Charles Strickland leaves his job as a stockbroker and his wife and children in London to become a painter in Paris, eventually escaping to the isolation of Tahiti. His life is based not-so-roughly on that of Paul Gaugin, who also abandoned his family to paint, and who lived the last years of his life in Tahiti, and who was, by all accounts, an enormous asshole. Maugham stretches his characterization of Gaugin to the extreme, making him a callous, perhaps psychopathic narcissist devoid entirely of empathy. He makes it clear to the narrator, who travels to Paris to interrogate him on behalf of his wife, that he cares very little whether she misses him, or whether she can survive. One gets the impression from reading The Moon and Sixpence that the only reason Maugham gave the Gaugin-figure the slight disguise of a fictional name is because he didn't want to get sued out of existence for libel.
One question that The Moon and Sixpence is mercifully not very interested in is, how do we approach the art of obviously bad people? I feel like we have this conversation all the time, whether it's Cosby or Polanski or Tolstoy. Strickland is very bad; the main crisis of the novel occurs when he casually pries an associate's wife away from him, and then looks the other way as she kills herself by swallowing acid because he failed to love her. But Maugham introduces the question with a brief accounting of the fame that Strickland has received since his death, and dismisses the question with a wave of the hand: his critics obsess over the personal details of Strickland's sordid life, but nothing Strickland has done can obviate the vitality and innovation of his paintings.
The Moon and Sixpence asks what I think is a much more interesting question: What if the capacity for genius in art precludes things like basic decency, humanity, and empathy? We praise artists who are sui generis, who can see past the limitations of genre and history to a new kind of art. What if that is only by possible by rejecting the burdens placed on us by friendship, family, and love? Strickland doesn't even want fame--his last great act is to paint a masterpiece on the walls of his Tahitian hut while becoming blind from leprosy, and then make his Tahitian wife promise that she will burn it down when he dies. That's what we want, after all, a devotion to art for art's sake, but there is much that can be sacrificed to that ideal.
The most interesting thing about The Moon and Sixpence is that, it seems to me, Maugham envies the narcissism of his central character. Let me show you what I mean. First of all, Maugham cannily makes us wait for most of the novel to "see" one of Strickland's paintings, which for the narrator turns out to be disorienting and disappointing:
I knew nothing of the simplicity at which he aimed. I remembered a still-life of oranges on a plate, and I was bothered because the plate was not round and the oranges were lop-sided. The portraits were a little larger than life-size, and this gave them an ungainly look. To my eyes the faces looked like caricatures. They were painted in a way that was entirely new to me. The landscape puzzled me even more. There were two or three pictures of the forest and Fontainebleau and several of streets in Paris: my first feeling was that they might have been painted by a drunken cab-driver. I was perfectly bewildered. It passed through my mind that the whole thing was a stupendous, incomprehensible farce. Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve's acuteness. He saw from the first that here was a revolution in art, and he recognized in its beginnings the genius which now all the world allows.
The narrator tells us that Strickland "did not hesitate to simplify or distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought." The narrator himself distorts Strickland's story, by his own admission, but the distortions are not the kind to get us nearer to any sort of unknown truth. Rather, they do things like "clean up" Strickland's language and cajole his story into the neat, linear "unreality of fiction." The plot about Strickland and the artist's wife seems wholly manufactured, perhaps imported from a melodramatic film. Maugham's prose is tame and unadventurous; he aligns himself with his narrator, who is a moderately successful novelist who by his own admission "will continue to write moral stories in rhymed couplets." Books about art are always about the books themselves, in a way, and it's hard to ignore the disconnect between Strickland's/Gaugin's way of painting and the narrator's/Maugham's way of writing. The richest and saddest way of reading The Moon and Sixpence is to believe that Maugham has a great sympathy for Strickland's genius, and a melancholy regret that he cannot share it. The best he can do is appreciate it:
But one fact was made clear to me: people talk of beauty lightly, and having no feeling for words, they use that one carelessly, so that it loses its force; and the thing it stands for, sharing its name with a hundred trivial objects, is deprived of dignity. They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and when they are face to face with Beauty they cannot recognize it.