Strickland is a well-off, middle-class stockbroker in London sometime in late 19th or early 20th century. Early in the novel, he leaves his wife and children and goes to Paris. He lives a destitute but defiantly content life there as an artist (specifically a painter), lodging in run-down hotels and falling prey to both illness and hunger. Strickland, in his drive to express through his art what appears to continually possess and compel him on the inside, cares nothing for physical discomfort and is indifferent to his surroundings. He is generously supported, while in Paris, by a commercially successful but hackneyed Dutch painter, Dirk Stroeve, a friend of the narrator's, who immediately recognises Strickland's genius. After helping Strickland recover from a life-threatening condition, Stroeve is repaid by having his wife, Blanche, abandon him for Strickland. Strickland later discards the wife (all he really sought from Blanche was a model to paint, not serious companionship, and it is hinted in the novel's dialogue that he indicated this to her and she took the risk anyway), who then commits suicide – yet another human casualty (the first ones being his own established life and those of his wife and children) in Strickland's single-minded pursuit of Art and Beauty.
After the Paris episode, the story continues in Tahiti. Strickland has already died, and narrator attempts to piece together his life there from recollections of others. He finds that Strickland