The Moon and Sixpence is a novel by Maugham first published in April 15th, 1919. It is told in episodic form by a first-person narrator, in a series of glimpses into the mind and soul of the central character Charles Strickland, a middle-aged English stockbroker, who abandons his wife and children abruptly to pursue his desire to become an artist. The story is in part based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin.
The novel is written largely from the point of view of the narrator, a young, aspiring writer and playwright in London. Certain chapters entirely comprise accounts of events by other characters, which the narrator recalls from memory (selectively editing or elaborating on certain aspects of dialogue, particularly Strickland's, as Strickland is said by the narrator to have a very poor ability to express himself in words). The narrator first develops an acquaintance with Strickland's wife at literary parties, and later meets Strickland himself, who appears to be an unremarkable businessman with no interest in his wife's literary or artistic tastes.
Strickland is a well-off, middle-class stockbroker in London sometime in late 19th or early 20th century. Early in the novel, he leaves his wife and children and goes to Paris. He lives a destitute but defiantly content life there as a painter, lodging in run-down hotels and falling prey to both illness and hunger. Strickland, in his drive to express through his art what appears to continually possess and compel him on the inside, cares nothing for physical discomfort and is indifferent to his surroundings. He is helped and supported by a commercially successful but hackneyed Dutch painter, Dirk Stroeve, who recognises Strickland's genius as a painter. After helping Strickland recover from a life-threatening illness, Stroeve is repaid by having his wife, Blanche, abandon him for Strickland. Strickland later discards the wife; all he really sought from Blanche was a model to paint, not serious companionship, and it is hinted in the novel's dialogue that he indicated this to her and she took the risk anyway. Blanche then commits suicide yet another human casualty in Strickland's single-minded pursuit of art and beauty; the first casualties being his own established life and those of his wife and children.
After the Paris episode, the story continues in Tahiti. Strickland has already died, and the narrator attempts to piece together his life there from recollections of others. He finds that Strickland had taken up a native woman, had two children by her, one of whom dies, and started painting profusely. We learn that Strickland had settled for a short while in the French port of Marseilles before traveling to Tahiti, where he lived for a few years before dying of leprosy. Strickland left behind numerous paintings, but his magnum opus, which he painted on the walls of his hut before losing his sight to leprosy, was burnt after his death by his wife per his dying orders.
The Moon and Sixpence is not, of course, a life of Paul Gauguin in the form of fiction. It is founded on what I had heard about him, but I used only the main facts of his story and for the rest trusted to such gifts of invention as I was fortunate enough to possess.
Writing in 1953, Maugham describes the idea for the book arising during a year that he spent living in Paris in 1904: ...I met men who had known him and worked with him at Pont-Aven. I heard much about him. It occurred to me that there was in what I was told the subject of a novel. The idea remained in his mind for ten years, until a visit to Tahiti in 1914, where Maugham was able to meet people who had known Gauguin, inspired him to start writing.
The critic Amy Dickson examines the relationship between Gauguin and Strickland. She contrasts the novel's description of Strickland, his faults are accepted as the necessary complement of his merits... but one thing can never be doubtful, and that is that he had genius, with Gauguin's description of himself, I am an artist and you are right, you're not mad, I am a great artist and I know it. It's because I know it that I have endured such sufferings. To have done otherwise I would consider myself a brigand -- which is what many people think I am. Dickson sums up the novel as follows: Maugham was fascinated by the impact of the arrival of modernism from Europe on an insular British consciousness and the emergence of the cult of the modernist artist-genius -- The Moon and Sixpence is at once a satire of Edwardian mores and a Gauguin biography.
According to some sources, the title, the meaning of which is not explicitly revealed in the book, was taken from a review of Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage in which the novel's protagonist, Philip Carey, is described as so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet. According to a 1956 letter from Maugham, If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don't look up, and so miss the moon. Maugham's title echoes the description of Gauguin by his contemporary biographer, Meier-Graefe (1908): He [Gauguin] may be charged with having always wanted something else.