Time for a re-read of another wonderful W. Somerset Maugham novel, The Moon and Sixpence, published nearly 100 years ago in 1919. This novel is inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, but in this fictionalized account, the protagonist is British, a man called Charles Strickland. In some ways, the novel reminds me of the best of Henry James, for we have a narrator who isn’t exactly involved but is a peripheral canny observer to crucial events. We don’t ever find out a great deal about the life of our narrator as this is the story of Charles Strickland, and when the novel opens we know that Strickland is an artist of some renown. We also know that there is some controversy about Strickland’s life with the intriguing information that his son and biographer, the Rev. Robert Strickland has “an astonishing ability for explaining things away.”
The narrator goes back in time to his youth as an aspiring author in London, part of a circle of writers, and his introduction to Mrs. Strickland, one of a number of women who hosts luncheons for those in the literary world. The narrator rather likes Mrs. Strickland, a woman in her late 30s, as she’s kind and has a genuine “passion for reading.” Unlike many of these literary groupies, she has no ambitions of her own, and is apparently content to have these young authors in her home–as if their mere acquaintance makes her own life more interesting. Mr. Strickland is noticeably absent, but since he’s a broker on the stock exchange, and according to his wife, “a perfect philistine,” his absence seems both expected and no loss to the literary society that gathers at Mrs. Strickland’s table. But all hell breaks loose when rumours abound that Strickland, after 17 years of seemingly-happy married life, has deserted his wife and family and run off to Paris with a woman. Shortly afterwards, Mrs. Strickland summons the narrator and begs him to go to Paris, track down her husband, and bring him back. The narrator somewhat reluctantly accepts…
Over the course of a number of years, the narrator runs into Strickland. One time is, of course, an intentional meeting with Strickland, in theory, being lectured about his ‘moral obligations.’ Strickland, however, is the most curious character. How can one appeal to morality and conscience when the person who’s receiving the lecture has simply opted out of the moral system he’s supposed to adhere to?
When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves. Generally they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the upmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours. It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation is perhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilized man.
No one, of course, forced Strickland to marry, have children or become a mediocre stock broker, but he seems, in his youth, to have made the decision, as most of us do, to go with the flow, and now, at forty, seeing the years ahead, he has taken drastic, one might say callous measures, to change his life. Strickland’s genuine lack of concern of the opinions of others “gave him a freedom which was an outrage.”
A second meeting with Strickland 5 years later would seem to reveal more information about his character, but instead a tragic chain of events involving Strickland only creates a chasm of questions and ambiguities. One thing is clear, however, if those involved or connected with Strickland expect him to abide by any traditional code of morality or behavior, they are going to be hurt. Strickland is a toxic and destructive man. He takes and uses and expects the same in return.
The narrator admits a deep curiosity about Strickland which has morphed into fascination with a character that cannot be dissected, understood, analyzed or neatly boxed:
It was tantalizing to get no more than hints into a character that interested me so much. It was like making one’s way through a mutilated manuscript.
Years later, the narrator’s fascination with Strickland leads him to Tahiti where the truth, if there is indeed a truth about Strickland, is revealed in his nebulous legacy.
Our narrator is almost, but not quite, a tabula rasa, and even though this is predominantly Strickland’s story, if we dig carefully enough, flashes of the narrator’s character appear. We see not just fascination with Strickland but also perhaps a deeply buried sympathy. At first the narrator admits to a “touch of envy” for the “pleasant family life” at the Stricklands, but after an evening with them, he admits that while he understands the “social value” of the family unit, he desires a “wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights.” And then there are the narrator’s comments about the nature of women:
I did not then know the besetting sin of woman, the passion to discuss her private affairs with anyone who is willing to listen.
It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest.
Strickland’s use of women is divided in two simple groups: sex and models, and if the two become one temporarily, well so much the better:
What poor minds women have got! Love. It’s always love. They think a man leaves them only because he wants others. Do you think I should be such a fool as to do what I’ve done for a woman?
While the narrator is fascinated with Strickland simply as a previously-unknown character type, there also are strains of the doppelgänger in their relationship.
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 recognizes 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 civilized 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.
W. Somerset Maugham is a subtle writer, much under-read these days. When I reread these favourites, even though it seems as though I’ve returned to an old friend, there’s always something fresh to uncover. Certainly the test of an excellent novel is to return to it 2, 3, or 4 times and to find it new and intriguing each time.