Places: The Moon and Sixpence

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1919

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Biographical

Time of work: c. 1897-1917

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Moon and Sixpence, TheCapital of Great Britain in which the novel opens with several chapters satirizing the city’s domestic and literary worlds. Except for chance encounters in the streets, all the novel’s scenes are set in middle-class living rooms. Maugham’s London is a completely known world, in which original vision is impossible because everyone knows how they are supposed to behave, and, for the most part, do. Even the threats of the world–dullness, sarcastic insults, infidelity–are known, and may be dealt with. When Charles Strickland decides that he wants to paint and abandons his London home to do so, it is a scandal. Strickland goes to Paris, and the narrator is dispatched to bring him back, and to get rid of the supposed “other woman” his wife insists must have led him astray.

Strickland home

Strickland home. London home of Charles Strickland and his first wife, Amy, who attempts to advance her own ambitions as a hostess who supports the arts by hosting luncheon and dinner parties for rising writers. When the narrator visits Strickland’s home, he finds it “chaste, artistic, and dull” and reflects that there must be five hundred homes in London decorated exactly the same.

*Paris

*Paris. Capital of France where Strickland settles in the Hôtel des Belges, a flophouse in which he lives in squalor. This place shows Strickland’s contradictory character. Although he spends his hours painting, seeking beauty, he does not care if he lives in filth. It is as if all settings are the same to him, because he sees the world differently. Nevertheless, Strickland’s Paris is recognizably romantic compared to London. Strickland and the narrator meet in cheap hotels, sidewalk cafés, and bars frequented by prostitutes, and here Strickland’s work first receives attention from other painters and gallery owners.

Strickland would not even enter a recognizable domestic space if he did not fall ill, a sign that for him these domestic spaces are for the weak. When Strickland is sick, another painter and his wife (Dirk and Blanche Stroeve) take him into their home to nurse him to health. Strickland destroys their home, and, as he recovers, he literally drives Stroeve from his own studio. When Stroeve finally asks him to leave, his wife Blanche says that she loves Strickland and wants to leave with him. Stroeve then abandons his studio to them. Blanche later commits suicide when she realizes that Strickland’s demoniac urge to paint will always keep her at a distance, almost worthless to him. These chapters indicate the essential split between artistic genius, which is wild, and the domestic, which is tame and familiar.

The narrator avoids Strickland after this, then meets him on the street. Strickland takes the narrator to his apartment; he is the only character other than Strickland or one of his lovers to be taken into Strickland’s space. The narrator spends pages both describing Strickland’s paintings and his own reactions to them and explaining to Strickland why he thinks Blanche’s love makes him so uncomfortable. Strickland calls him a “dreadful sentimentalist,” but within a week he leaves for Marseilles, indicating that he was waiting for this final recognition before he could move on to his next location, and next level of artistic development.

*Marseilles

*Marseilles (mar-SAY). Port city in the south of France where Strickland goes after leaving Paris. The narrator himself never sees Strickland again after their Paris meeting; however, while later traveling through the South Pacific, he meets several people who knew Strickland. All accounts of Marseilles come from Captain Nichols, a sailor who knocked around Marseilles with Strickland. Strickland never entered a private home in Marseilles, but lived on the street or in shelters for the homeless. The impersonality and violence of Marseilles stripped away the trappings of civilization that had limited Strickland’s artistic vision, reducing Strickland to nothing more than his desire to paint. Since Marseilles is also the oldest city in France, Strickland is also moving backward through time, trying to reach a place as pure and original as his vision of the world.

*Tahiti

*Tahiti. French Polynesian colony, the largest of the Society Islands in the South Pacific, that is Strickland’s last home. During one of his talks with the narrator in Paris, Strickland said that he longed for an island in a “boundless sea” where he could find what he sought. Though he begins his time on the island with regular visits to the capital city of Papeete, Strickland eventually marries a Tahitian woman and moves into the bush, completely giving up on Western civilization. Though he is still considered odd in Papeete, Strickland fits in more fully on this beautiful island than anywhere else he has lived, and, accordingly, there are more people who appreciate his art. Maugham blends observations from his own travels with descriptions of paintings done by Gauguin. However, as in all places in the novel, he focuses almost entirely on only three types of Tahitian locations: places where people come together to talk, such as bars and restaurants; domestic settings; and places seen through Strickland’s art.

Strickland’s hut

Strickland’s hut. Tiny hut in which Strickland lives with his Tahitian wife, Ata. The novel begins and ends in domestic spaces, but the dramatic difference between the first and last communicates Maugham’s views on the power of art. In London, Strickland is dying spiritually and has to abandon a home that almost everyone would regard as beautiful. In Tahiti, he contracts leprosy. Now feared by the Tahitians, Strickland lives out his final years in ecstasy as he paints his own vision of paradise into being. He eventually covers every inch of his hut’s walls with portraits of his own re-creation of the Garden of Eden, re-creating that mythic place in Polynesia. Because he is bringing his vision of the world into being, Strickland dies happy within his crumbling jungle hut.

BibliographyBrander, Laurence. Somerset Maugham: A Guide. Edinburgh, Scotland: Oliver and Boyd, 1963. A chapter devoted to The Moon and Sixpence analyzes the novel as an effort to portray genius. It concludes Maugham achieved only a qualified success because his primary talent was in comedy.Burt, Forrest D. W. Somerset Maugham. Boston: Twayne, 1985. This highly accessible book provides a comprehensive introductory critical survey and biography. Treats The Moon and Sixpence as one of Maugham’s major novels.Cordell, Richard A. Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Emphasizes the biographical and autobiographical elements in the novel, and places it within the context of Maugham’s other fiction.Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, eds. W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987. A collection of early Maugham criticism and reviews. Includes three significant early reviews of The Moon and Sixpence.Loss, Archie K. W. Somerset Maugham. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. Devotes half a chapter to an analysis of The Moon and Sixpence, focusing attention on the novel’s major characters.
Categories: Places