I love this book. A lot. Here’s what I wrote about it on September 13, 2004, after hearing it for the first time as an audiobook I checked out from the library:
Another audiobook from the library and another winner. Based on the life of Paul Gauguin—or so all the reviews tell me—it is about so much more. It is about art in every sense of the word. I viewed the character of Charles Strickland, the mild mannered stockbroker who rejected everything in life for a single-minded pursuit of his art, as the archetype of what art is and what the artist must do to achieve it. His relations with others show the depths to which one must truly stoop in order to create something of enduring truth and meaning. In contrast, the character of Stroeve is the archetype of love, and he conducts himself in the way all must who wish to put love above all else. Their conflict over Stroeve’s wife Blanche is extremely interesting when viewed in this context, to say nothing about Blanche’s motivations for choosing Strickland (art) over Stroeve (love).
The writing is pure and vivid, and I would have surely captured numerous quotes had I read it instead of listened to it. That’s something I think I will need to do. Look in old bookstores for copies of audiobooks I want to read again. I looked for My Antonia recently but couldn’t find it. Now, I’ll have to keep The Moon and Sixpence on that mental list as well.
The real ending of the book should have been with the image of the pictures Strickland painted on the walls of his Tahitian home, pictures painted while going blind from leprosy, pictures that were beautiful and obscene, pictures that revealed an understanding of the workings of the universe man was never meant to know, and pictures Strickland would surround himself with after going blind and study in the dark center of his mind’s eye, seeing more than anyone had ever seen before. The few paragraphs that follows this are a bit of an anticlimax, but probably necessary to tidy up a few loose ends. The final scene with Strickland’s abandoned wife and children has potential, although I must admit the stinging barb at the end escapes me. I also don’t have any idea what the book’s title refers to. Someday, I suppose, I’m sure to find out.
Well, I did exactly as I intended. I found a copy in an old bookstore (in Phoenix, if I remember correctly), put it in the gigantic pile of books I plan to read, and finally got around to it now. And I’ve got lots of quotes to go over below, all of which will underscore why I love this book so much and why I plan to read it again and again. But first, let’s deal with that title. From Wikipedia:
According to some sources, the title, the meaning of which is not explicitly revealed in the book, was taken from a review of 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." Presumably Strickland's "moon" is the idealistic realm of Art and Beauty, while the "sixpence" represents human relationships and the ordinary pleasures of life.
I can buy that, because The Moon and Sixpence can be read as a treatise on the tension that exists between the idealistic pursuit of art and the ability to maintain healthy human relationships—and from that perspective its disturbing message is clearly that the artist can have one or the other, but not both. Our narrator, an artist himself—a writer—catches a glimpse of that ultimate truth early in the novel when he speculates on the simple harmony of life evidenced by the Strickland family:
They seemed devoted to one another. They had little private jokes of their own which, unintelligible to the outsider, amused them enormously. Perhaps Charles Strickland was dull judged by a standard that demanded above all things verbal scintillation; but his intelligence was adequate to his surroundings, and that is a passport, not only to reasonable success, but still more to happiness. Mrs. Strickland was a charming woman, and she loved him. I pictured their lives, troubled by no untoward adventure, honest, decent, and, by reason of those two upstanding, pleasant children, so obviously destined to carry on the normal traditions of their race and station, not without significance. They would grow old insensibly; 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 descendants, after a happy, not unuseful life, in the fullness of their age they would sink into the grave.
That must be the story of innumerable couples, and the pattern of life it offers has a homely grace. It reminds you of a placid rivulet, meandering smoothly through green pastures and shaded by pleasant trees, till at last it falls into the vasty sea; but the sea is so calm, so silent, so indifferent, that you are troubled suddenly by a vague uneasiness. Perhaps it is only by a kink in my nature, strong in me even in those days, that I felt in such an existence, the share of the great majority, something amiss. I recognised its social values, I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights. In my heart was a desire to live more dangerously. I was not unprepared for jagged rocks and treacherous shoals if I could only have change—change and the excitement of the unforeseen.
And he thrusts this interpretation on Strickland’s actions, as in this passage regarding Strickland’s apparent struggle to abandon his lustful feelings in preference for his art:
“Let me tell you. I imagine that for months the matter never comes into your head, and you’re able to persuade yourself that you’ve finished with it for good and all. You rejoice in your freedom, and you feel that at last you can call your soul your own. You seem to walk with your head among the stars. And then, all of a sudden you can’t stand it any more, and you notice that all the time your feet have been walking in the mud. And you want to roll yourself in it. And you find some woman, coarse and low and vulgar, some beastly creature in whom all the horror of sex is blatant, and you fall upon her like a wild animal. You drink till you’re blind with rage.”
And he contemplates the motivations of others in this same dichotomous fashion, supposing alternatively that others are driven by either the highest of ideals or the basest facts of life—as in this exploration of Blanche Stroeve’s motivations in leaving her husband for Strickland:
Blanche Stroeve was in the cruel grip of appetite. Perhaps she hated Strickland still, but she hungered for him, and everything that had made up her life till then became of no account. She ceased to be a woman, complex, kind and petulant, considerate and thoughtless; she was a Maenad. She was desire.
But perhaps this is very fanciful; and it may be that she was merely bored with her husband and went to Strickland out of a callous curiosity. She may have had no particular feeling for him, but succumbed to his wish from propinquity or idleness, to find then that she was powerless in a snare of her own contriving. How did I know what were the thoughts and emotions behind that placid brow and those cool gray eyes?
And the starkness of the choice an artist must make between pursuing his art and the simple comforts and joys of life is never so poignantly portrayed as during this scene in which Dirk Stroeve laments his lot in life:
“My father wished me to become a carpenter like himself. For five generations we’ve carried on the same trade, from father to son. Perhaps that is the wisdom of life, to tread in your father’s steps, and look neither to the right nor to the left. When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter of the harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girl with blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail. She would have kept my house like a new pin, and I should have had a son to carry on the business after me.”
Stroeve sighed a little and was silent. His thoughts dwelt among pictures of what might have been, and the safety of the life he had refused filled him with longing.
“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 throught 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.”
To me it was his broken spirit that expressed itself, and I rebelled against his renunciation. But I kept my own counsel.
“What made you think of being a painter?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“It happened that I had a knack for drawing. I got prizes for it at school. My poor mother was very proud of my gift, and she gave me a box of water-colours as a present. She showed my sketches to the pastor and the doctor and the judge. And they sent me to Amsterdam to try for a scholarship, and I won it. Poor soul, she was so proud; and though it nearly broke her heart to part from me, she smiled, and would not show me her grief. She was pleased that her son should be an artist. They pinched and saved so that I should have enough to live on, and when my first picture was exhibited they came to Amsterdam to see it, my father and mother and my sister, and my mother cried when she looked at it.” His kind eyes glistened. “And now on every wall of the old house there is one of my pictures in a beautiful gold frame.”
He glowed with happy pride. I thought of those cold scenes of his, with their picturesque peasants and cypresses and olive-trees. They must look queer in their garish frames on the walls of the peasant house.
“The dear soul thought she was doing a wonderful thing for me when she made me an artist, but perhaps, after all, it would have been better for me if my father’s will had prevailed and I were now but an honest carpenter.”
“Now that you know what art can offer, would you change your life? Would you have missed all the delight it has given you?”
“Art is the greatest thing in the world,” he answered, after a pause.
This is all very well. But I believe there’s a deeper reading of The Moon and Sixpence, a much more fascinating reading that puts the tension not between competing ideals and forces of the world at large, but within the artist himself. The narrator refers to Strickland’s inward focus and a kind of desperate inner struggle again and again in the novel. Like when he first visits Strickland in Paris:
He did not seem to care much about the Paris he was now seeing for the first time (I did not count the visit with his wife), and he accepted sights which must have been strange to him without any sense of astonishment. I have been to Paris a hundred times, and it never fails to give me a thrill of excitement; I can never walk its streets without feeling myself on the verge of adventure. Strickland remained placid. Looking back, I think now that he was blind to everything but to some distrubing vision in his soul.
And in trying to explain Strickland’s behavior to his wife:
“You know, I’m not sure that your husband is quite responsible for his actions. I do not think he is himself. He seems to me to be possessed by some power which is using him for its own ends, and in whose hold he is as helpless as a fly in a spider’s web. It’s as though someone had cast a spell over him. I’m reminded of those strange stories one sometimes hears of another personality entering into a man and driving out the old one. The soul lives unstably in the body, and is capable of mysterious transformations. In the old days they would say Charles Strickland had a devil.”
And in describing how Strickland painted:
Meanwhile he had never ceased to work at his art; but had soon tired of the studios, entirely by himself. He had never been so poor that he could not buy canvas and paint, and really he needed nothing else. So far as I could make out, he painted with great difficulty, and in his unwillingness to accept help from anyone lost much time in finding out for himself the solution of technical problems which preceding generations had already worked out one by one. He was aiming at something, I knew not what, and perhaps he hardly knew himself; and I got again more strongly the impression of a man possessed. He did not seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not show his pictures because he was really not interested in them. He lived in a dream, and the reality meant nothing to him. I had the feeling that he worked on a canvas with all the force of his violent personality, oblivious of everything in his effort to get what he saw with the mind’s eye; and then, having finished, not the picture perhaps, for I had an idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it. He was never satisfied with what he had done; it seemed to him of no consequence compared with the vision that obsessed his mind.
And after Strickland recovers from his illness:
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 thought of Marsyas, whom the god flayed because he had dared to rival him in song. Strickland seemed to bear in his heart strange harmonies and unadventured patterns, and I foresaw for him an end of torture and despair. I had again the feeling that he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say that it was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force that existed before good and ill.
But no where is this deeper reading made more clear than in Chapter 41, the concluding chapter of the novel’s first part, where the narrator and Strickland confront each other—the narrator confronting Strickland over the havoc he has wracked in the Stroeves’ lives (in the end, Blanche Stroeve kills herself by drinking acid) and Strickland confronting the narrator with his harsh and friendless vision of the world. It’s not too long, so allow me to quote it here in total, with a few highlights and commentaries along the way.
We arrived at the house in which I lived. I would not ask him to come in with me, but walked up the stairs without a word. He followed me, and entered the apartment on my heels. He had not been in it before, but he never gave a glance at the room I had been at pains to make pleasing to the eye. There was a tin of tobacco on the table, and, taking out his pipe, he filled it. He sat down on the only chair that had no arms and tilted himself on the back legs.
“If you’re going to make yourself at home, why don’t you sit in an arm-chair?” I asked irritably.
“Why are you concerned about my comfort?”
“I’m not,” I retorted, “but only about my own. It makes me uncomfortable to see someone sit in an uncomfortable chair.”
He chuckled, but did not move. He smoked on in silence, taking no further notice of me, and apparently was absorbed in thought I wondered why he had come.
Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.
The writer is more concerned to know than to judge.
This is an essential passage to one of the points I’ll make later in this essay—that The Moon and Sixpence is, among other things, also a novel about writing and the writer’s art. But for now, I’ll just say that it’s probably safe to assume that this passage reflects Maugham’s own motivation for creating Strickland, and that this novel is his vehicle for exploring how far such a personality can go.
There was in my soul a perfectly genuine horror of Strickland, and side by side with it a cold curiosity to discover his motives. I was puzzled by him, and I was eager to see how he regarded the tragedy he had caused in the lives of people who had used him with so much kindness. I applied the scalpel boldly.
“Stroeve told me that picture you painted of his wife was the best thing you’ve ever done.”
Strickland took his pipe out of his mouth, and a smile lit up his eyes.
“It was great fun to do.”
“Why did you give it him?”
“I’d finished it. It wasn’t any good to me.”
As the narrator has already said: “I had the feeling that he worked on a canvas with all the force of his violent personality, oblivious of everything in his effort to get what he saw with the mind’s eye; and then, having finished, not the picture perhaps, for I had an idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it.” To me, this passion for the process of creation and disregard for the created is one of most essential artistic sensibilities.
“Do you know that Stroeve nearly destroyed it?”
“It wasn’t altogether satisfactory.”
He was quiet for a moment or two, then he took his pipe out of his mouth again, and chuckled.
“Do you know that the little man came to see me?”
“Weren’t you rather touched by what he had to say?”
“No; I thought it damned silly and sentimental.”
“I suppose it escaped your memory that you’d ruined his life?” I remarked.
He rubbed his bearded chin reflectively.
“He’s a very bad painter.”
“But a very good man.”
Can’t one be both? And isn’t this one of the core questions the novel seems to be asking? Is it possible to be a good painter and a good man—an artist and a human being?
“And an excellent cook,” Strickland added derisively.
His callousness was inhuman, and in my indignation I was not inclined to mince my words.
“As a mere matter of curiosity I wish you’d tell me, have you felt the smallest twinge of remorse for Blanche Stroeve’s death?”
I watched his face for some change in expression, but it remained impassive.
“Why should I?” he asked.
“Let me put the facts before you. You were dying, and Dirk Stroeve took you into his house. He nursed you like a mother. He sacrificed his time and his comfort and his money for you. He snatched you from the jaws of death.”
Strickland shrugged his shoulders.
“The absurd little man enjoys doing things for other people. That’s his life.”
“Granting that you owed him no gratitude, were you obliged to go out of your way to take his wife from him? Until you came on the scene they were happy. Why couldn’t you leave them alone?”
“What makes you think they were happy?”
“It was evident.”
“You are a discerning fellow. Do you think she could ever have forgiven him for what he did for her?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Don’t you know why he married her?”
I shook my head.
“She was a governess in the family of some Roman prince, and the son of the house seduced her. She thought he was going to marry her. They turned her out into the street neck and crop. She was going to have a baby, and she tried to commit suicide. Stroeve found her and married her.”
“It was just like him. I never knew anyone with so compassionate a heart.”
I had often wondered why that ill-assorted pair had married, but just that explanation had never occurred to me. That was perhaps the cause of the peculiar quality of Dirk’s love for his wife. I had noticed in it something more than passion. I remembered also how I had always fancied that her reserve concealed I knew not what; but now I saw in it more than the desire to hide a shameful secret. Her tranqility was like the sullen calm that broods over an island which has been swept by a hurricane. Her cheerfulness was the cheerfulness of despair. Strickland interrupted my reflections with an observation the profound cynicism of which startled me.
“A woman can forgive a man for the harm he does her,” he said, “but she can never forgive him for the sacrifices he makes on her account.”
“It must be reassuring to you to know that you certainly run no risk of incurring the resentment of the women you come in contact with,” I retorted.
A slight smile broke on his lips.
“You are always prepared to sacrifice your principles for a repartee,” he answered.
“What happened to the child?”
“Oh, it was still-born, three or four months after they were married.”
Then I came to the question which had seemed to me most puzzling.
“Will you tell me why you bothered about Blanche Stroeve at all?”
He did not answer for so long that I nearly repeated it.
“How do I know?” he said at last. “She couldn’t bear the sight of me. It amused me.”
He gave a sudden flash of anger.
“Damn it all, I wanted her.”
But he recovered his temper immediately, and looked at me with a smile.
“At first she was horrified.”
“Did you tell her?”
“There wasn’t any need. She knew. I never said a word. She was frightened. At last I took her.”
I do not know what there was in the way he told me this that extraordinarily suggested the violence of his desire. It was disconcerting and rather horrible. His life was strangely divorced from material things, and it was as though his body at times wreaked a fearful revenge on his spirit. The satyr in him suddenly took possession, and he was powerless in the grip of an instinct which had all the strength of the primitive forces of nature. It was an obsession so complete that there was no room in his soul for prudence or gratitude.
That tension within Strickland again.
“But why did you want to take her away with you?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” he answered, frowning. “When she said she was coming I was nearly as surprised as Stroeve. I told her that when I’d had enough of her she’d have to go, and she said she’d risk that.” He paused a little. “She had a wonderful body, and I wanted to paint a nude. When I’d finished my picture I took no more interest in her.”
“And she loved you with all her heart.”
He sprang to his feet and walked up and down the small room.
“I don’t want love. I haven’t time for it. It’s weakness. I am a man, and sometimes I want a woman. When I’ve satisfied my passion I’m ready for other things. I can’t overcome my desire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work.
It is a battle, this dedicated pursuit of art. Even while the artist is pursuing it, the baser elements of his nature continue to drag him back down to earth. In pursuing his art, the artist is, in fact, rebelling against his own nature.
“Because women can do nothing except love, they’ve given it a ridiculous importance. They want to persuade us that it’s the whole of life. It’s an insignificant part. I know that. That’s normal and healthy. Love is a disease. Women are the instruments of my pleasure; I have no patience with their claim to be helpmates, partners, companions.”
But doesn’t this passage obscure the true conflict? It is, after all, within Strickland, not between him and the world. Does not even Strickland see that?
I had never heard Strickland speak so much at one time. He spoke with a passion of indignation. But neither here nor elsewhere do I pretend to give his exact words; his vocabulary was small, and he had no gift for framing sentences, so that one had to piece his meaning together out of interjections, the expression of his face, gestures and hackneyed phrases.
“You should have lived at a time when women were chattels and men the masters of slaves,” I said.
“It just happens that I am a completely normal man.”
I could not help laughing at this remark, made in all seriousness; but he went on, walking up and down the room like a caged beast, intent on expressing what he felt, but found such difficulty in putting it coherently.
“When a woman loves you she’s not satisfied until she possesses your soul. Because she’s weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has a small mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unable to grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she is jealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through the uttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprison it in the circle of her account-book. Do you remember my wife? I saw Blanche little by little trying all her tricks. With infinite patience she prepared to snare me and bind me. She wanted to bring me down to her level; she cared nothing for me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to do everything in the world for me except the one thing I wanted: to leave me alone.”
And here Maugham brings together the internal and external tensions he has been weaving together throughout the novel. Strickland himself doesn’t fully realize that the struggle is within him. To a certain extent he has externalized it onto his wife, Blanche, and all women. But read the above highlighted section as if “she” was a metaphor for Strickland’s earthly desire. That is the “she” that truly imprisons him.
I was silent for a while.
“What did you expect her to do when you left her?”
“She could have gone back to Stroeve,” he said irritably. “He was ready to take her.”
“You’re inhuman,” I answered. “It’s as useless to talk to you about these things as to describe colours to a man who was born blind.”
He stopped in front of my chair, and stood looking down at me with an expression in which I read a contemptuous amazement.
“Do you really care a twopenny damn if Blanche Stroeve is alive or dead?”
I thought over his question, for I wanted to answer it truthfully, at all events to my soul.
“It may be a lack of sympathy in myself if it does not make any great difference to me that she is dead. Life had a great deal to offer her. I think it’s terrible that she should have been deprived of it in that cruel way, and I am ashamed because I do not really care.”
“You have not the courage of your convictions. Life has no value. Blanche Stroeve didn’t commit suicide because I left her, but because she was a foolish and unbalanced woman. But we’ve talked about her quite enough; she was an entirely unimportant person. Come, and I’ll show you my pictures.”
He spoke as though I were a child that needed to be distracted. I was sore, but not with him so much as with myself. I thought of the happy life that pair had led in the cosy studio in Montmartre, Stroeve and his wife, their simplicity, kindness, and hospitality; it seemed to me cruel that it should have been broken to pieces by a ruthless chance; but the cruellest thing of all was that in fact it made no great difference. The world went on, and no one was a penny worse for all that wretchedness. I had an idea that Dirk, a man of greater emotional reactions than depth of feeling, would soon forget; and Blanche’s life, begun with who knows what bright hopes and what dreams, might just as well have never been lived. It all seemed useless and inane.
Whose side is our narrator on? He is an artist after all. And so is Maugham. But Strickland is right. He hasn’t the courage of his convictions. Does that mean he will never be great?
Strickland had found his hat, and stood looking at me.
“Are you coming?”
“Why do you seek my acquaintance?” I asked him. “You know that I hate and despise you.”
He chuckled good-humouredly.
“Your only quarrel with me really is that I don’t care a twopenny damn what you think about me.”
I felt my cheeks grow red with sudden anger. It was impossible to make him understand that one might be outraged by his callous selfishness. I longed to pierce his armour of complete indifference. I knew also that in the end there was truth in what he said. Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence. I suppose it is the bitterest wound to human pride. But I would not let him see that I was put out.
“Is it possible for any man to disregard others entirely?” I said, though more to myself than to him. “You’re dependent on others for everything in existence. It’s a preposterous attempt to try to live only for yourself and by yourself. Sooner or later you’ll be ill and tired and old, and then you’ll crawl back into the herd. Won’t you be ashamed when you feel in your heart the desire for comfort and sympathy? You’re trying an impossible thing. Sooner or later the human being in you will yearn for the common bonds of humanity.”
“Come and look at my pictures.”
“Have you ever thought of death?”
“Why should I? It doesn’t matter.”
I stared at him. He stood before me, motionless, with a mocking smile in his eyes; but for all that, for a moment I had an inkling of a fiery, tortured spirit, aiming at something greater than could be conceived by anything that was bound up with the flesh. I had a fleeting glimpse of a pursuit of the ineffable. I looked at the man before me in his shabby clothes, with his great nose and shining eyes, his red beard and untidy hair; and I had a strange sensation that it was only an enevelope, and I was in the presence of a disembodied spirit.
“Let us go look at your pictures,” I said.
Maugham is wrestling with something really big here, and this is an amazing chapter in which the elements of his story enmesh perfectly with his theme. It is a story—an interplay between two characters on a page—but at the same time it is a deep exploration of what makes great art great, and the kind of sacrifices the artist must make if he is to achieve it. But it is not a polemic. The theme is the story and the story is the theme. It really blows me away.
The recognition of Strickland’s inner struggle is a kind of learning experience for our narrator. To his eyes, as all good fiction does for the reader, Strickland’s behavior reveals both the depths and heights of the human experience; and as a result he is better able to diagnose the baser motivations of others.
Mrs. Strickland shrugged her shoulders impatiently. I think I was a little disappointed in her. I expected then people to be more of a piece that I do now, and I was distressed to find so much vindictiveness in so charming a creature. I did not realise how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side by side in the same human heart.
And after Strickland has gone off to Tahiti, the narrator spends a good deal of time reflecting on the dual forces that seemed to always be at work within the artist.
With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place. It was unimportant. It was irksome. His soul aimed elsewhither. He had violent passions, and on occasion desire seized his body so that he was driven to an orgy of lust, but he hated the instincts that robbed him of his self-possession. I think, even, he hated the inevitable partner in his debauchery. When he had regained command over himself, he shuddered at the sight of the woman he had enjoyed. His thoughts floated then serenely in the empyrean, and he felt towards her the horror that perhaps the painted butterfly, hovering about the flowers, feels to the filthy chrysalis from which it has triumphantly emerged. I suppose that art is a manifestation of the sexual instinct. It is the same emotion which is excited in the human heart by the sight of a lovely woman, the Bay of Naples under the yellow moon, and the Entobment of Titian. It is possible that Strickland hated the normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal by comparison with the satisfaction of artistic creation. It seems strange even to myself, when I have described a man who was cruel, selfish, brutal and sensual, to say that he was a great idealist. The fact remains.
There are other elements of the novel that make it clear to me that Maugham is intentionally writing something more than just a story about a stockbroker who decides to become an artist—that he is only using that plot line to explore larger concepts. Early in the novel we come across this description of the younger generation and their reaction to The Great War:
Now the war has come, brining with it a new attitude. Youth has turned to gods we of an earlier day knew not, and it is possible to see already the direction in which those who come after us will move. The younger generation, conscious of strength and tumultuous, have done with knocking at the door; they have burst in and seated themselves in our seats. The air is noisy with their shouts. Of their elders some, by imitating the antics of youth, strive to persuade themselves that their day is not yet over; they shout with the lustiest, but the war cry sounds hollow in their mouths; they are like poor wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder, with shrill gaiety, to recover the illusion of their spring. The wiser go their way with a decent grace. In their chastened smile is an indulgent mockery. They remember that they too trod down a sated generation, with just such clamor and with just such scorn, and they foresee that these brave torch-bearers will presently yield their place also. There is no last word. The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatness to the sky. These gallant words which seem so novel to those that speak them were said in accents scarcely changed a hundred times before. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards. The circle is ever travelled anew.
When I read that, I can’t help but think that Maugham is talking about something more than a young generation’s clamor for war and power. He is talking, I believe, about his novel itself, revealing both that its themes are universal, and confessing that he truly has nothing new to help resolve the eternal quest of the artist, who struggles against the world and against himself to reveal truth and beauty in art. In the end, just as Strickland fails, Maugham fails, too. But he must believe, as I do, that the goal is never diminished in a thousand failed attempts to realize it.
Strickland is a painter and the art of the novel is clearly painting, but Maugham is a writer, and the novel is also very much about writing, Maugham uses the novel as a vehicle to both make direct commentary about writing:
It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours’ relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.
and as an opportunity to present painting and Strickland’s struggles as a metaphor for writing on his own. In the following, the narrator is talking about Strickland and his paintings, but of course it is also Maugham talking about his writing.
A man’s work reveals him. In social intercourse he gives you the surface that he wishes the world to accept, and you can only gain a true knowledge of him by inferences from little actions, of which he is unconscious, and from fleeting expressions, which cross his face unknown to him. Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem. But in his book or his picture the real man delivers himself defenceless. His pretentiousness will only expose his vacuity. The lathe painted to look like iron is seen to be but a lathe. No affectation of peculiarity can conceal a commonplace mind. To the acute observer no one can produce the most casual work without disclosing the innermost secrets of his soul.
At one point, Maugham even pushes his metaphor of painting as writing to its very edge, when the narrator comments on the kind of art that attracted Strickland’s interest:
When later, in Vienna, I saw several of Peter Brueghel’s pictures, I thought I understood why he had attracted Strickland’s attention. Here, too, was a man with a vision of the world peculiar to himself. I made somewhat copious notes at the time, intending to write something about him, but I have lost them, and have now only the recollection of an emotion. He seemed to see his fellow-creatures grotesquely, and he was angry with them because they were grotesque; life was a confusion of ridiculous, sordid happenings, a fit subject for laughter, and yet it made him sorrowful to laugh. Brueghel gave me the impression of a man striving to express in one medium feelings more appropriate to expression in another, and it may be that it was the obscure consciousness of this that excited Strickland’s sympathy. Perhaps both were trying to put down in paint ideas which were more suitable to literature.
“…life was a confusion of ridiculous, sordid happenings, a fit subject for laughter, and yet it made him sorrowful to laugh.” Maugham was clearly someone who understood the purpose and power of fiction. And for us budding authors, he even scatters a few pointers about the craft in the text of this novel—making it also a kind of workshop in how to construct some of the magic he has performed.
If I were writing a novel, rather than narrating such facts as I know of a curious personality, I should have invented much to account for this change of heart.
The change of heart the narrator is speaking about is Strickland’s decision to give up his career and his family and to pursue art. The narrator isn’t writing a novel, but Maugham is, so why didn’t Maugham invent much to account for this? Why didn’t he do as the narrator soon describes:
I think I should have shown a strong vocation in boyhood, crushed by the will of his father or sacrificed to the necessity of earning a living; I should have pictured him impatient of the restraints of life; and in the struggle between his passion for art and the duties of his station I could have aroused sympathy for him. I should so have made him a more imposing figure. Perhaps it would have been possible to see in him a new Prometheus. There was here, maybe, the opportunity for a modern version of the hero who for the good of mankind exposes himself to the agonies of the damned.
Maugham didn’t do any of this, and here and in the section that follows he is making it clear he made a conscious decision not to. To have done otherwise would have only served to dilute his core theme. The artist is no Prometheus. He is not doing anything for the benefit of mankind. He is pursuing his own demon strictly for his own purposes. To do otherwise—to create for the sake of others—inevitably perverts art into commerce. Seeing the ultimate truth that undergirds all that there is should be reward enough.
In the end this is very much a book about art and its unique power to reveal truth and beauty. As Dirk Stroeve admonishes his wife when she complains that he fawns too much over Strickland’s paintings:
“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 had made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognise 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.”
And especially when the narrator is finally shown some of Strickland’s paintings, his thoughts and reactions reveal the unbridled power that all great artists unknowingly tap from time to time:
But if I was puzzled and disconcerted, I was not unimpressed. Even I, in my colossal ignorance, could not but feel that here, trying to express itself, was real power. I was excited and interested. I felt that these pictures had something to say to me that was very important for me to know, but I could not tell what it was. They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyse. They said something that words were powerless to utter. I fancy that Strickland saw vaguely some spiritual meaning in material things that was so strange that he could only suggest it with halting symbols. It was as though he found in the choas of the universe a new pattern, and were attempting clumsily, with anguish of soul, to set it down. I saw a tormented spirit striving for the release of expression.
I wrote about this “spiritual meaning in material things” in one of my books, in Columbia, in the chapter in which Reuben struggles to capture with charcoal and paper the essential truth he sees in the faces of his fellow Confederate soldiers. And Reuben’s struggle to capture it is the same struggle that here anguishes Strickland’s soul, striving for the release of expression that our narrator—that Maugham—next says is all but futile:
The only thing that seemed clear to me—and perhaps even this was fanciful—was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what the power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.
This reminds me of something else I wrote, in one of the Farchrist Tales, something about there not being any “us”, there only being in every human relationship a “you” and a “me”. It is difficult for me to describe the feeling that comes over me when I see my own thoughts—thoughts I have teased and struggled out of my brain through the discipline of fiction—reflected back at me off the page of another author’s work, especially ones written well before the time of my birth. And it is on the very next page that our narrator says this to Strickland:
“I do not know what infinite yearning possesses you, so that you are driven to a perilous, lonely search for some goal where you expect to find a final release from the spirit that torments you. I see you as the eternal pilgrim to some shrine that perhaps does not exist. I do not know to what inscrutable Nirvana you aim. Do you know yourself?”
No, Strickland doesn’t know. Just as Captain Ahab didn’t. Just as I don’t. The artist never truly does, but as Maugham describes late in the book in the guise of another one of the characters who knew Strickland:
There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world.
And it is in this same character, Captain Brunot, that we late in the novel get an interesting comparison to the character of Strickland. Shortly after the above quote, Captain Brunot tells the narrator his own story.
“Did I not tell you that I, too, in my way was an artist? I realised in myself the same desire as animated him. But whereas his medium was paint, mine has been life.”
Then Captain Brunot told me a story which I must repeat, since, if only by way of contrast, it adds something to my impression of Strickland. It has also to my mind a beauty of its own.
Captain Brunot was a Breton, and had been in the French Navy. He left it on his marriage, and settled down on a small property he had near Quimper to live for the rest of his days in peace; but the failure of an attorney left him suddenly penniless, and neither he nor his wife was willing to live in penury where they had enjoyed consideration. During his seafaring days he had cruised the South Seas, and he determined now to seek his fortune there. He spent some months in Papeete to make his plans and gain experience; then, on money borrowed from a friend in France, he bought an island in the Paumotus. It was a ring of land round a deep lagoon, uninhabited, and covered only with scrub and wild guava. With the intrepid woman who was his wife, and a few natives, he landed there, and set about building a house, and clearing the scrub so that he could plant cocoa-nuts. That was twenty years before, and now what had been a barren island was a garden.
“It was hard and anxious work at first, and we worked strenuously, both of us. Every day I was up at dawn, clearing, planting, working on my house, and at night when I threw myself on my bed it was to sleep like a log till morning. My wife worked as hard as I did. Then children were born to us, first a son and then a daughter. My wife and I have taught them all they know. We had a piano sent out from France, and she has taught them to play and to speak English, and I have taught them Latin and mathematics, and we read history together. They can sail a boat. They can swim as well as the natives. There is nothing about the land of which they are ignorant. Our trees have prospered, and there is shell on my reef. I have come to Tahiti now to buy a schooner. I can get enough shell to make it worth while to fish for it, and, who knows? I may find pearls. I have made something where there was nothing. I too have made beauty. Ah, you do not know what it is to look at those tall, healthy trees and think that every one I planted myself.”
“Let me ask you the question that you asked Strickland. Do you never regret France and your old home in Brittany?”
“Some day, when my daughter is married and my son has a wife and is able to take my place on the island, we shall go back and finish our days in the old house in which I was born.”
“You will look back on a happy life,” I said.
“Evidemment, it is not exciting on my island, and we are very far from the world—imagine, it takes me four days to come to Tahiti—but we are happy there. It is given to few men to attempt a work and to achieve it. Our life is simple and innocent. We are untouched by ambition, and what pride we have is due only to our contemplation of the work of our hands. Malice cannot touch us, nor envy attack. Ah, mon cher monsieur, they talk of the blessedness of labour, and it is a meaningless phrase, but to me it has the most intense significance. I am a happy man.”
“I am sure you deserve to be,” I smiled.
“I wish I could think so. I do not know how I have deserved to have a wife who was the perfect friend and helpmate, the perfect mistress and the perfect mother.”
I reflected for a while on the life that the Captain suggested to my imagination.
“It is obvious that to lead such an existence and make so great a success of it, you must both have needed a strong will and a determined character.”
“Perhaps; but without one other factor we could have achieved nothing.”
“And what was that?”
He stopped, somewhat dramatically, and stretched out his arm.
“Belief in God. Without that we should have been lost.
Brunot sees the moon in his sixpence. His high ideals are the common work and bonds of him and his small family. And the satisfaction that this brings him is only possible because he has belief in God. What does that mean for Strickland, who utterly spurned the same simple joys of life in pursuit of something else? And, because this is so much a book about art and artists, what does that mean for the artist who wishes to reveal truth? Is belief in God a pathway to that truth, as so many believe, or is it in fact an impediment?
Strickland dies of leprosy at the end of the novel, blind and misshapen for the last year of his life. In that year, his canvas became the interior walls of his Tahitian hut. This is how Maugham describes their effect on the only person who saw the paintings they contained—other than Strickland’s Tahitian common-law wife—before the hut was destroyed.
His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and now he was seized by an overwhleming sensation as he stared at the painted walls. He knew nothing of pictures, but there was something about these that extraordinarily affected him. From floor to ceiling the walls were covered with a strange and elaborate composition. It was indescribably wonderful and mysterious. It took his breath away. It filled him with an emotion which he could not understand or analyse. He felt the awe and the delight which a man might feel who watched the beginning of the world. It was a tremendous, sensual, passionate; and yet there was something horrible there, too, something which made him afraid. It was the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets which were beautiful and fearful too. It was the work of a man who knew things which it is unholy for men to know. There was something primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to his mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.
I think this may very well answer my question about belief in God. The truth revealed in art is not human. That’s probably what makes it obscene. But it is truth, and that, above all else, is what makes it beautiful.