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The major theme of the novel is that the submission to passion is human bondage, while the exercise of reason is human liberty. Philip Carey loves Mildred passionately and, in trying to possess her, traps himself in her bondage. His freedom is curbed, his education is disrupted, and his fortune is lost. All his reasoning, power, and intelligence are eradicated by his passion for Mildred. On the other hand, when Philip thinks logically, he succeeds in achieving his goal. In Heidelberg, he learns not only languages but about life in general. In Paris, he learns to appreciate art, the value of life, and the beauty of nature. In London, after Mildred leaves him, he analyzes his emotions logically and overcomes his passion for her. He realizes that he has wasted his love on a person who did not understand his worth. Swept away by the heart, he had become unreasonable and thoughtless which brought him nothing but misery.
There are several minor Themes in the novel. The first is that inappropriate love can be destructive. In spite of her many weaknesses, Philip loves Mildred and showers his affection and money on her. He even sacrifices his education and limited resources to please her. In the process, Philip wastes the important years of his life following a woman who is not deserving of his love. It is definitely a destructive relationship for Philip, one that keeps him in bondage.
Another minor theme is that experience in life makes a person wiser. Philip profits from every event in his life and becomes stronger as a person. His stay in Heidelberg makes him realize the value of freedom and the narrow-mindedness of Christianity. Freedom allows him to see the beauty of nature and to question the value of religion. After a few months in London as an accountant, Philip travels to Paris to study art. While working as an artist in Paris, he discovers that he lacks real talent. He gives up art and chooses medicine as his career. His life as a medical student teaches him to study people closely and learn the hard facts of life. His wasted years with Mildred make him realize the value of money, freedom, and happiness.
Finally, Maugham tries to show how life and death are meaningless and of no consequence. When Philip observes the life of Hayward, Cronshaw, Fanny Price, and his own patients, he realizes that they are all rushing through life without achieving anything. He acknowledges the futility of living and the inconsequence of dying. It seems that after death, people are quickly forgotten. During the course of the novel Philip learns that he has to seek his own meaning in life.
The mood of the novel is serious, but not gloomy. Maugham, with irony and cynicism, presents the struggle of a lonely protagonist and the turmoil in his mind. Philip Carey suffers because of his handicap, his inferiority complex, and his tender heart; his suffering invokes a sense of pity in the reader. Maugham, however, does not allow the mood of the novel to turn gloomy. Philip's stay in Heidelberg and Paris and his life in London in the absence of Mildred are bright. The novel also ends on a cheerful note, for Philip has settled into his life and career and looks forward to the future with hope.