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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

Larry Darrell, a World War I aviator who sees his best friend killed, does his best to adjust to postwar life as a businessman in Chicago, but he cannot handle it. Everything seems too superficial and materialistic to this young man, whose encounters with the horrors of war had awakened in him a deep desire to probe the mysteries of life. Determined to discover meaning in life and in himself, he drops out of the Chicago business world of the 1920’s and goes to India, where he spends five years in meditation and study. Eventually, he feels pulled back to the world he had known previously, but instead of returning to the United States, he goes to Europe. There he works as a common laborer, sometimes on a farm, sometimes in a mine, all the while getting closer to discovering the deeper meaning of life.

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In the meantime, his former fiancé, Isabel Bradley, tired of waiting for him and impatient with behavior she cannot comprehend, marries Gray Maturin, an outgoing fellow and successful Chicago businessman. When the stock market crashes in 1929, Gray loses everything, and he and Isabel flee to Paris, where they are able to live more frugally on a modest inheritance. Isabel has never stopped loving Larry, and when the two cross paths in Paris, Isabel tries hard to get Larry to tell her just what had gone wrong. When he tries to explain his spiritual quest, she again does not understand and loses patience with him.

Two influential gentlemen figure importantly in the lives of Larry and Isabel. One is Elliott Templeton, a wealthy American who divides his time between Chicago and Paris, with regular visits to the French Riviera. Elliott is everything that Larry has come to disdain—selfish, snobbish, superficial. The other gentleman is Somerset Maugham (the narrator), a successful and widely traveled author who is a close friend of all concerned. For example, he is present when Sophie MacDonald, the debutante turned tramp, shows up at a café where he is dining one evening with Larry, Isabel, and Gray.

Sophie had been happily married and the mother of two when her husband and children were killed in a car crash that only she survived. Unable to cope with the loss and the grief, Sophie drifted to Paris, where she became an alcoholic and a prostitute. Now, Larry is terribly upset by her condition, and decides to do something about it. He gets her to stop drinking and even proposes marriage to her. When Isabel hears this, she is jealous and plans to stop the marriage. One day, she invites Sophie to stop by her apartment. Sophie arrives to encounter a scene of domestic bliss—a bitter reminder of everything she had lost. Isabel excuses herself to run the children to the dentist, promising to return shortly. She had left a bottle of what had once been Sophie’s favorite liqueur in a conspicuous spot. The longer Sophie waits, the more agitated and depressed...

(The entire section contains 773 words.)

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