The Razor's Edge  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Razor's Edge is a novel by W. Somerset Maugham written in 1944. Its epigraph reads, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." —Katha-Upanishad.

The Razor's Edge tells the story of an American, Larry Darrell, who, traumatized by his experiences as a fighter pilot in World War I, decides to search for some transcendant meaning in his life. The novel tells its story through the eyes of Larry's friends and acquaintances as they witness his personality change after the War. His rejection of conventional life and search for meaningful experience allows him to thrive while the more materialistic characters suffer reversals of fortune. The book was twice adapted into film, first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney and a modern adaptation 1984 version starring Bill Murray in the lead, with Tibet replacing India as the place of Larry's enlightenment.


Maugham inserts himself as a minor character, a writer who drifts in and out of the lives of the major players. Larry's lifestyle is contrasted throughout the book with that of his fiancée's uncle, Elliott Templeton, an American expatriate living in Paris and a shallow and unrepentant yet generous snob.

Wounded and traumatized by the death of a comrade in the First World War, Larry returns to Lake Forest, Illinois and his fiancée, Isabel, only to announce that he does not plan to work and instead will "loaf" on his small inheritance. He wants to delay their marriage and refuses to take up a job as a stockbroker offered to him by the father of his friend, the amiable and predictable Gray Maturin. Meanwhile, Larry's childhood friend, Sophie, settles into a happy marriage,only later tragically losing her husband and baby in a car accident.

Larry moves to Paris and immerses himself in study and bohemian life. After two years of this "loafing", Isabel visits and Larry asks her to join his life of wandering and searching, living in Paris and traveling with little money. She cannot accept his vision of life and breaks their engagement to go back to Chicago. There she marries the millionaire Gray, who provides her a rich family life.

Larry has significant spiritual adventures in India and comes back to the City of Light. What he actually found there and what he finally concluded are held back from the reader for a considerable time, and in a scene late in the book, Maugham discusses India and spirituality with Larry in a café long into the evening.

The 1929 Stock Market crash has ruined Gray, and he and Isabel are invited to live in Uncle Elliott's grand Parisian house. Gray is bed-ridden with agonizing migraines due to a general nervous collapse. Larry is able to help him using an Indian form of hypnosis. Sophie has also drifted to the French capital, where her friends find her reduced to alcohol, opium and promiscuity - empty and dangerous liaisons that seem to help her to bury her pain. Larry first sets out to save her and then decides to marry her, something that won't be tolerated by Isabel, who is still in love with him.

Isabel invites Sophie out on the pretext of shopping for a wedding dress. She arranges to leave Sophie alone with drinks on a cart and Sophie, tempted, falls off the wagon and disappears. At this point, Maugham the narrator comes back on the scene to tell what happens and to play amateur detective. He runs into Sophie in Toulon, where he finds her on the arm of a sailor who is "dumb but beautiful." Sophie is past redemption and admits to Maugham that she's not worthy of Larry. "When it came to the point, I couldn't see myself being Mary Magdalen to his Jesus Christ." Maugham learns later that Sophie has been murdered, her throat cut.

Meanwhile in Antibes, Elliott Templeton, who has compulsively through out his life sought out aristocratic society, is on his deathbed. None of his titled friends come to see him but he ignores his loss. "I have always moved in the best society in Europe, and I have no doubt that I shall move in the best society in heaven."

Isabel inherits his fortune, but genuinely grieves for her uncle. Maugham confronts her about Sophie, having figured out what happened. Isabel's only punishment will be that she will never get Larry, who has decided to return to America and live as a common working man. He is uninterested in the rich and glamorous world that Isabel will move in. Maugham ends his narrative by suggesting that all the characters got what they wanted in the end: "Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position; . . . Sophie death; and Larry happiness."

Influences and Critical Reception

Maugham, like Hermann Hesse, was remarkably prescient in 1944, anticipating an embrace of Eastern culture by Americans and Europeans almost a decade before the Beats were to popularize it. Maugham himself visited an ashram in India in 1938. Maugham's suggestion that he "invented nothing" was a source of annoyance for Christopher Isherwood, who helped him translate a verse from the Upanishads for the novel's epigraph. Many thought Isherwood, who had built his own literary reputation by then and was studying Indian philosophy, was the basis for the book's hero. Isherwood went so far as to write Time magazine denying this speculation.

Maugham's depiction of women is narrow in this book. Isabel is shallow and controlling, having fondness for Elliott, possessive love for Larry and affectionate attachment, within the context of social approbation, for her husband. Sophie is confused and disordered. The accidental death of her husband and child leads her into a pattern of self-destruction.

In a scene illustrating Maugham's observations of women's behavior, he shows a woman in a cafe being slapped by her boyfriend and then resisting help. "If he slapped my face it's because I deserved it," she says to those who intervene. It can also be argued, however, that Maugham gave women more three-dimensional portrayals than was commonly fashionable in books and films of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

Though many might think Larry is an early Beatnik, the book speaks more to the romanticism attached to expatriate and bohemian living in European capitals. Larry does odd jobs just to get by as he scribbles away on a scholarly tome, telling the narrator it doesn't matter if few people read his finished work. Rather than wandering for "kicks" like Kerouac, Larry is driven by his quest for knowledge. When Isabel visits him in Paris and rejects his destitute lifestyle, Larry chooses café life and pursuit of wisdom over middle-class security. As his Buddhist mentor tells him, there are three paths to enlightenment - knowledge, service and prayer. Larry chooses the path of knowledge to find enlightenment, and ultimately does find some level of attainment within himself.

As with so many other works by Maugham, the book has been popular with readers, but less so with critics. Gore Vidal complained in an essay for The New York Review of Books in 1990 that Maugham's narrator is "heavy, garrulous and awkward." Edmund Wilson excoriated Maugham's prose in general, and V. S. Naipaul parodied Maugham's novel in his own Half a Life.

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