“Moon and Sixpence” by Somereset Maugham

Paul Gauguin paintings
Paul Gauguin Paintings [Public Domain]

If you are a lover of and familiar with Paul Gauguin’s paintings, then the historical fiction novel  “The Moon and Sixpence” by  Somereset Maugham is for you.

Paul Gauguin is loosely portrayed as Charles Strickland

The book is written in a first person by the main character, Charles Strickland, a egoistic pursuer of a painting career. Strickland in fact, is based loosely on the French artist, Paul Gauguin, who died nearly a decade before the novel’s publication.

The novel is a character study of how far a true artist will go for the sake of his art. Not only how much he will endure, but how much pain he will inflict upon others.

The book also explores the theme of the nature of obsession for the extreme creative urge (similar to the obsession behind Paul Gauguin’s Paintings)

And indeed Strickland is obsessed! The main character Strickland (like Paul Gauguin) suddenly leaves his wife and children in his early 40s in order to pursue his dream of painting. He leaves them without any remorse or regret. In fact, he never even contacts them again.

You cannot like Maugham’s character, Strickland, nor can you truly understand what makes him tick.

What is success? One that is acquired inwardly or outwardly?

One of the important questions Maugham raises in this novel is what makes up success? Who gets to decide if you are successful? Is it truly about how much you acquire outwardly or how much you acquire inwardly? 

I think Maugham thought that we too often attach the wrong meaning to life. Often we  strive for what society expects from us instead of the things that we yearn for in our dreams.

None of us desire to emulate the egoistic, selfish and hurtful Strickland (or Gauguin) character. Many of us wouldn’t want to come close to a character like them. However, the book does make us think about the complex choice of paving our own path or following the dictates of society.

Paul Gauguin paintings
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Paul Gauguin Paintings

Should such a creative genius be admired or shunned?

The book also makes you question the issue of how much society should forgive a great and talented artist, who is also a despicable human being. Should his admirers look the other way, thinking since he is no longer around and no more harm can be done by him?

These are all complicated themes and still very relevant today.

I assure you that after reading this novel, you will not look at Paul Gauguin’s paintings the same  again.

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Interested in more recommendations of art historical fiction novels? Below are some great gems based on the impressionists!