The Moon and Sixpence

by W. Somerset Maugham

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Critical Evaluation

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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 reflect those of the author. It is noteworthy that Maugham was in each of the novel’s three major settings at approximately the time of the narrative. The narrator, a first-person speaker, is detached and observant, taking little or no part in the action. Normally he is nonjudgmental, but, after Strickland abandons his wife and children, the narrator risks Strickland’s wrath by calling him a cad to his face. On the few occasions when the narrator becomes involved in the action, his participation has little effect on the plot. His futile mission to Paris on behalf of Strickland’s wife is a typical example. A reluctant conversationalist, he is a good listener and can induce people to bare their most closely guarded secrets. He relishes travel and art and is fascinated by genius.

The Maugham persona observes self-imposed limitations that at times lead him to appear to be merely reporting what a character is like or what he does. He adopts the tone of ironic objectivity, as if to celebrate the comic incongruity of human beings without bothering to account for them. After seeing Strickland’s paintings, the narrator muses on what determined him to make such a drastic change in his life and then adds, “If I were writing a novel, rather than narrating...

(This entire section contains 1026 words.)

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such facts as I know of a curious personality, I should have invented much to account for this change of heart.” Maugham was writing a novel, however, and his critics have suggested that it is a novelist’s responsibility to show the reader the conflicts and motivation that account for the decisions and actions of the characters created.

Although the narrator claims to know less about painting than did Maugham, he describes Strickland’s genius in some detail. He acknowledges that Stroeve, the ordinary artist, was the first to recognize and appreciate Strickland’s genius. Despite Stroeve’s enthusiasm, the narrator maintains his skepticism about Strickland’s achievement until near the novel’s end. What really interests him is the single-minded, ruthless pursuit of his creativity that renders the protagonist callous and cruel to almost everyone he meets. An obscure stockbroker with a comfortable middle-class life, Strickland becomes a Nietzschean Superman, living beyond good and evil. He views his wife and Blanche Stroeve as merely means toward his own advancement and discards them when they no longer interest him. Once Blanche has served as a model for a portrait, he no longer wants anything to do with her. Only Ata, the Tahitian woman who gives all and neither asks nor expects anything of him, can live amicably with him.

Remarkably, Strickland’s attitude toward his own productions is one of almost total indifference; after completing a painting he loses interest in it. He sells paintings if he must to survive, but he shows an icy indifference to anyone else’s response to them. Facing death, he orders Ata to burn the house whose walls are adorned with his masterpieces. The novel never resolves Maugham’s unstated question—whether genius is its own justification. The epilogue’s revelation that Strickland’s wife decorates her London apartment with Strickland’s prints suggests the answer.

The novel introduces character types that are mainstays of Maugham’s fiction, some reappearing with the same name in later writings. Strickland’s proper, brave, and resourceful wife reminds one of many of Maugham’s female characters in fiction and drama. Tiare Johnson, the Tahitian hotel keeper, is an energetic, obese, kindhearted woman who is an unfailing friend to those in need. Captain Nichols, who knows Strickland, is an alcoholic seaman who becomes a beachcomber. These characters belong to a group that Maugham portrays with sympathy in his fiction: those whose talents, weaknesses, genius, or vices relegate them to the fringes of society or render them complete outcasts.