THE MODERN EYE: LITERATURE AND THE ART AESTHETICS-
‘THE MOON AND SIXPENCE’
Marcio Hemerique Pereira
University of London
“Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination [...]” (The Moon and Sixpence, Chapter XIX, p.153)
Only few contemporary authors have been praised as highly and condemned as completely as W. Somerset Maugham. The present essay discusses Maugham’s novel ‘ The Moon and Sixpence.’ My concerns lay on key questions that I try to explore. First and foremost, what do we learn about the presentation of the early twentieth century artist from Maugham? Are, in fact, artistic techniques used in the literary portrait (depictions) of the artist? What do we learn about modern art from the text? Why is Maugham writing about an artist? How can literature depict artist and artistic processes? Now I propose to attempt at least to suggest the reasons for, if not to reconcile, opinions as widely different as the ones presented further in the essay and, at the same time, to offer a less impetuous and more carefully substantiated criticism of Maugham’s fictional work, ‘ The Moon and Sixpence.’
‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by William Somerset Maugham is a book that stands exceptional for its great presentation. It is said that the book is based on the life of the painter Paul Gauguin. The story is presented in first person narrative. In the story, Paul Gauguin appears as the fictional character Charles Strickland. It takes the reader to read the entire story to get a complete picture of the character as Maugham unfolds the character little by little in a gradual progression. To illustrate my point, in the beginning of the story, one can see a character that is presented as a super ordinary man. Maugham says “he was null. He was probably a worthy member of society, a good husband and father, an honest broker, but there was no reason to waste one’s time over him” (Maugham, 24). Thus, with his mastery in using language, Maugham makes the reader believe that Strickland is an ordinary man. One can see elaborate effort from the part of the writer to show the ordinary way of life led by Strickland and his wife. It is said “they would see their son and daughter come to years of reason, marry in due course, the one a pretty girl, future mother of healthy children, the other a handsome manly fellow, obviously a soldier, and at last, prosperous in their dignified retirement, beloved by their descendents, after a happy, not unuseful life.” (Maugham, 26)
However, things change dramatically thereafter. One day, he just moves to Paris leaving his family behind. It was the writer who was appointed to meet Strickland in Paris and to bring him back. However, when the writer asks “Then, what in God’s name have you left her for?” Strickland simply says that “I want to paint” (Maugham, 49). Thus, one can see an effort from the part of Maugham to express the idea that the call of art is much stronger than all other temptations, or that the artist is beyond all social influences. At this stage, Strickland appears totally emotionless and indifferent. As the writer admits, “I could not struggle against his indifference”. (Maugham, 42) However, at this particular point, the presentation of the character Strickland has only reached the half way. Much more is there to come. Dirk Stroeve and his wife appear from nowhere to help Strickland, and then to fall prey to his unpredictable and paradoxical nature. Strickland, who said he had no emotional attachment to his pretty wife or family, falls in love with Stroeve’s wife. When the writer says “I never knew a man so entirely indifferent to his surroundings”, (Maugham, 82) the indifferent man had the other man’s wife in his mind, thus taking a ‘U’ turn. However, soon she commits suicide, possibility at the end of the infatuation she felt for the better, as females are destined to do. Then there is Ata, another woman who stands by Strickland till the end. The story presents a Dorian Grey touch (from the great novel The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde) ending showing the marks of leprosy as the indication of the deterioration of his soul. Just like the beautiful Dorian who leads to the suicide of many admires before his destruction of himself and his portrait, Strickland ruins the life of many before he dies along with his masterpiece.
 W. Somerset Maugham. The Moon and Sixpence (1919; New York: Penguin, 1977).
 In ‘ The Moon and Sixpence.’ Charles Strickland leaves his wife and his position as a stockbroker to go to Paris to paint. Still stifled, he leaves for Tahiti, where he finds Paradise, a beautiful natural country, and Eve in the person of Ata, a woman who will care for him and ask nothing in return. He is free to create. Strickland is also free from public opinion and criticism. He says many times that he is not interested in the opinions of others; he wants only to paint.
 For comments on this point, see M.K. Naik, W. Somerset Maugham (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), p.59-68; Robert Calder, W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom. (London: Heinemann, 1972), p.138-158