The Moon and Sixpence
Cover of the first UK edition
|Author||William Somerset Maugham|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
The Moon and Sixpence is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham first published in 1919. It is 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 in part based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin.
The novel is written largely from the point of view of the narrator, a young, aspiring writer and playwright in London. Certain chapters entirely comprise accounts of events by other characters, 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 have a very poor ability to express himself in words). The narrator first develops an acquaintance with Strickland's wife at literary parties, and later meets Strickland himself, who appears to be an unremarkable businessman with no interest in his wife's literary or artistic tastes.
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. (The narrator enters directly into the story at this point, when he is asked by Mrs Strickland to go to Paris and talk with her husband.) 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 helped and supported by a commercially successful but hackneyed Dutch painter, Dirk Stroeve (coincidentally, also an old friend of the narrator's), who recognises Strickland's genius as a painter. After helping Strickland recover from a life-threatening illness, 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 casualties 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 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.
The life of the French artist Paul Gauguin is the inspiration for the story, however the character of Strickland as a solitary, sociopathic and destructive genius is more related to a mythological version of Gauguin's life, which the artist himself developed and promoted, than the actual course of the artist's life. The real Gauguin was a participant in the artistic developments in France in the 1880s, exhibiting his work regularly with the Impressionists, and having friendships and collaborations with many artists. Gauguin did work as a stockbroker, did leave his wife and family to devote his life to art, and did leave Europe for Tahiti to pursue his career; however none of this happened in the brutal way of the novel's character. Maugham takes inspiration from the published writings by and about Gauguin available at the time (as well as a personal visit to Tahiti in 1914), and creates Strickland as an extreme version of the "modern artist as 'genius'", indifferent and frequently hostile to the people around him.
Amy Dickson contrasts the novel's description of Strickland, "His faults are accepted as the necessary complement of his merits... but one thing can never be doubtful, and that is that he had genius," with Gauguin's description of himself, "I am an artist and you are right, you're not mad, I am a great artist and I know it. It's because I know it that I have endured such sufferings. To have done otherwise I would consider myself a brigand -- which is what many people think I am." Dickson sums up the novel as follows: "Maugham was fascinated by the impact of the arrival of modernism from Europe on an insular British consciousness and the emergence of the cult of the modernist artist-genius -- The Moon and Sixpence is at once a satire of Edwardian mores and a Gauguin biography."
About the title
According to some sources, the title, the meaning of which is not explicitly revealed in the book, was taken from a review of Maugham's novel 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." 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." Maugham's title echoes the description of Gauguin by his contemporary biographer, Meier-Graefe (1908): "He [Gauguin] may be charged with having always wanted something else."
The book was made into a stage play in 1925 at the New Theatre with Henry Ainley as Strickland and Eileen Sharp as Ata and a film of the same name directed and written by Albert Lewin. Released in 1942, the film stars George Sanders as Charles Strickland.
In popular culture
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. It is also mentioned frequently in Stephen King's 1998 novel Bag of Bones and in passing in his 2015 novel Finders Keepers.
- Amy Dickson, Gauguin: A very British reception in B. Thompson (ed.), Gauguin: Maker of Myth, Tate Publishing, 2010, pp. 68-9.
- Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, eds, W. Somerset Maugham, The Critical Heritage, Routledge, 1987, p.10.
- Amy Dickson, Gauguin: A very British reception in B. Thompson (ed.), Gauguin: Maker of Myth, Tate Publishing, 2010, p. 68.
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