is the message, and there is no meaning to the novel, or the film, beyond the naked fact of the depraved sadness of life.

What happened to the melancholy novel? This format once thrived, and authors like Thomas Wolfe and Theodore Dreiser built careers upon the construction of depressive plots featuring miserable characters who do depraved things and then feel sad about it. In fact, this genre dominated American fiction through the 1950’s, and both Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (melancholy on wheels) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (melancholy in Central Park) owe a lot to the tradition.

The melancholy novel is not completely dead today (not with Rick Moody around, anyway). But the days when major literary publications or expensive Hollywood films were regularly made to showcase the plaintive tones of life’s misery are gone; cinematic depressiveness is strictly indie territory, and the prevailing mood in contemporary fiction is much more frenetic and satirical. If you want to bathe yourself in the warm waters of pure unhappiness, your best bet is to fire up Turner Classic Movies and spend an evening with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Writers, filmmakers: let’s bring misery back to center stage where it belongs.

15 Responses

  1. as far as I can tellmisery is
    as far as I can tell

    misery is already very much alive and well and enjoying an active and lucrative career on stage. misery’s run has been longer and more infamous than Cats. misery would have loved to come and provide an interview to address this, but alas misery has been busy in the studio laying down the tracks for an upcoming collaboration with lil jon and britney spears. misery sent me here in its stead to reassure you that the rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.

  2. AffirmationMelancholy – that

    Melancholy – that is the feel I was trying to achieve/project with my novel A Voice Above The Din. (I purposely patterned the mood after On the Road and Catcher in the Rye.) Even the title is melancholy!

    I guess that explains why no mainstream publisher was interested in it!

    Melancholy is dead… but not with me.

    I never read Of Human Bondage but it’s now next on my list.

  3. oh to be in England…If
    oh to be in England…

    If you’re happy, melancholia and depression are things you might feel in passing, like tear-jerker movies about animals or crippled kids. If you’re sad sick suicidal, depressing subjects are flat out dangerous. Like – “I don’t do sad.” Anyway, I thought Sister Carrie was supposed to be upbeat, like the first realism novel where the naughty girl isn’t morally punished; but it’s been a few decades since I read that. Likewise I thought On the Road was pretty upbeat, like the first realism autobiographical account that was actually real, honest, not fakey shit. Granted, Holden Caulfield is sad, but his is an unrealistic idealism, like Ibsen’s “Brand.” (Did that play in New York? – it’s not very good). But the young Kerouac, while melancholy, always seems to have that eternal optimism of youth, which is a big part of his appeal. Perhaps overall your question is a reflection of the weltgeist. During the Depression, escapism was cool, and needed. I think we’re living in a period of emotional Depression, where we want to be distracted from it, not reminded of how bad the nightly news is (or in my case, just looking at that failure in the mirror).

  4. you never failto impress
    you never fail

    to impress me

    from jumping the shark to my pal joey now this

    I might have to get cable back now

    what’s the mood on the street about what’s happening at ground zero?

  5. Happiness SellsIt’s
    Happiness Sells

    It’s un-American to be unhappy.

  6. Well thanks, Um. The mood on
    Well thanks, Um.

    The mood on the street about Ground Zero — I assume you mean the mood in NY City? I have read some articles saying that the rebuilding is a complete mess, memorialists vs. capitalists vs. bureaucrats, etc. Honestly, I have never heard anyone talk about this — people here talk about the war in Iraq, the recovery of New Orleans, the stalled peace-process in the Middle East … all of these issues seem more important than the fate of the memorial site.

  7. Speaking of the depression, I
    Speaking of the depression, I can recommend another excellent black & white film adaptation of a classic book: The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford in 1940, based on the novel by John Steinbeck. You may have heard the name of the main character “Tom Joad” in songs by Rage Against the Machine and Bruce Springsteen.

  8. What about teenage angst? Or
    What about teenage angst? Or do the teens mainly turn to music for such expresions?

  9. MelancholyWould you consider

    Would you consider Banville’s “The Sea” a melancholy novel?

    As for melancholy films, try European movies. Apart from those that try to imitate Hollywood’s cartoon colours, they all are either melancholically comical, nostalgic and bizarre, or melancholically top-heavy, problematical and depressing, or melancholically political, historical and psycho-sociological. At least these are the reasons those who complain about people choosing Hollywood-happiness over European homemades present to explain the phenomenon.

  10. Bill, I think angst is
    Bill, I think angst is different from melancholy. Angst is usually about something, and is usually combined with anger, tension, worry. Melancholy just sits there.

  11. Good point — and yes,
    Good point — and yes, Banville does seem to fit the bill …

  12. When I lived in Italy, I was
    When I lived in Italy, I was very fond of the Ornella Muti films, and Italian movies in general (well, there was no US TV). So why didn’t Ornella get to be a big star in the US? I mean she did that one Buck Rogers thing, but wasn’t that enough for US TV to want to show all her credits?

  13. I have no idea why in the USA
    I have no idea why in the USA there is no real interest in European films and actors. Only very few make it across the pond, and those then are mostly not even dubbed but just subtitled. This makes them unnecessarily strenuous to watch (unless you speak the film’s language, in which case it can be quite interesting and enlightening) and gives them a certain highbrow taste, which, I am sure, keeps many from wanting to watch them.

  14. But that’s the essence of the
    But that’s the essence of the whole deal there Bill, I can’t watch past the part where they take Henry Fonda’s farm, ’cause then I wanna get my 12-gague and…yah can’t say that stuff in print. But I thought the book read kinda caricaturish, like a bad cartoon of what it was supposed to be. Now in Bound for Glory, Woodie/Caradine actually do rage against the machine.

  15. of human bondagewas made to
    of human bondage

    was made to read this long book in early high school but must say it was very compelling when read critically for discussion. teh movie you saw was dark and brooding in black and white the moods were easy to fall in and really feel the characters and good actors helped

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