The Moon and Sixpence

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This article is about the novel. For the film adaptation, see The Moon and Sixpence (film).
The Moon and Sixpence
The Moon and Sixpence.jpg
Cover of the first UK edition
Author William Somerset Maugham
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Biographical novel
Publisher William Heinemann
Publication date
1919
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 263 pp
OCLC 22207227

The Moon and Sixpence is a novel by W Somerset Maugham, told in episodic form by a first-person narrator, in a series of glimpses into the mind and soul of the central character Charles Strickland, a middle-aged English stockbroker, who abandons his wife and children abruptly to pursue his desire to become an artist. The story is said to be loosely based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel is written largely from the point of view of the narrator, who is first introduced to Strickland through the latter's wife. Strickland strikes him (the narrator) as unremarkable. Certain chapters entirely comprise stories or narrations of others, which the narrator recalls from memory (selectively editing or elaborating on certain aspects of dialogue, particularly Strickland's, as Strickland is said by the narrator to be limited in his use of verbiage and tended to use gestures in his expression).

Strickland is a well-off, middle-class stockbroker in London sometime in late 19th or early 20th century. Early in the novel, he leaves his wife and children and goes to Paris. He lives a destitute but defiantly content life there as an artist (specifically a painter), lodging in run-down hotels and falling prey to both illness and hunger. Strickland, in his drive to express through his art what appears to continually possess and compel him on the inside, cares nothing for physical discomfort and is indifferent to his surroundings. He is generously supported, while in Paris, by a commercially successful but hackneyed Dutch painter, Dirk Stroeve, a friend of the narrator's, who immediately recognises Strickland's genius. After helping Strickland recover from a life-threatening condition, Stroeve is repaid by having his wife, Blanche, abandon him for Strickland. Strickland later discards the wife; all he really sought from Blanche was a model to paint, not serious companionship, and it is hinted in the novel's dialogue that he indicated this to her and she took the risk anyway. Blanche then commits suicide – yet another human casualty in Strickland's single-minded pursuit of art and beauty; the first ones being his own established life and those of his wife and children.

After the Paris episode, the story continues in Tahiti. Strickland has already died, and the narrator attempts to piece together his life there from recollections of others. He finds that Strickland had taken up a native woman, had two children by her, one of whom dies, and started painting profusely. We learn that Strickland had settled for a short while in the French port of Marseilles before traveling to Tahiti, where he lived for a few years before finally dying of leprosy. Strickland left behind numerous paintings, but his magnum opus, which he painted on the walls of his hut before losing his sight to leprosy, was burnt after his death by his wife per his dying orders.

Inspiration[edit]

The inspiration for this story, Gauguin, is considered to be the founder of primitivism in art. The main differences between Gauguin and Strickland are that Gauguin was French rather than English, and whilst Maugham describes the character of Strickland as being largely ignorant of his contemporaries in Modern art, as well as largely ignorant of other artists in general, Gauguin himself was well acquainted with and exhibited with the Impressionists in the 1880s and lived for a while with Van Gogh in southern France.

About the title[edit]

According to some sources, the title, the meaning of which is not explicitly revealed in the book, was taken from a review of Of Human Bondage in which the novel's protagonist, Philip Carey, is described as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet."[1] According to a 1956 letter from Maugham, "If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don't look up, and so miss the moon."

Adaptations[edit]

The book was made into a film of the same name directed and written by Albert Lewin. Released in 1942, the film stars George Sanders as Charles Strickland.

The novel served as the basis for an opera, also titled The Moon and Sixpence, by John Gardner to a libretto by Patrick Terry; it was premiered at Sadlers Wells in 1957.[2]

Writer S Lee Pogostin adapted it for American TV in 1959. This production starred Laurence Olivier, with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in supporting roles.

In popular culture[edit]

In the opening scene of François Truffaut's cinematic adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, several firemen are preparing books for burning. In the crowd of onlookers is a little boy who picks up one of the books and thumbs through it before his father takes it from him and throws it on the pile with the rest. That book is The Moon and Sixpence.

The book was mentioned in Agatha Christie's mystery (Hercule Poirot series) novel Five Little Pigs, when Poirot asks one of the suspects (Angela Warren) if she read the book at the time the crime was committed.

The book was also mentioned frequently in Stephen King's 1998 novel Bag of Bones.

Ray Noble's 1932 dance band hit "We've Got the Moon and Sixpence", sung by Al Bowlly, takes its name from the book.

See also[edit]

Mario Vargas Llosa's 2003 novel The Way to Paradise is also based on Paul Gauguin's life.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ see, e.g. Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, eds, W. Somerset Maugham, The Critical Heritage Routledge, 1987, p10.
  2. ^ [1]

External links[edit]