Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181
Charles Strickland, a dull stockbroker, lives in England with his wife and two children. Mrs. Strickland is a model mother, but her husband seems bored with her and with his children. To everyone else, it is Strickland who seems commonplace. The family spends the summer at the seashore, and Strickland returns ahead of his wife. When she writes him that she is coming home, he answers from Paris, simply stating that he is not going to live with her anymore. With singleness of intention, Mrs. Strickland dispatches a friend to Paris to bring back her husband.
Strickland is living in a shabby hotel; his room is filthy, but he appears to be living alone. Much to the discomfort of the friend, he candidly admits his beastly treatment of his wife, but there is no emotion in his statements concerning her and her future welfare. When asked about the woman with whom he had allegedly run away, he laughs, explaining to Mrs. Strickland’s emissary that he had really run off to paint. He knows he can paint if he seriously tries. The situation is incredible to Mrs. Strickland’s friend. Strickland says he does not care what people think of him.
Stubbornly, Strickland begins to take art lessons. Although his teacher laughs at his work, he merely shrugs his shoulders and continues to paint in his own way. Back in England, the friend tries to explain to Mrs. Strickland the utter hopelessness of trying to reconcile her husband. She cannot realize her defeat at first. If Strickland had gone off with a woman, she could have understood him. Mrs. Strickland, however, is not able to cope with his having left her for an idea.
Dirk Stroeve, a very poor painter with a delicate feeling for art, marries an Englishwoman and settles in Paris. Impossible as it seems, Dirk, who has become acquainted with Strickland, thinks the redheaded Englishman a great painter. Strickland, however, does not want anyone’s opinion. Indifferent to physical discomfort, he has not tried to sell his paintings so that he can eat. When he needs money, he finds odd jobs in and around Paris.
It is apparent that the Stroeves are very much in love. A buffoon and a fool, Dirk is constantly berating himself, but Blanche seems to hold him in high esteem. When Strickland becomes very ill, Dirk rushes home to Blanche and pleads with her to nurse the sick artist back to health. She bitterly professes her hatred of the man who had laughed at her husband’s paintings, and she tearfully begs Stroeve not to bring the monster near her. Dirk is nevertheless able to persuade her to allow Strickland to come to their home.
Although she and Strickland rarely speak to each other, Blanche proves a capable nurse. There seems to be something electrifying in the air when they are together in the same room. Strickland recovers. Dirk admires Strickland’s work, and so is anxious that Strickland stay and work in Dirk’s studio. Strickland takes possession of the studio. When Dirk finally gathers enough courage to ask him to leave, Blanche says that she will also leave. Dirk falls before her, groveling at her feet, and pleads with her to stay, but his adoring demonstrations only bore her. When he sees that she will indeed return with Strickland to the filthy hovel that is the Englishman’s studio, Dirk’s generous soul cannot bear to think that his beloved Blanche should live in such poverty. He says that she need not leave; he will go. Thanking her for having given him so much happiness, he leaves her...
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with half of what he owns.
Dirk hangs around Paris waiting for the time to come when Blanche will need him again after Strickland tires of her. Once, he follows her shopping. He walks along with her, telling her of his devotion; she will not speak to him. Suddenly, she slaps him in the face and walks away. One day, the police inform Dirk that Blanche had swallowed oxalic acid. After she dies, Dirk feels compelled to return to his studio. There he finds a nude portrait of his wife, evidently the work of Strickland. In a mad passion of jealousy, he starts to hack at the picture with a knife, but he is arrested by the wonder of the artwork. No matter what he feels, Dirk cannot mutilate the painting. He packs his belongings and returns to Holland to live with his mother.
Strickland had chosen Blanche Stroeve as a subject because he thought she had a beautiful body to paint. When he finished the picture, he was through with her. Thinking that the picture was not satisfactory, he left it in the studio. The death of Blanche and the misery of Dirk do not move him. He is an artist.
After Blanche’s death, Strickland leaves Paris for Marseilles, and finally, after many wanderings, goes to Tahiti. There he paints his vivid awkward-looking pictures and leaves them with people all over the island in payment for lodging and food. No one thinks the pictures are worth anything, but years later some who had saved the pictures were pleasantly surprised to sell them for enormous sums of money to English and French collectors who came to the island looking for the painter’s work.
At one of the hotels in Tahiti, Strickland is befriended by a fat old woman, Tiare Johnson, who looks after his health and his cleanliness. She even finds him a wife, a seventeen-year-old Tahitian girl named Ata. For three years, Ata and her husband live together in a bungalow just off the main road. These are perhaps the happiest years in Strickland’s life. He paints, reads, and loafs. Ata has a baby.
One day, Ata sends to the village for a doctor. When the doctor arrives at the artist’s bungalow, he is struck with horror; to his experienced eye, Strickland has the thickened features of a leper. More than two years pass. No one goes near Strickland’s plantation, for the locals know well the meaning of Strickland’s disease. Only Ata stays faithfully with him, and everyone shuns her just as they shun Strickland. Two more years pass. One of Ata’s children dies. Strickland is now so disabled by the disease that he will not even permit the doctor to see him. He is painting on the walls of his bungalow when at last he goes blind. He sits in the house hour after hour, trying to remember his paintings on the walls—his masterpieces. Strickland is not interested in the fame his art might bring and makes Ata promise to destroy his work upon his death, a wish she faithfully carries out.
Years later, a friend of Strickland, just returned from Tahiti, calls on Mrs. Strickland in London. She seems little interested in her husband’s last years or his death. On the wall are several colored reproductions of Strickland’s pictures. They are decorative, she thinks, and go well with her cushions.