The Moon and Sixpence by William Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham: 9780143039341 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

In his novels, Maugham deeply discusses the contradiction and interaction between life and art. The escapist theme revealed by the novel coincided with the pursuit of many people in the West and became a popular novel in the 20th century. Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence, inspired by Gauguin, was undoubtedly more fiction than fact. For the next decade, Gauguin thought he would finally be able to enjoy the fruits of his success and reunite the family. By comparing novels with reality, we can find that Gauguin’s pursuit of painting has its causal relationship and process development. But Strickland’s departure is very abrupt and too intense. In addition to the author’s use of fictional plots and narrative techniques, he has created a so-called pure sense of the artist who is unworldly. Compared with Gauguin’s departure, Strickland’s departure is completely out of line with the logic of reality and is even more incomprehensible to the reader. There is a deeper reason why Maugham is writing this way: the virtual satisfaction of Maugham’s ego. Sixpence was the smallest unit of silver in England at that time. People often forget the sixpence at their feet when they look at the moon. The moon is the ideal high above, the sixpence is the reality. The modernity of The Moon and Sixpence is first manifested in its conceptuality. In the The Moon and Sixpence, Maugham ostensibly describes the fate and encounter of the protagonist, but in fact reflects his own thinking on the relationship between art and life.

The questions that haunt the protagonist Strickland are what is the nature of art, how to deal with the relationship between art and experience, whether traditional means of expression are reliable, and the exploration of new forms of modern thinking. After experiencing constant twists and turns, Charles Strickland finally realized that art was a thing with great autonomy and independence, and different narrative perspectives would lead to different endings. Real life is real, ugly, cruel and heartless. Therefore, the beautiful and elegant art on the surface is only the whitewash of reality, while the essence of art is false. In the novel, Strickland also showed his extreme distrust of traditional artistic means. This kind of feeling made him have many difficulties in painting performance, and he fell into the dilemma of silence and inaction, and had to find a new way of expression suitable for himself. Maugham added his thoughts on artistic issues into his novel, which gave the novel a strong conceptual nature. This conceptual nature endowed the novel with rich and complex meanings. Through the surface layer and the deep layer, the confrontation between narration and ideas, the novel has broad tension and connotation, showing the strong characteristics of modern novels. The modernity of the The Moon and Sixpence is also reflected in the fictions of the characters.

Its characters do not pay attention to the distinctive personality characteristics, nor is it the representative of a certain type of characters, but often is a symbol of passion and a spirit. The image of the character is vague and unsentimental, like the background of a distant mountain in ink painting, which is lightly blurred. The reader needs to guess and infer from the suspense, hints, details, inspirations, and general atmosphere that the author places, and then gradually discover the symbolic meaning behind the characters. This is evident in the case of Strickland. There was always an unconventionality of mystery in his conduct, a preventive abruptness, and a succession of extraordinary acts. He is taciturn in speech who always speaks with half-utterance and is short and fragmented, concise as a telegram, or simply avoids direct contact with the reader and gives indirect hints through other witnesses. This often gives people a vague impression of looking at flowers in the fog. This behavior of Strickland showed his distrust of established language. In his view, the connection between language and what it refers to has been broken by the erosion of ugly reality. Language has become a web of consciousness permeated with the bourgeois concept of utility, a withered material, unable to express their inner exploration of the true meaning of things, so he cannot speak without searching for the right words and hesitation. His behavior also shows his fear and anxiety about revealing his true self.

Every time when it came to the subject of the ego, he either hedged and dithered to conceal his true heart, or he pretended to be deaf and dumb and remained silent for a long time in deep meditation. Even forced responses were questions and answers, extremely brief, devoid of any passion for conversation or desire for expression. At the end of the novel, he tries to hide his true self by simply escaping from European civilization and fleeing to uninhabited islands. Both of these situations, whether the extreme distrust of words or the fear of revealing one’s true self, have strong modern meanings. The modernity of The Moon and Sixpence is also reflected in the exploration of the role of human irrational consciousness, especially the primitive wild force in civilized society. Throughout the 19th century it was believed that a healthy life could not be lived without a reverence for form, order, organization, and pattern. It became a fashion for writers at that time to seek for order and a certain mode of time in order to transcend the random events. Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence began to live for many years in the rational rhythm of rigid rules. But he soon discovers that in this quiet order of life he gradually drains himself of his talents, his spirit, his vitality, and his creativity. Therefore, he went to the other extreme of life, allowing irrational consciousness to overflow and attack the rational order on the surface of life with savage, primitive and merciless forces.

He had become a dark and haughty monster of unfeeling power, a voice from the threshold of eternal darkness. His whole life was encompassed with sin and wickedness. In the end of the article after constant exploration, he finally came to realize that extreme rationality and irrationality are not healthy life. A healthy life is a rhythmic oscillation and inertia, a transient equilibrium point in a constantly changing life. One should have sincere courage and a faithful attitude towards life to resist the dark, pitiless, vast and gloomy primitive forces of nature. Maugham’s application of the narrator “I” also makes his novels unique. The narrator, on the one hand, has the function of connecting several plates experienced by the protagonist in structure, connecting them, either explicitly or implicitly, intentionally or unintentionally, into a whole in structure. “I”, as the witness of the event, has a direct relationship with the characters in the book and plays a role in promoting the development of the plot. On the other hand, “I”, the narrator, also has a complex and subtle relationship with the author and the reader, which can be said to be a medium for the connection between them. The narrative examination may be either a prop for the author to convey his thoughts to the reader, or it may be a smokescreen that Maugham deliberately creates in order to bring the reader closer to his thoughts. In The Moon and Sixpence, Strickland’s wife is stricken with grief when she learns that her husband has left home.

Combined with the vitriolic, vicious and merciless abuse that the wife later hurled at her husband, Charles Strickland, it is natural that the reader would discern in the attitude of the observer, “I,” that her grief was a mask. The narrator’s manner, however, was so vague that no one dared to judge whether it concealed a deeper meaning, or whether observing the movements of the furniture might be an attempt to conceal his genuine sympathy. Because in fact the narrator, “I,” develops itself into a veritable outsider, a true observer. He has also become a victim of the vagueness and ambiguity of his own making, and has lost the power of interpretation of the life presented to him as the reader. This is the attitude of the narrator, both true and false, both believable and unbelievable, reflecting the essence of complex life. Then, suddenly confused and ignorant again, the narrator, “I,” is charged with persuading Charles Strickland to return to his family. Filled with shallow curiosity, he questioned Charles Strickland, seeking out more anecdotes, and using the exhortation as a kind of charity, trying to bring Charles Strickland back to a life he despised. The more stupid and ignorant the narrator is, the more ridiculous he seems. When the reader finally decipher the author’s trap and decipher the word “freedom” from the plot, he finds that the mad-looking narrator is only a tool for the author to urge the reader to think. In this way, Maugham flexibly adjusts the relationship between readers, author and characters by means of narrators, making readers unconsciously accept their guidance without damaging their independence and confidence, adjusting their ideas, understanding and finally getting in line with the author, and finally accepting the author’s thoughts.

-Coreen C.

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