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Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.


This opening quote sets the tone for W. Somerset Maugham's final novel, The Razor's Edge. The quote is actually a translation of a Vedanta text, the Katha-Upanishad of the Taittiriya school of the Yajur Ved, which is a religious story in the Hindu culture that culminates with a poor and pious Brahmana's search for Enlightenment. In Maugham's work, this quest is carried out by the novel's protagonist, Larry Darrell. However, the story is not only a search for faith, but also a satirical view of high society and a reaffirmation of the American spirit. These factors thrust The Razor's Edge onto the bestseller list, and made it the most successful work of Maugham's great career.

Maugham begins the story by confessing his apprehension about writing it. He states, "I have never begun a novel with such misgiving. If I call it a novel, it is only because I don't know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage." In fact, Maugham's beginning is not totally true. Maugham wrote The Razor's Edge in utmost confidence, as he was at the pinnacle of his career as both a playwright and a novelist. He was already well renowned for his two great works Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence, and he was living at the expense of his publisher, Nelson Doubleday, in South Carolina, to create a suitable environment for writing. Maugham already had the main plot for the story devised. He combined the idea for The Razor's Edge from two of his previous works, a short play by the name of The Road Uphill and a short story entitled The Fall of Edward Barnard after a scroungy young American that Maugham describes as having unkempt, uncut hair, his face concealed by a thick brown beard, wearing a frayed shirt, threadbare coat with holes in the elbows and shabby grey slacks, a man that he "never set eyes on before in his life" stepped up to his table at a sidewalk cafe in Paris in the early 1930s and they began talking. This gave him, following a series of meetings with the American, the main character that he needed to drive the tale, and in South Carolina, after Maugham travels in India, he was able to create the medium for his players to perform.

Bestsellers have certain consistent qualities that help generate their success. Maugham's novel utilizes these themes to the utmost. They style of a great majority of bestsellers is a narrative style. The Razor's Edge takes this one step further in that Maugham himself is the narrator. Being a well renowned author, Maugham creates a greater sense of credibility with narrator. An author's "objective point of view" is brought up by characters throughout the novel, thus making the reader believe that the narrator is simply an observer of the situation rather than a judge. The development of the characters in the novel is done through Maugham's interaction with them. As Maugham the narrator becomes more aquatinted with the characters, it filters directly to the reader, slowly opening his or her eyes as the story progresses.

Maugham also uses another best-selling technique by incorporating the sentiments of the time into his novel. He taps into the wartime attitude of the nation by making Larry a veteran of WWI. Though WWII brought the country together, it also created new doubt in the mentality of the nation. America was trying to balance its social and economic accomplishments with a spiritual fulfillment that it had lacked since the dawn of industry. Accompanied by the eruption of the Second World War, following WWI, the supposed war to end all wars, these feelings left many American's questioning their faith in life. Larry, as well, comes to question life and society after his good friend Patsy, who had taught him everything he knew about how to survive in the war, gives his life to save Larry's. Seeing his friend die in front of his eyes subsequently throws Larry into a quest for a new faith in God and life. He states of the event that, "the dead look so terribly dead when they're dead." Maugham uses this quote to explain Darrell's dilemma, if there is nothing when one dies, then what is the point of living life. This captures the emotion of the time very well, with many young soldiers having the same feelings of longing for a meaning in life.

When the war ends, Larry comes back a shattered man, and must rebuild his life through his quest for faith. Instead of striving for economic satisfaction in "the roaring twenties," Larry entrenches himself in philosophy books and great literature, searching to bring some sort of meaning into his life. When Larry is discussing his quest with Isabel, his fiancé at the onset of the novel, he tells her, "I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immoral soul or whether when I die it's the end." Isabel replies with, "But Larry, people have been asking those questions for thousands of years." This is exactly Maugham's drive. In a time of increasing secularism and doubt in American society, Darrell becomes Maugham's everyman, and the author tries to make Larry's quest universal to the questions that all humans hold. Joseph Warren Beach writes in his review of the novel, "The startling regression to savagery which has marked our time is a challenge to the spirit which literature cannot ignore. We may look in fiction as elsewhere for efforts to set up a faith that can stand against the tides of history, supporting the will and conscience of man against all dismal demonstrations of Malthusian economics and Machiavellian ethics." Darrell is Maugham answer to this call.

The story is begins in the mid 1920's, and carries through the Great Crash of 1929 into the 1930's. It takes place in both Europe and America, with the main focus on Chicago, Paris, and London. There is a concentration on high society and elitism in the get rich quick era of the twenties, but Maugham ridicules it instead of glorifying it, coinciding with the feelings of the mid-forties. He does this by creating a cast of supporting characters who, each in his or her own way, show the faults of elitism in contrast to Darrell's purity of life. They are his tests, and he fights these temptations in a Christ-like manner. The most prominent of these personalities is Elliot Templeton. Rather than first introducing Larry, the great seeker of the novel, Maugham first chooses to present Templeton. In a masterpiece of static character drawing, he paints the clear picture of Templeton, who is deeply entrenched in the world of the French aristocracy, the Paris high life, and the elitist society of the Riviera. At the onset of the novel, Templeton is described as a distinguished man in his fifties, always well dressed and well mannered. Maugham describes his social endeavors as pretentious and self-serving, writing, "He was a colossal snob. He was a snob without shame. He would put up with any affront, he would ignore any rebuff, he would swallow any rudeness to get asked to a party he wanted to go to or to make a connection with some crusty old dowager of great name." After seemingly creating a poor image of Templeton, Maugham writes, "If I have given the reader an impression that Elliot Templeton was a despicable character I have done him injustice. He was for one thing what the French call serviable...helpful, obliging, and kind. He was generous, and though early in his career he had doubtless showered flowers, candy, and presents on his acquaintances from an ulterior motive, he continued to do so when it was no longer necessary." Maugham's satirical apology gives the reader an even stronger sentiment of Templeton's snobbish social attitude. He is a supposed devout Christian, but even uses that to his benefit, gaining financial advice from well-to-do members of the cloth. Throughout the novel, Templeton criticizes Darrell as a "lazy" character, unfit to marry his niece, Isabel, because he will not conform to his socialite background. Templeton rejects Darrell's quest as foolish and believes that he should conform to "the traditional ways" of society in order to make millions and achieve a high social standing, Templeton's view of success and fulfillment.

Isabel Bradley is the next character that Maugham uses to challenge Darrell. Isabel is Larry's fiancé. At the onset of the story, she is supportive of his decision to turn down the jobs he is offered in favor of his "loafing," which involves studying philosophy and literature in search of his answers. However, after Larry moves to Paris, she begins to lose patience with his idea of life. She confronts him about it, and eventually breaks off the engagement, telling Larry that she must live the life that she is accustom to. She turns away love in order to marry Larry's best friend, Gray Maturin, because he is a millionaire and will support her in her lifestyle. Through this, Maugham shows the pettiness of socialites. Eventually, Isabel regrets leaving Larry, and confesses to Maugham that she still loves him. However, she is molded by the conditions of moneyed American life, and becomes a chic, beautiful, greedy, heartless woman, typical of the well dressed, machine-tooled cosmopolitans that rule the "American aristocracy." When Larry plans to marry Sophie MacDonald, Isabel devises an underhanded scheme that eventually winds up breaking them up, displaying evidence that the money has changed her. She is Maugham's portrayal of a good natured woman destroyed by the greed of wealth.


Larry, in the early throes of a deepening quest seeking answers to his questions, begins a sojourn through Europe. During his travel he takes a job at a coal mine in Lens, France and befriends a former Polish army officer and mystic named Kosti. In the process of their friendship Kosti encourages Larry to look toward things spiritual for his answers rather than in books. Larry and Kosti take leave of the coal mine and travel together for a time then part ways. Larry soon meets up with a Benedictine monk and former philosophy teacher Maugham calls Father Ensheim. The two first encounter each other in Bonn, Germany while Father Ensheim is on leave from his monastery doing academic research. When his leave is up and he has to return he convinces Larry to join him at the monastery and continue searching for answers in the spiritual. Although Larry finds the monks at the monastery both brilliant and dedicated he becomes convinced his answers will not be found among their ranks. Father Ensheim, apparently having certain insights other than strictly western spiritual influences, using the Hemis Manuscripts as a ploy, suggests Larry go to India to find what he was seeking. Which he does.

In a destiny laden turn of events initially set into motion by his own quest and bouyed by the suggestion of Father Ensheim, Larry eventually comes to escape the clutches of elitism and attain the knowledge and fulfillment he desires in India. After several years travel in the sub-continent and beyond, Larry ends up in the southern Indian temple city of Madura. A holy man in the temple suggests he go to a venerated Maharshi that, says the holy man, "(W)ill give you what you are looking for." Larry follows the holy man's advice and meets with Shri Ganesha, whose understanding of meditation, acceptance of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva point Larry onto a new spiritual path --- which Enlightens him to all the answers. After achieving his Enlightenment in India, Darrell goes back to his friends a content and fulfilled man. Many critics of the novel say that Darrell should not be entrapped in a single religion, but throughout his life, Maugham had not only been an agnostic, but an anti-Christian, as is shown by his portrayal of Templeton's religious values. In addition, these critics fail to see that Maugham's point is not that Vedanta is the means to salvation, but that a renouncing of elitism will not destroy economic success, and will help create spiritual contentment.

These anti-elitist feeling coincide with the newly developing American shift away from the Horatio Alger type "rags to riches" novels, which involve well-born men who fall upon hard times (usually by becoming orphaned) but eventually rise to the top because of their ingrained status and their lucky dispositions. After the depression, American's lost much of their "get rich quick" mentality and began to shift toward positive thinking and the power of the individual. Risk taking took new forms, drifting away from monetary speculation and going in the direction of personal searching. Risks were now taken in the development of the person, and job security and individual drive were beginning to achieve favor in America. Rather than striving to be a millionaire, American's now sought to achieve satisfaction in the ever growing middle class. Maugham has caught this exact concept by showing the shallowness of the elitist life and the true worth and value of the ever self-searching Darrell. In a roundabout sort of way Larry does come from a privileged sort of background. Although both parents died when he was quite young he was raised by a medical doctor guardian. He rejects his background and instead finds his happiness not through millions, but through personal worth and a steady living. However, the turn against elitism is more than just a backlash against the powers of money. Darrell's realization of the Vedanta principles led him to worldliness sought after by the American people.

Darrell has actually found the answers; he has come to terms with God and life, and found that he can live in society not in spite of this, but in accordance with it. Darrell completes the impossible task, he finds faith. In a review of the novel, Cyril Connolly, a leading English literary journalist of the age, writes, "The novel is a considerable addition to the literature of non-attachment, and ranks with Huxley's Great Eminence and Heard's Man the Master as powerful propaganda for the new faith." This faith is the realization of the new American Dream, to couple economic satisfaction with spiritual fulfillment. Maugham wrote this novel expressly for Americans, and he points out the weaknesses of their society through the characters of Templeton and Isabel. However, he creates Darrell as an element of hope, a savior of society. Connolly writes, " Mr. Maugham never forgets the spiritual dust-bowl which every American carries within him, and which he vainly tries to irrigate with alcohol, statistics or labor-saving devices." Darrell is Maugham's answer for America. He is their messiah, and, in Maugham's eye, by following Darrell's example America can be saved.

The Razor's Edge has been able to attain staying power in American literary society for the reason that its theme transcends time. As shown in other bestselling novels, such as Steinbeck's Winter of Our Discontent and Heller's Something Happened, the theme of America attempting to find the balance between economic success and moral and spiritual happiness. In addition, as the West becomes more and more educated about eastern philosophies, Maugham's Vedanta Enlightenment becomes more accessible to the general public. With greater religious acceptance in the later half of the twentieth century, the Hindu teachings have been embraced as feasible instead of disregarded as impossible. Through Vedanta, Darrell finds peace in God and the world. As long as mankind continues to question its place in nature and search for meaning in life, The Razor's Edge will captivate it and give it hope that a solution is attainable.

Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign




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