W Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence, first published William Heinemann, 1919.
According to that deeply authoritative source, Wikipedia, Maugham referred to the title of The Moon and Sixpence in a 1956 letter, saying “If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.” It’s a reference to removing ourselves from worldly concerns and restraints so that we can see and pursue the divine.
The Moon and Sixpence is inspired by, if not based on, the life of artist Paul Gauguin, some of whose most well-known paintings were made while he lived in Tahiti. Tahiti hangs over The Moon and Sixpence, tantalisingly over the horizon through much of the novel, only reached near the end and somewhat at second hand, and thereby remaining something of an illusion – a paradise that we never quite attain.
The story is narrated at first, second and third hand by an acquaintance of Charles Strickland. Strickland uncaringly leaves his wife and children after many years of seemingly contented middle class life to pursue his need to paint. Most of the action takes place in London and Paris, and we only reach Tahiti nine years after Strickland’s death, when our narrator finds himself in French Polynesia and decides to inquire into his former associate’s (I wouldn’t term them friends) last years.
We know that Gauguin died in Tahiti of syphilis (for Strickland it is the slightly more respectable but perhaps more horrific leprosy). A 2001 article in the The Guardian contends that he played up the exotic erotic of Polynesia to his French audience to help sell his paintings, and in the end fell himself for the myth of Tahiti that he had created. Tahiti seems to play that mythical role in Maugham’s exploration of Gauguin, through Strickland, and the meaning and source of artistic genius.
Charles Strickland is described as having an immense sensuality, and at times seems hardly human:
…it seemed as though his sensuality were curiously spiritual. There was in him something primitive. He seemed to partake of those obscure forces of nature which the Greeks personified in shapes part human and part beast, the satyr and the faun.
I was reminded of Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff. Strickland’s behaviour in the civilisations of Paris and London is almost animal, concentrated on his basic and selfish inner needs, with little regard for the conventions of society or the feelings of those around him. He is at the same time somehow primitive and yet blessed with a sublime talent that transcends ordinary human capability and understanding.
The clichéd views of the south Pacific, a tropical Eden where men can regain their basic, primitive and erotic selves and thus come closer to God’s creation, make Tahiti the perfect place for Strickland to achieve his unrecognised greatness. Maugham’s narrative, while giving sympathetic portrayals of both the white and black inhabitants of Tahiti, does much to sustain the image of a primitive paradise on earth. Earlier in the book our narrator attributes to Strickland a prescience about his later life:
Sometimes I’ve thought of an island lost in a boundless sea, where I could live in some hidden valley, among strange trees. There I think I could find what I want.
And later he does find it. A tropical garden where God and nature provide, and a man is free to pursue his vision:
Ata’s house stood about eight kilometres from the road that runs round the island, and you went to it along a winding pathway shaded by the luxuriant trees of the tropics…
Here Strickland lived, coming seldom to Papeete, on the produce of the land. There was a little stream that ran not far away… and down this on occasion would come a shoal of fish. Then the natives would assemble with spears, and with much shouting would transfix the great startled things as they hurried down to the sea…
Then the cocoa-nuts would be ripe for picking, and her cousins (like all natives, Ata had a host of relatives) would swarm up the trees and throw down the big ripe nuts. They split them open and put them in the sun to dry.
No taro, though. Root vegetables require cultivation and aren’t nearly romantic enough.
Here in Tahiti Strickland seems, somehow, to regain some of his humanity. Ata’s devotion to him draws from him the only glimpse of emotion that we see, and ultimately enables him to achieve his greatest work. Strickland has found his paradise, but it turns out, as it always does, that there are other people already there.