The novel The Moon and Sixpence
by W. Somerset Maugham, was published in 1919. It is based loosely on the life of artist Paul Gauguin, who became famous for his paintings in the “primitive” style. The story is told through first-person narration in an episodic structure that follows the protagonist, Charles Strickland. The narrator is a character named Crabbe, who knew Strickland for a few years before he left his family and his job as a stockbroker in England to pursue his artistic interests. The story comprises Crabbe’s memories of Strickland, as well as those shared with him by people throughout Tahiti who knew Charles.
Through these tales, Crabbe is increasingly surprised that Charles is a genius with a paintbrush because he is widely regarded as having no talent. He is also considered anti-social. In fact, Crabbe has only met Charles through Mrs. Strickland. Back in London, Crabbe was a young writer—and one of Mrs. Strickland’s favorite pastimes was to host parties for writers. When Charles abandons his wife, she is certain he is having an affair.She sends Crabbe to Paris after him to ask him to come back home to her.
However, when Crabbe gets to Paris and finds Strickland, he learns that it is not another woman that has drawn him away from England, but rather his desire to paint. A year goes by and Crabbe decides to move to Paris. He befriends another artist, the painter Dirk, who knows of Strickland. Despite the fact that Strickland refuses to allow anyone to see his paintings—let alone to buy them—Dirk assures Crabbe that Strickland’s work is genius-quality.
Strickland falls ill, so Dirk decides that he will bring him to his own apartment, where he lives with his wife, Blanche. Blanche asks Dirk not to bring him there, but he does anyway. Strickland kicks Dirk out of his own painting studio and begins having an affair with Blanche, who informs Dirk she is leaving him for Strickland. Dirk is desperate to win back his wife’s affections despite the betrayal of both her and his colleague. However, after Strickland ends his relationship with Blanche, she takes her own life.
Crabbe admonishes Strickland for his actions and tells Strickland that he ought to feel tremendous guilt for what he did to Dirk and Blanche. Rather than apologize or show any remorse, Strickland shows Crabbe his artwork, though Crabbe finds his paintings to be unremarkable.
Months pass, in which Strickland lives in abject poverty, before he decides to set sail for Tahiti. There he settles, both into a home and a painting style. He enjoys his simple life, where he paints all day and his Tahitian wife, Ata, cares for him. Eventually, Strickland learns that he has leprosy, so he tries to get everyone to leave him. Ata refuses; she is determined to take care of him for the rest of his life, however short or long it may be. The leprosy takes Strickland’s eyesight, but not his vision—he paints a masterpiece depicting the jungle on the walls of his hut. After his death, Ata burns their hut down to destroy the disease, which unfortunately destroys his last painting.
An important theme driving this novel is the idea of the simple life versus prestige and respectability. Strickland eschews his lifestyle living and working in London and raising children with his wife, for poverty in France and ultimately a “primitive” lifestyle in Tahiti. He is far happier in Tahiti than he ever was in London, because he is exploring his passion—painting. This theme works on another level as well. Strickland’s paintings are considered by most in Europe and England to be childlike and lacking in refinement. However, in following his passion to Tahiti, he discovers that his work can be masterful.
Strickland is not the only character in The Moon and Sixpence
who gives up his life to pursue a new, simpler one. This decision brings up another theme, which is the idea of giving up everything in one’s life for a cause. For example, Captain Brunot feels the same way about creating an island paradise as Strickland does about painting. They are single-minded. But the men are not the only characters who leave everything behind. Blanche is ready to leave Dirk and their apartment, and the comforts therein, to live in poverty with Strickland. Ata decides that she will allow herself to be stigmatized as a leper or potential carrier of the disease, so she can stay with Strickland and care for him until his death. She is ready to give up living, literally, to be with him.
Beauty is not as big a theme as the simple life or giving up everything one has, but it does allow characters to be compared. For example, Mrs. Strickland considers Charles’ paintings to be beautiful, but only as decorative pieces. She does not see the same beauty he sees, the beauty of nature, or of truth. Dirk’s paintings are beautiful in the way that Mrs. Strickland sees beauty—that is, surface deep and meaningless. His view of beauty, that art must make the viewer experience what the artist experiences, offends Blanche because she believes he thinks her incapable of seeing real beauty. That difference reflects their relationship.