(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 534 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 intrigues Mr. Maugham, who is impressed and curious to know more about him.

Soon Mr. Maugham learns that Larry has postponed his impending marriage to Isabel to go abroad, first to Paris and then to the East in an attempt to find the meaning of life, much as Celia Copplestone goes off to Kinkanja to seek her destiny. Further into the novel, Mr. Maugham also learns that Larry has come face-to-face with death in the war and that one of his close friends died saving him. A sensitive person, Larry has to find answers before he can get on with his life.

Throughout the rest of the novel, Maugham carries his readers with him, involving them intimately in Larry’s quest but sharing with them, both as the author and as a character in his own novel, an inability to reach the spiritual...

(The entire section is 685 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 773 words.)