Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*London. Capital of Great Britain in which the novel opens with several chapters satirizing the city’s domestic and literary worlds. Except for chance encounters in the streets, all the novel’s scenes are set in middle-class living rooms. Maugham’s London is a completely known world, in which original vision is impossible because everyone knows how they are supposed to behave, and, for the most part, do. Even the threats of the world—dullness, sarcastic insults, infidelity—are known, and may be dealt with. When Charles Strickland decides that he wants to paint and abandons his London home to do so, it is a scandal. Strickland goes to Paris, and the narrator is dispatched to bring him back, and to get rid of the supposed “other woman” his wife insists must have led him astray.
Strickland home. London home of Charles Strickland and his first wife, Amy, who attempts to advance her own ambitions as a hostess who supports the arts by hosting luncheon and dinner parties for rising writers. When the narrator visits Strickland’s home, he finds it “chaste, artistic, and dull” and reflects that there must be five hundred homes in London decorated exactly the same.
*Paris. Capital of France where Strickland settles in the Hôtel des Belges, a flophouse in which he lives in squalor. This place shows Strickland’s contradictory character. Although...
(The entire section is 995 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Maugham relies on his customary device of the narrator who has some contact with the primary character(s) of the story but who also depends on the revelations of others who knew or at least met the central person(s). In the case of The Moon and Sixpence, this strategy works very well. As the narrator tells what he knows or has heard, the reader gets a sense of reality, especially since the narrator is quick to say that he does not know everything, as one would not in real life. He does not claim to understand Strickland fully nor to grasp the essential genius of his work, except to say that it has a primitive quality that cannot fail to impress the viewer.
This point of view is perfect for such a novel, one based on the life and legend of a world-renowned artist. The omniscient point of view, for example, would have destroyed the effect of a realistic glimpse into the life of a peculiar genius. Maugham had studied the life of Gauguin, starting in Tahiti, and was fascinated by the story of this unusual artist. The author simplified the story considerably and altered many of the facts to suit his intention. The result was a novel that achieved a tremendous success on its publication, in 1919, when a war-weary world wanted an escapist tale of a person who defies society and runs away from duties and responsibilities. Using the retrospective technique gives the author the added advantage of speaking of the artist after his death, at a time when his...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Probably the first step in initiating a fruitful discussion would be to review the life and career of Paul Gauguin, with an eye to learning how much and in what ways Maugham deviated from the facts in order to create an effective novel. Attention could be paid to the important differences between the personalities of the real and the fictional artists. Some consideration could be given to whether Maugham played fair in his distortion of the realities of Gauguin's life for literary effect.
Since this novel was very popular when it first appeared, partly because of the setting in Tahiti, some thought could be given to the importance of location. The digression on Dr. Abraham might be offered as an example of what Maugham thought of the significance of setting. An examination of his own highly traveled life would also provide material for discussion. Maugham was probably the most widely traveled author in this century, but he settled (insofar as he came to a stop at all) in southern France.
Then, the whole matter of the author's implied attitude toward women and the state of marriage, and its effect upon the artist, could be the subject of lively discussions, particularly in terms of modern views of the matter. Of course, the salient question is whether Strickland's devotion to his art justifies his heartless treatment of other people. Wagner is a parallel example in music. Does genius deserve special privileges in dealing with the rest of...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
The social aspects of this novel are such as should be of great interest to current readers. Perhaps the most striking one, the place of the artist in society and his or her relationship to it, can be viewed as especially relevant in view of the contemporary disagreement over the responsibility of government to fund artists and artistic projects. Patronage, private and public, has existed in the arts for many years; however, many persons believe that the artist should take his or her chances with the public's taste. Few people would subscribe to Oscar Wilde's claim that the principal function of society is to support and encourage the artist.
In The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham presents an unusual personage as the "artist." Charles Strickland does not merely defy society, as other artists have done before; he simply ignores it. Based loosely on the career and life of Paul Gauguin, the novel creates an image of an artist who "drops out" of society completely. He not only does not expect support for his work; he just does not care if anyone likes it or not, nor does he feel any obligation toward the rest of humankind. When the narrator asks him, after Strickland has abandoned his wife and two children in order to develop his artistic achievement, whether he does not feel some responsibility to support his family, Strickland answers that he supported his wife for a long time; why should she now not support herself?
(The entire section is 1067 words.)
The roman a clef, the novel using real people as bases for characters with different names (and sometimes different qualities), is an old genre of fiction. An early example, Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey (1818), for example, satirizes Byron, Coleridge, and Shelley. Other titles, employing artists as the subjects, include Maugham's own Of Human Bondage and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). The Kunstlerroman genre (artist as suffering hero) is equally as well represented, particularly by a spate of works beginning at the turn of the century: Thomas Hardy's The Well-Beloved (1903), D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913; see separate entry), Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark (1915), Theodore Dreiser's The Genius (1915), and many more.
(The entire section is 117 words.)
Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, and Cakes and Ale (1930; see separate entry) are considered by several critics and literary historians as primarily or secondarily autobiographical works. Many of the details (such as Philip Carey's medical vocation and the literary vocation of the narrator and of Ashenden) of the author's life found their way into these novels. Also, many of the attitudes seen in them can be traced back to Maugham's own vision of people and of life in general. While he claimed to be simply telling the truth, a number of readers discover in his works a cynicism and occasionally a sense of melancholy that may have marked his life experience. After all, he did remark once that people were all right so long as they kept their distance, hated to be touched, and suffered an unsuccessful marriage that seems to have somewhat blighted his view of women and the marital state (as is shown vividly in The Moon and Sixpence). His use of himself as observer of and commentator (and, on occasion, interpreter) on the persons and events of the story is most notable in The Razor's Edge (1944; see separate entry). One could say, then, that at least his four major novels are of a piece in themes, attitudes, and techniques.
(The entire section is 214 words.)
An opera based on the novel was produced by Sadler Wells in London in 1958. The libretto was written by Patrick Terry, manager of the Covent Garden Opera Company; the music was composed by John Gardner. The production was only moderately successful, largely because of the somewhat dissonant score. As might be expected, the opera focuses almost completely on the artist's life in Tahiti. It is seldom revived.
More successful was a cinematic version of the novel released in 1943. In this treatment, George Sanders played Strickland, with Herbert Marshall as the narrator. It, too, takes place largely in the South Seas. Albert Lewin was both author of the screenplay and director. The photography was by John Seitz, and the music by Dmitri Tiomkin. The film, like The Picture of Dorian Gray (based on the Oscar Wilde novel) utilized the device of a combination of black and white footage with color. While the color appears now and then in The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is saved until the end of The Moon and Sixpence, where Strickland's colorful pictures are presented vividly. Some critics felt that this usage was too artificial and damaged the artistic effect of the movie.
(The entire section is 197 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Brander, Laurence. Somerset Maugham: A Guide. Edinburgh, Scotland: Oliver and Boyd, 1963. A chapter devoted to The Moon and Sixpence analyzes the novel as an effort to portray genius. It concludes Maugham achieved only a qualified success because his primary talent was in comedy.
Burt, Forrest D. W. Somerset Maugham. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This highly accessible book provides a comprehensive introductory critical survey and biography. Treats The Moon and Sixpence as one of Maugham’s major novels.
Cordell, Richard A. Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Emphasizes the biographical and autobiographical elements in the novel, and places it within the context of Maugham’s other fiction.
Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, eds. W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987. A collection of early Maugham criticism and reviews. Includes three significant early reviews of The Moon and Sixpence.
Loss, Archie K. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. Devotes half a chapter to an analysis of The Moon and Sixpence, focusing attention on the novel’s major characters.
(The entire section is 174 words.)