I confess that I had no idea what the title meant after I finished reading the book for the first time. My ignorance persisted even after the second perusal, although the title did suggest something like noble intentions and prosaic realities. Before the third reading, this time specifically for this blog, I decided to look it up. Like all good netizens, I consulted Wikipedia, which told me that the title was a reference to Of Human Bondage (where Philip Carey reaches for the moon while ignoring the sixpence at his feet.)
In The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham chronicles the life and adventures of Paul Gauguin — an artistic genius who stepped outside the bounds of ethics and morality in a single-minded pursuit of an unknown and troubling vision of his soul (“the moon”) at the cruel expense of his friends and family (the “sixpence,” presumably.)
Unsure of how to create a perfect Frenchman (as he later confesses in The Razor’s Edge), Maugham chose to “translate” Gauguin and portrayed him as an Englishman Charles Strickland, a semi-successful, though dull London stockbroker. At the unlikely age of 42 or so, Strickland decides to abandon his family to take up painting. The need to paint is a yearning of the soul for Strickland, and it doesn’t matter that he is no good at it — yet — as he explains, “I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” While saving himself from this metaphoric drowning, Strickland is indifferent (beyond cruelty) to the rest of the world. Then again, he is just as uncompromising and cruel to himself as well.
In portraying such a difficult anti-hero, Maugham showcases all the mastery and skill he possesses. To my untrained eyes, it looks as though Maugham builds this character so carefully and painstakingly that each one of the monstrosities Strickland commits is counter-balanced in some fashion. It is indeed a fine chisel that Maugham employs in crafting this masterpiece; none of those broad, confident strokes we would see in his later works.
We find Maugham at cynical and misogynistic best (or worst, depending on the perspective) in the early part of the book, especially in his descriptions of Mrs. Strickland and her children. We should condone this appearance of misogyny as a pardonable foible of a genius, I think. More than that, I see it as an effort, a successful one, to balance the callousness of Strickland’s disappearance that soon follows.
Such balancing devices can be found throughout the book. Perhaps to soften the shock of Strickland’s seemingly inexplicable renunciation of his family, his son’s hypocritical account of his later life is cynically ridiculed right in the beginning of the book. The unfortunate Dirk Stroeve, so cruelly used by Strickland, is also a buffoon who elicits derisive laughter rather than sympathy. Stroeve’s groveling adulation of Blanche perhaps serves to iron out the overtones of sexism or misogyny permeating the story. Blanche Stroeve’s betrayal is counter balanced with her own abominable indifference to Stroeve, which, in turn, gets evened out in what she receives from Strickland — “What an abyss of cruelty she must have looked into that in horror she refused to live.” Strickland, curiously, walks unaffected through all this death and mayhem, larger than life, tortured by his own private agonies of the soul well beyond our comprehension and his own. Even in his callousness, what Strickland invokes in Maugham and even Stroeve is, not merely a natural indignation, but an overwhelming compassion — astonishingly. The misplaced compassion is perhaps a device to prepare the reader for Strickland’s sordid and horrible death.
Maugham employs a variety of techniques to make the narration sound natural. If I was a fiction writer, I would study these techniques very carefully and try to employ them myself. To begin with, Strickland is a fictional portrayal of Gauguin, but Maugham takes great pains to pretend that the narration is not fictional. Even the narrator (Maugham himself) is portrayed as fallible, and contritely so, to lend credibility to the narration. For instance, Maugham gets exasperated at Stroeve’s weakness and is later ashamed of himself for getting angry.
The book has its elitist moments. When asked if it was better not to have known, Stroeve replies: “The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.” It is as though the gift of inquiry and knowledge is given to a precious few — a special club to which Stroeve and Maugham are privy. This elitist attitude permeates not only Maugham’s works, but all great works of literature; it is only by masking his sense of superiority that an author or a thinker projects himself as non-elitist.
Perhaps it is some knowledge, or a vision of the world that Strickland’s soul yearned to share with the rest of us. Such communication is beyond language — a medium unequal to the task even when masterfully employed. Visual arts come closer. In Strickland’s tragic and cruel plight, along with that of almost all characters in the story, we see one eternal question. What is it that we are really after? Is it happiness? If so, Charles Strickland certainly didn’t find it. Very few do. Is it glory? Strickland did find that, albeit after his death.
Death is the great equalizer. It brings us back to the nothingness we spring from, however high we may fly or however low we may sink during the brief instant in between. The wisdom of the wise, the ignorance of the masses, the grandeur of the accomplished, the glory, the baseness — all matter very little when faced with such complete finality. In Strickland, Maugham has depicted the heights of glory as well as the nadir of baseness. The Moon and Sixpence — perhaps I have understood its meaning after all.