For most people life is quite a simple affair: acquire some education, find a job, marry, bring up children, grow old and die. There are the usual entertainments and challenges in the process: the society, colleagues, petty jealousies, workplace rivalry, children’s caprices, social networks, weekly religion, etc. Very few people are beset by a haunting passion that drives them toward the hazy moon beyond the usual horizon. Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence, tells the story of a man who gave up his career and family at the age of 40 for the sake of pursuing his moon.
Charles Strickland gives up his stockbroker job in London at the age of 40 and leaves for Paris to pursue painting. He doesn’t even care to inform his wife
why he is leaving. Nor has he left her any money. When the narrator meets him in a shoddy hotel in Paris on his wife’s request, Strickland says tersely, “I’ve got to paint.” He is not concerned about his family at all. He has looked after them for 17 years, he says, and now they should look after themselves. As simple as that.
But why is he pursuing painting now when he has crossed half of his life? If not now, when? That’s Strickland’s counter-question. He may not be a good painter. But he cannot resist his heart’s demand. He compares himself to a man falling into the water. “When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.” He has to paint; there’s no other choice.
When the narrator points out that his act is very irresponsible and reminds him that the world couldn’t go on if everyone acted like him, his answer is: “That’s a damned silly thing to say. Everyone doesn’t want to act like me. The great majority are perfectly content to do the ordinary thing.”
Yes, Strickland is extraordinary. He is like a man who has been enchanted by a pied piper. He has no choice but paint. And he paints. The eminent artists in Paris mock his painting but that doesn’t deter him a bit. Dirk Stroeve is the only painter who perceives the worth of Strickland’s paintings. He knows that Strickland’s genius will be recognised eventually.
When Strickland falls seriously ill, Stroeve takes him to his own home heedless of his wife’s warning against it. When Strickland recovers he assaults Mrs Stroeve sexually. She seems to like that too. Dirk is too sentimental to be macho and Strickland is the personification of masculine power. Blanche Stroeve not only becomes a nude model for Strickland but also leaves her husband. Eventually Blanche realises that Strickland doesn’t love her and that he is incapable of love and she kills herself. Even Blanche’s death doesn’t move Strickland.
Strickland is incapable of love, reflects the narrator. Love “is an emotion in which tenderness is an essential part, but Strickland had no tenderness either for himself or for others; there is in love a sense of weakness, a desire to protect, an eagerness to do good and to give pleasure… it has in it a certain diffidence. These were not traits which I could imagine in Strickland.” He was “at once too great and too small for love.”
But Strickland leaves Paris after Blanche’s death. Dirk also leaves. Dirk returns to his hometown while Strickland finds his abode in Tahiti where a young Tahitian woman, Ata, will subjugate herself to his whims and fancies and bear his children though he is not concerned about any of them. He continues to paint until leprosy grips him and slowly kills him.
When his family members in London come to know about his ignominious death, they moralise it: “The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.” The narrator is not quire sure of that. Who are we to judge people? Some people like Strickland are born out of place and they have to go searching for their appropriate place even if the quest is a reaching-out for the moon.
Strickland became very famous after his death. His paintings sold for enormous sums of money. He was indeed a genius. The rules of the normal people don’t apply to geniuses. Strickland had no heart in the normal human understanding. The man had dismissed love bluntly as a “weakness” and “a disease”. Yet the narrator tells us that Strickland had his own greatness.
Strickland was single-minded about his passion. He was not affected by normal human vices like greed and jealousy. He had no desire for fame or even simple appreciation. He made no compromises with anyone. He never wanted anything from fellow human beings except to be left alone. He could sacrifice not only himself but also others for reaching his ends. He had a vision and he pursued it with his entire being.
Strickland was modelled on Paul Gauguin who abandoned his career and family to pursue painting.
PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
3. The Castle
Tomorrow: No Exit