When Larry Darrell returns to his native Chicago after having served as an aviator in World War I, he returns with a whole new set of values. He has experienced combat, and he has seen his closest friend killed. He has asked himself unanswerable questions. He returns briefly to the materialistic world of business that he left behind when he went to war, but the vacuity of that world becomes increasingly evident to him as he tries to make his readjustment to it.
Unwilling or unready to marry Isabel Bradley, the girl to whom he has been engaged, Larry embarks on a search for answers to life’s greatest questions. He wants to discover for himself the purpose of human existence, and he becomes extremely concerned with finding a solution to the problem of evil in the world. Larry’s pursuit of answers to cosmic questions leads him to India, where he spends five years before settling in Paris, which is where, aside from flashbacks to Chicago and to India, the story takes place.
Isabel Bradley, although she still loves Larry deeply, realizes that she cannot anticipate with him the sort of future she requires. She is materialistic and conventional. She marries Gray Maturin, a tediously dull but basically decent businessman who has achieved considerable success, and they settle into the prototypical life of the upper middle class.
Gray’s business, however, fails during a business slump, and he is forced into bankruptcy. Isabel sticks with him through these times of difficulty, and the two ultimately go to Paris, where Isabel’s uncle, Elliot Templeton, lives comfortably; Elliot’s generosity permits them to convince themselves that they are looking after an aging uncle who needs them.
When Isabel and Larry meet at Elliot Templeton’s chateau, Isabel is keenly aware that she still loves Larry. She is equally aware that Larry is somewhat detached from the world she knows and values. He is apathetic, unconcerned with worldly things. He goes about trying to do good for others.
Among those he befriends is Sophie Macdonald, an American nymphomaniac. Sophie arouses Larry’s sympathy, and it appears that the two will marry. Yet Isabel, who cannot have Larry herself, does not want anyone else to have him. She interferes in his relationship with Sophie, who leaves Paris and is found soon afterward drowned and with her throat cut.
Larry finally decides that he must leave Paris and return to Chicago. He will return to some sort of menial work because he sees no purpose in rejoining the materialistic world of which he was once a part. Elliot Templeton finally dies, and the Maturins presumably will continue their existence on the inheritance he bequeaths them.
Elliot, Isabel, and Gray contribute little to society and will have no impact on the course of human development. Yet one must also question whether Larry will have any impact on society—if, indeed, that is important to him. His journey to the East has left him with a feeling that he must contemplate the inner self. He performs kindly deeds for others, but in such limited ways that society will not have been altered markedly for his having passed through it.
The Razor’s Edge is quite similar to T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (pr. 1949, pb. 1950). Celia Copplestone is a uniquely spiritual person surrounded by a group of people who have no notion of what she is about. Larry Darrell is the fiancé of Isabel, the niece of Elliott Templeton, who invites Mr. Maugham (referred to hereafter as Mr. Maugham to distinguish the character from author W. Somerset Maugham), who is visiting in Chicago, to dinner. Templeton is an old friend of Mr. Maugham, who that evening meets Templeton’s niece Isabel, her mother Sophie (a friend of the family), and Gray, who eventually will marry Isabel.
Darrell, having just returned from the war, lives very much in his own world, surrounding himself with an invisible carapace that outsiders quickly realize they cannot penetrate. The air of mystery that surrounds Larry...
(The entire section is 3,023 words.)