The Moon and Sixpence is one of the most famous and classic works by William Somerset Maugham. We were glad to have had seven people, both STEAR members and non-members, who joined us to exchange ideas about this book. At the start of our meeting, everyone shared their first impressions of the book. There were many insightful perspectives; we discussed different types of love that were shown in the novel as well as the power of art. In addition, the parallels between the novel and the life of the artist Paul Gaugin were drawn.
We then dove into slightly more philosophical questions: What is your definition of a successful life? Is it a life with lots of money? Or a life in pursuit of your dreams? We discussed this in relation to the title of the book, which is a metaphor that is elaborated upon in the phrase if you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don't look up, and so miss the moon. We also had a heated discussion on the topic of the relationship between traveling and solitude. Some people see travel as a way to escape, and others travel because of the hunger for new things. In the book, many people travel because they feel like a stranger in their birthplace. Through traveling, they are eager to "hit upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs". Last but not least, we closed our session with a final question. The traveling in this book was made possible due to Europe’s industrial revolution and colonialist practices. Would a similar story happen again today, following similar patterns?
This event not only helped us to dive deeper into the book, but also gave us a great chance to make new friends! We are looking forward to our next session, and we highly encourage you to check out our Book Exchange if you would like to join. Keep an eye on our social media platforms for more information! Below, you can find STEAR Editor Adith Srinivasan’s more elaborate thoughts on The Moon and Sixpence.
W. Somerset Maugham’s novel ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is a classic in every respect. From its riveting first-person episodic narration style to its frequent philosophic reflections on art and the artist in contemporary society, it offers a wealth of material for the interested reader to ponder, reflect, and enjoy. Based on the life of French artist Paul Gaugin, Maugham’s fictional biography beings with a young aspiring writer and playwright in London – the narrator of our tale – with a ‘desire to live dangerously’ in search of ‘change and the excitement of the unforeseen.’
He is not disappointed, as he is soon thrust into the dangerous and ever-changing life of Mr. Charles Strickland, a well-to-do London stockbroker, and the man that would become the subject of his biography. Soon after first meeting ‘Mr. Strickland’ – at which time, he referred to the man, in whom he was soon to take a keen interest, as ‘good, dull, honest, plain’ – our storyteller learns that Charles had abandoned his wife, two children, and comfortable life as a London socialite to pursue his art and become an artist. Thus begins our narrator’s journey to discover what would become of Charles Strickland – a journey that would following the aspiring artist from London to the bowels of Paris to the Port of Marseilles, and even to Tahiti.
In this sense, the novel recounts a classic tale of self-discovery, as the reader follows Strickland from his fairly unremarkable beginnings as a novice painter in his development to an artist whose style reflects that which is wholly himself; his art, a recreation and displaying of his personality for the world to see. Yet, the true genius of Maugham’s novel may be found not only in its clever storytelling of a such an age-old tale – allowing the reader to piece together Strickland’s journey and life episodically through the eyes and ears of the narrator – but in its elegant contrast of the social myth of inspiration against the real (and often harsh) backdrop of commonly-lived human experience. From the periodic-tabular dreams of the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev to the Indian mathematician Ramanujan’s intellectual enlightenment at the feet of the goddess Devi, inspiration has come to imply a degree of eccentricity in the inspired subject. To be ‘inspired’ is to be something other, something different, and occasionally, something dangerous. What Maugham’s novel beautifully accomplishes is an accentuation of this social myth, an articulation of what it means to be ‘inspired’ in human society, through an exploration of inspiration at its most extreme. The reader bears indirect witness to Strickland becoming almost enslaved by his desire to express in his art that which compels him forward, with the latter laying waste to the social protocol, civilities, and expectations of the time. Whether it is the initial abandoning of his wife in pursuit of his art, the tolerance of destitute living conditions in the name of that dream, the acts of adultery with the wife of a man, to whom he owes his life, or even the request to burn his magnum opus – the culmination of his artistic journey – upon his death, the eccentricities traditionally associated with the myth of genius and inspiration are borne through and realized in Strickland’s self-destructive and even outwardly destructive journey.
Simultaneously, however, Maugham contrasts this portrait of the inspired individual with the bounded world of common human experience and tradition, illustrating the struggles of and for the inspired in a human society defined by tradition and expectation. That, upon leaving his wife and children, Strickland is characterized by a series of unflattering rumours presented to the narrator serves as testimony to this point. The unexpected eccentricities that naturally accompany the myth of genius and inspiration – the very danger that our storyteller seeks – presents and is confronted with challenges in a society that is comforted by the expected. Indeed, that our danger-seeking narrator’s own account of Strickland’s life is occasionally supplemented by edited accounts from other characters less appreciative of Strickland’s inspiration [and borderline obsession] is a direct reminder of the realities of becoming inspired in human society.
Perhaps the most concise illustration of this contrast, however, comes not in the text itself, but in its cleverly endowed title: ‘The Moon and Sixpence.’ Although the meaning of the title is never explicitly revealed in the book, some have suggested that the novel takes its title from a review of another of Maugham’s novels, 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.’ For Strickland, the moon – in all its natural radiance and beauty – is represented by his art and that which he strove to convey through it. The sixpence, then, may be the social and economic experiences that he forfeited in his journey of artistic self-discovery. His desire for something different, something more, something greater – his yearning for the moon – led him on a journey, in which he appeared only rarely to notice the sixpence at his feet, and even then, to not make much of it.
It is perhaps natural to question whether Maugham’s juxtaposition of these two apparently contradictory approaches to life is meant to imply a conscious choice of the reader: whether we choose to see either the moon above or the sixpence at our feet; whether we must choose either to appreciate art and beauty or to focus on those material experiences that have traditionally defined and shaped the human condition. Still, it is unclear from the novel’s rendering whether Strickland’s treacherous journey of artistic self-discovery along ‘jagged rocks and treacherous shoals’ is truly meant to serve as an inspiration to the reader to break the shackles of materialism and embrace a nomadic life of inspiration and self-discovery. After all, it is entirely unlikely that any individual makes a conscious effort to see either the moon or sixpence at the expense of the other for the duration of their lives. Instead, Maugham’s classic novel reminds us that, in the humdrum of human affairs and the busyness of modern society, it is natural and even commonplace for us to focus so intently on our material conditions and success that we forget to appreciate the abundance of beauty to be found in the world around us. In this regard, the beautiful and perhaps even tragic tale of Mr. Strickland serves as a reminder to simply appreciate art and beauty. Indeed, the lesson might not be to choose between the moon or sixpence, but to learn to appreciate the moon and sixpence. We might thus ask ourselves: do we, over the course of our own lives, truly appreciate the moon above – in all its exceptional beauty as an object beyond our world – or gaze we so intently at the sixpence at our feet that the moon becomes a distant memory?