Critical Evaluation

The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham’s first novel after his long, autobiographical masterpiece, Of Human Bondage (1915), marks an important break in style and narrative technique. Instead of being a bildungsroman such as Of Human Bondage, the novel portrays the adult life of a genius. The title refers to a saying about a man gazing so intently on the moon that he fails to see the sixpence lying at his feet. Influenced by the life of Paul Gauguin, the French artist, the novel tells of Charles Strickland, whose talent as a painter remains long hidden even from himself. A forty-year-old English stockbroker leading a colorless life, Strickland decides to abandon everything he has known in pursuit of art. He represents the eccentric genius who defies social and moral conventions in pursuit of creativity.

Maugham structures the plot into three major episodes, which from internal evidence can be dated approximately 1897, 1902, and 1917. The first, set in London, introduces the protagonist, his socialite wife, and his children. Strickland’s middle-class family is soon broken by his abrupt and seemingly inexplicable decision to become an artist. The London setting—with its upscale apartments, dinner parties, and drawing room conversations—is the conventional one for social comedy, especially for Maugham’s earlier dramas. The second section, set in Paris, introduces the mediocre painter Dirk Stroeve and his wife, Blanche, whose friendship with Strickland leads to disastrous consequences. The narrative introduces the reader to the Bohemian life in Paris, where Strickland is learning to paint. The third section, which takes place in Tahiti, portrays the exotic setting that marked many of Maugham’s later stories and novels. From an assortment of characters who knew Strickland, the narrator learns details of his last years. A return to London for a final interview with Strickland’s wife forms an ironic epilogue.

Within the context of Maugham’s work, the novel effects a transition between the comic settings of his earlier writing and the exotic settings of the later stories and novels. Significantly, the loosely related episodes are united by the narrative voice, a Maugham persona reminiscent of earlier novels and stories. In later works, he becomes Willie Ashenden or Mr. Maugham. A successful author, this character is primarily but not entirely autobiographical. His interests and attitudes are usually those of Maugham, and details of his life often...

(The entire section is 1026 words.)