The Moon and Sixpence Background

The Moon and Sixpence Background

The Moon and the Sixpence is a novel published by one of the most popular writers of the 20th century, Somerset Maugham, in 1919. Like much of Maugham’s fiction, especially his most beloved novels, it is related in the first-person point-of-view by a observation narrator associated with the protagonist. Also in keeping with Maugham’s preferred methodology of storyteller, if the reader happens to confuse the narrator with Maugham himself and the fictional story with being something that actually did happen, well, so much the better.

The Moon and the Sixpence is most often referred to—and famous for—as the story of French Neo-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Or, more colloquially, as “that Maugham novel about the painter who ran away to Tahiti.” In truth, the novel is not actually a retelling of the most exciting part of the Gaugin’s life—a two-part sojourn to the islands in the Pacific almost as notable for the paintings it produced as for the remarkably short period of time Gauguin actually spent there creating the works that made him famous.

Nevertheless, there is no mistaking the real-life figure upon whom Maugham’s Charles Strickland is based. The genesis for this fictionalized reimagining of the second most infamous aspect of Gaugin’s life (the first being his still rather mysterious role in the narrative of events leading to Vincent Van Gogh slicing off his ear) commenced as the result of a chance meeting between Maugham and an Irish painter named Roderick O’Conor who had come to known Gaugin back in the mid-1890’s and scandalous stories too numerous to keep track of and too tempting to ignore for a writer like Maugham who made a career out of turning real life into the fuel of his fiction. Before he actually set to the task of transforming one of the few of that remarkable gathering of French painters comprising the Impressionist movement whose own life could compare with Van Gogh’s in terms of sheer drama, however, Maugham has already fully completed a dry run.

The protagonist of what is either his most famous novel or second most famous—debate rages over whether Of Human Bondage or The Razor’s Edge is deserving of top honors—Philip Carey shares much in common thematically and psychologically with Charles Strickland. Of Human Bondage might well be described as a novel about what might have become of Paul Gauguin had he not finally decided to abandon his wife, kids, and relentlessly unhappy bourgeois existence to pursue painting full time with the final result being, of course, his escape from European middle-class life altogether in his flight to Tahiti.

The Moon and the Sixpence was, like almost everything Maugham published, a runaway international best-seller and has inspired a number of wildly uneven cinematic adaptations including at least two theatrical films (including one starring Laurence Olivier as Strickland) as well as, perhaps surprisingly, a robust number of severely foreshortened versions of the story written as episodes for anthology series. One of these, airing in 1951, actually appeared as an episode of a TV series titled Somerset Maugham TV Theater.

The popularity of the book can be gleaned from its subsequent cameo appearance in the history of pop culture. One of the books that gets burned in Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is Maugham’s novel. The Moon and the Sixpence is almost prominently referenced in the first chapter of Steven King’s Bag of Bones.

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