A Defeat Better Than Many Victories

“A Defeat Better Than Many Victories”

Because that is what, at the end, life is about. And what better time to learn this simple truth, than these the worst years of all. For it is in the victories which you so desperately seek that you will find only your devastation, and that, through the terrible destruction of others. Yes, it is only through your defeat that you will find your victory; the defeat of petty prejudices, of carefully drawn utopias, of epic feats and fits of imagination that will lead you to the poorhouse. All that which makes life miserable – juxtaposed this most dreadful of years against the simplicity of caring for your little boy, creating a cushion for him lest he realize the raging world that burns around and the delicately thin bubble of childhood is popped, rending asunder his right to live as he is now, a life which he has been given and which we have no right to take from him. Yes, the simple defeats – the defeat of happiness’s pursuit against contentment and peace; the defeat of ambition against the understanding of our place in the world, though we wish it were not so; the defeat of lust gazing solemnly at the silent duty of matrimony.

This is all what “Of Human Bondage” by W. Somerset Maugham is about. It is about a bondage that liberates, but only when we accept it; a bondage that will set us free as we come to terms with the utopian idealism of youth, and quietly set it aside for the glorious reality of defeat. For in the defeat of these pretensions, only that is where we find lasting victory. The novel is of course Maugham’s best work, his lasting opus. The story of Philip Carey, born to tragedy – a deformity, orphaned from birth, alone and unloved. A coming of age story, of how Carey advanced and grew, of his many mistakes – how he managed insecurities, his fits and bursts at ambition that left him empty, his disastrous experiments with passionate love that left him destitute. About poverty, the special kind of middle-class poverty of Edwardian England where success and failure balanced upon a knife’s edge of chance and opportunity.

I don’t know why Maugham did not win a Nobel prize for this, the greatest feat of literature of the Edwardian era. This was a novel which I read the first time twenty years ago and which sharply honed the empathy which I still enjoy to this day, that I have returned to in days of pandemic not to find it trite or simplistic or vulgar as we so often do of the literature of our youth, but in fact with a deeper sense of meaning; a more significant depth of life and more pressing lessons for our times than I ever would have thought possible. If I could, I would force each American to read this novel – it would change them forever, as it did me. And that would not be a bad thing; for America is full of Philip Careys, but without the wisdom imbued by a writer so great as W. Somerset Maugham.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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5 Responses to A Defeat Better Than Many Victories

  1. Humdee Dee says:


    Thank you for this post and your thoughts on the meaning of this great story. I’ve seen the movie, but never read the book, but it is now in my e-book library. I always enjoy your reviews. You have led me to some wonderful books. I bought your novel “I, Charles,from the Camps” which I am looking forward to reading, and from which I anticipate learning a great deal.

    Thank you for broadening my horizons.

    All the best😊


    On Tue, Mar 16, 2021 at 3:43 AM Joel D. Hirst’s Blog wrote:

    > Joel D. Hirst posted: ” “A Defeat Better Than Many Victories” Because that > is what, at the end, life is about. And what better time to learn this > simple truth, than these the worst years of all. For it is in the victories > which you so desperately seek that you will find only” >


    • Thank you Lynda!! You’ve made a wise choice (on Human Bondage not necessarily I, Charles jajajaja) – but seriously, this is just an extraordinary novel at all levels. I plan to re-read in 20 years, again, to see how I have changed, because like all good literature Human Bondage will remain a constant). Do let me know what you think of I, Charles. I wrote it as an ultimate act of empathy after a decade in 5 African civil wars – its not an easy read, I’m afraid, but represents for me a long, long time of sadness – which cannot be compared to the sadness of those who still live in the camps.


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