The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

The Razor’s Edge, while it purports to be a philosophical novel that deals with significant ideas, is largely a novel of character. Maugham’s gift for depicting characters and playing them out in contrast to one another reached its peak in this book.

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Larry Darrell and Isabel Bradley represent two drastically different worlds, even though Larry was a part of Isabel’s world before he went to war. Isabel wants only to live well and to have children for whom she and her husband will provide all the perquisites of their class. Larry, on the other hand, is disaffected with the world he left when he went to war. He seeks spiritual nurture and growth, shunning all the material trappings that Isabel considers indispensable for survival.

Elliot Templeton is a comfortably fixed snob, who has fled his native United States largely because of its vulgarity. He complains that on a return visit, a taxicab driver called him “brother.” Elliot is an inveterate party-goer and sets great store in being invited to every party worth attending.

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Elliot’s whole reason for living is knowing the right people and being accepted by them, or at least being included in their social events. Indeed, Elliot is a more memorable character than is the protagonist, Larry Darrell, although Larry is vital in setting up the philosophical framework within which the story must fit.

Even on his deathbed, Elliot’s social concerns are paramount. Princess Novemali has not invited Elliot to her masked ball, a slight which he can hardly believe. Maugham, the narrator, manages to get an invitation, which he delivers to Elliot. Ever aware of propriety and of appearances, Elliot has Maugham write his message of regret to the princess: “Mr. Elliot Templeton regrets that he cannot accept Princess Novemali’s kind invitation owing to a previous engagement with his Blessed Lord.”

Sophie Macdonald, while used mostly to emphasize Larry Darrell’s kindness and selflessness, is an interesting secondary character because she represents the kind of evil that middle-class society associates with promiscuity. She is on a suicide course, and her own self-image is quite battered. Through Sophie, Maugham is able to reveal another side of Isabel’s personality, the possessive, moralistic side that is often associated with people of her class.

Another secondary character, Suzanne Rouvier, is drawn along the lines of many of Guy de Maupassant’s characters. Suzanne is a flirtatious Parisian. Larry befriends her when she is ill and takes her and her child off to the country to convalesce after her illness. Suzanne represents Parisian sophistication in sexual matters, and Maugham contrasts her sophistication with Sophie’s American naivete.

Characters Discussed

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Larry Darrell

Larry Darrell, a young American who flew with the Canadian Air Force in World War I. He is twenty years old at the beginning of the novel and in his forties by the end of it. Experiencing the horrors of war changes Larry: He becomes solemn and introspective, restlessly seeking answers to the ultimate age-old questions about life, death, God, and the nature of evil. Turning down the offer of a lucrative job, Larry spends several years in Paris reading anything he hopes may contain an answer to his questions. He works in a mine in France and a farm in Germany, lives in an ashram in India, and enters a Benedictine monastery in Bonn. At the end of the novel, he gives away all of his money and sails to New York to become a taxi driver.

Isabel Bradley Maturin

Isabel Bradley Maturin, who is engaged to Larry Darrell at the beginning of the novel. She marries Gray Maturin when Larry refuses to return with her to Chicago. She is nineteen years old when the novel opens. She genuinely loves Larry but cannot think of marrying a man who will not work for a living. She has been brought up in luxury and has no intention of living without it. She adapts well to losing her fortune in the stock market crash, but that is easy to do, because she spends the Depression in her uncle Elliott Templeton’s fashionable Paris apartment. Selfish and materialistic, she contributes to Sophie Macdonald’s suicide by offering her liquor, knowing that Sophie is a recovering alcoholic.

Gray Maturin

Gray Maturin, a rising young stockbroker, Isabel’s husband, twenty years old at the start of the novel. His father started him at the bottom of his brokerage firm, but by the end of the novel, Gray is running it. Like his father, Gray takes pride in looking out for his clients and believes that he is doing his part to make America prosperous and powerful. Gray loses everything in the stock market crash, however, and suffers a nervous collapse, which Larry Darrell cures with a technique he learned from an Indian yogi.

Elliott Templeton

Elliott Templeton, Isabel’s uncle, a social climber in his late fifties at the beginning of the novel. A snob who made his fortune dealing in art, Elliott sneers at his social inferiors, having finally climbed above them. Taking pride in his impeccable taste in fashion, cuisine, manners, and art, Elliott gives advice on all four throughout the novel. His only purpose in life is to hobnob with the European aristocracy, but as he ages, Elliott finds himself less and less in demand at their parties. His last act, while on his deathbed, is to send a haughty answer to a princess who snubbed him by not inviting him to her fancy ball.

Sophie Macdonald

Sophie Macdonald, a quiet, introspective girl, tall and thin, who grew up with Larry Darrell in Marvin, Illinois, and dies in debauched squalor in France near the end of the novel. She appears in the first chapter as a young adult, a friend of Isabel Bradley, at a dinner given by Isabel’s mother. A few years later, she marries a lawyer, Bob Macdonald, and bears him a child who is killed with Bob in a car crash. Sophie, crazed with grief, flees to Paris, where she drowns her pain in alcohol, opium, and indiscriminate sex. Larry helps her to put aside this decadence for a while and plans to marry her, but jealous Isabel returns Sophie to her squalor by tempting her to drink again. Sophie disappears until the police find her dead, half-naked body in the river in Toulon, her throat cut.

W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham, the author and narrator, who appears as a character in the novel. Maugham plays only a peripheral role in the lives of the other characters, but he is able to piece together their stories from conversations. Because he is a writer, the other characters trust him with their most intimate secrets, making him an ideal narrator. He possesses insight into human nature, and especially into Larry Darrell, that other characters lack: He is the first to realize the nature of Larry’s search for answers, he comforts Elliott Templeton when others abandon him, and he identifies Sophie Macdonald’s body and pays for her funeral in Paris. As narrator, Maugham is able to present the foibles of other characters without being judgmental.

Characters

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The Razor's Edge incorporates a varied group of characters, largely American, some of them based upon people Maugham knew. Elliott Templeton, the wealthy art collector, is drawn from Maugham's American friend Chips Channon. Elliott is well-read, a good art critic, a delightful host, and an urbane, sophisticated human being. His striking flaw, snobbishness, exists on such a grand scale that it does not detract from his appeal as a character.

Larry Darrell, the book's protagonist, is a rare example in Maugham's fiction of a character who possesses an unusual degree of goodness. Primarily concerned with finding a spiritual meaning in life, he asks little for himself and willingly makes sacrifices for others. To the narrator he gives a forthright, articulate account of his goals and purposes.

Gray Maturin and Isabel, his wife, represent upper middle class Americans. Gray is an ebullient and expansive businessman who habitually speaks in clichés. Isabel, who married the practical Gray after rejecting the dreamer Larry, is a levelheaded social climber with a streak of ruthlessness.

Characters

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Paul Barton

Paul Barton is a young American whom Elliot Templeton helped make his way in the world. But when Barton became successful he snubbed Elliot, and Elliot hates him for it.

Becker

Becker is the German farmer who offers Larry and Kosti employment.

Ellie Becker

Ellie Becker is the daughter-in-law of Becker. She is a widow; her husband was killed during World War I. She initiates a bizarre nighttime sexual encounter with Larry, in which Larry thinks she is Frau Becker.

Frau Becker

Frau Becker is the wife of Becker. She is uneducated and is jealous of Ellie. Frau Becker takes an amorous interest in Larry.

Gregory Brabazon

Gregory Brabazon is one of the most successful decorators in London. Elliot engages him to decorate the house of his sister Louisa in Chicago.

Mrs. Louisa Bradley

Mrs. Louisa Bradley is Elliot Templeton's widowed sister and Isabel's mother. She opposes Isabel's plan to marry Larry when Larry refuses to take the job Henry Maturin offers him. Some years later, she becomes ill with diabetes and dies in 1930, soon after the stock market crash.

Larry Darrell

Larry Darrell is an orphan who grew up in Marvin, Illinois. During World War I, he was an aviator, and he saw his best friend killed saving his life. This experience profoundly affected him and altered his personality. Before the war, he was a normal boy, but, now that he has returned, he has no ambition and does not want to get a job. Instead, he prefers to loaf around Paris for two years, reading and studying for long periods. This costs him his engagement to Isabel, since she will not marry him unless he returns to America and secures their future. But Larry is interested not in money but in philosophical questions. He wants to be able to answer the ultimate questions about the nature and purpose of life. He leaves Paris and goes to work in a coal mine, making friends with a Pole, Kosti, who stimulates his interest in mystical religion. Larry and Kosti then work on a farm in Germany before Larry leaves for Bonn. After this, he stays in a monastery in Alsace for three months, studies science in Paris, has an affair with Suzanne Rouvier, and then lives with a Spanish girl in Seville. He then travels to India where he spends five years (from 1925 to 1930), two of them in the ashram of Shri Ganesha. Larry studies Vedanta and has a moment of mystical illumination. Returning to Paris, he meets up again with Sophie, whom he has known since childhood. He wants to marry her in order to save her from her unsavory lifestyle, but his plan is thwarted by Isabel's devious plan. Finally, Larry returns to America, planning to become a mechanic and eventually a taxi driver in New York. He has acquired spiritual wisdom and wants only to be of service to others.

Shri Ganesha

Shri Ganesha is the renowned Hindu holy man whom Larry adopts as his guru. Shri Ganesha radiates peace, goodness, and selflessness.

Kosti

Kosti is a Pole who works in a coal mine in France. Larry works with him and shares a room with him. Kosti is a rough-and-ready former Polish cavalry officer. He cheats at cards, but he is also an educated man who talks to Larry about mysticism. Kosti travels with Larry to Germany, where they find work on a farm.

Sophie MacDonald

Sophie MacDonald went to the same school as Isabel, and she also knew Larry when they were both in their teens. Larry says that she was a modest, idealistic girl who wrote poetry. After the war, she began to write about the misery of the poor and the exploitation of the working classes. Isabel thinks that as a young girl Sophie was in love with Larry, but Larry disagrees. Sophie marries Bob Macdonald and has a baby, but both husband and child are killed in a car accident. Sophie cannot get over the shock of her loss. She takes to drink and becomes promiscuous. But when Larry returns from India and meets her again, he wants to save her. She gives up drink, and they agree to marry, but Isabel, jealous of Sophie and unwilling to let go of Larry, sabotages the relationship by tempting Sophie with vodka. Sophie falls into the trap and returns to her dissolute lifestyle. She is murdered in Toulon in 1934, and her body is thrown into a river.

Gray Maturin

Gray Maturin is a big, powerful man, a friend of Larry's. He is in love with Isabel and marries her some time after Larry and Isabel break off their engagement. Gray joins his father's stockbrokerage firm, and during the 1920s he becomes very wealthy. He and Isabel have two daughters, and the family is happy. Gray is a good husband and father. But in 1929, the stock market crashes, and Gray's finances are wiped out. His health suffers, and he has frequent headaches. He cannot find another job. Gray gradually recovers after Elliott provides him and his family with an apartment in Paris. Eventually, Gray gets a job as a vice-president of an oil company and returns to America to live in Dallas.

Henry Maturin

Henry Maturin is a rich man who owns the best brokerage house in Chicago. He is a ruthless businessman, but he is very fond of his son, Gray, whom he invites to join the brokerage firm. Henry Maturin dies of a heart attack when he hears that he has been ruined by the stock market crash in 1929.

Isabel Maturin

Isabel Maturin is Louisa Bradley's daughter and Elliot Templeton's niece. She expects to marry Larry but is willing to allow him to spend two years in Paris before they set a date. She is shocked when Larry says he has no intention of returning to America. He wants to marry Isabel straightaway in Paris, but she refuses because she thinks his income is too small for them to live on. She has been raised to expect a certain standard of living and is not prepared to adjust, even for love. She expects Larry to change his mind and agree to return to America and find a job. She has always in the past been able to control him, or so she believes. But Larry shows an independence of mind that is beyond Isabel's power to influence. She marries Gray Maturin instead and has two daughters. They are wealthy and happy until the stock market crash, after which Elliott's generosity and a legacy from her mother help to ease her situation. Despite her marriage, Isabel never ceases to be in love with Larry. Possessive and selfish, she is horrified when she discovers that Larry is about to marry Sophie, and hatches a plot to ensure that Sophie gives in to her alcohol addiction and that the marriage does not take place. Eventually, Isabel and Gray move back from Paris to America, settling in Dallas, Texas.

W. Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham appears as himself in the novel. He is the narrator, who meets the different characters as the years go by and tells their story. He comes across as tolerant, diplomatic, and modest. Maugham is largely passive, but he does play a part in the action when he filches a party invitation that the dying Elliot Templeton desperately wants to receive, and sends it to him.

Dr. Bob Nelson

Dr. Nelson is a doctor from Marvin, Illinois. He is Larry's guardian, but the two men are not close, and Dr. Nelson has little influence on Larry's decisions.

Suzanne Rouvier

Suzanne Rouvier is a friend of Maugham. As a young woman, she kept the company of artists in Paris and was both model and mistress to several. She also had an affair with Larry, who was kind to her when she was recovering from typhoid and took her and her daughter on a holiday in the country. Soon after this, Suzanne began an arrangement with an affluent businessman from Lille, who now keeps her in an apartment in Paris. She is thoughtful and considerate to him and marries him after his wife dies. Having taken up painting herself, she arranges an exhibition of her paintings. She is content with her life.

Elliott Templeton

Elliott Templeton is Isabel's uncle. A wealthy man and a snob, Elliott was not born rich but was successful as an art dealer. He assiduously cultivates social relationships with the high-born and loves the aristocratic social world of London and Paris. He tries to introduce Larry into Parisian society but Larry is not interested, to Elliott's disgust. Elliott becomes even more rich in the 1920s because he follows Henry Maturin's investment advice. In 1926, however, at the age of sixty-five, he becomes disillusioned with the changing Paris social scene and buys a house in Antibes on the Riviera, where he entertains lavishly. In 1929, acting on a tip from his friends at the Vatican (he is a Catholic convert), he sells his stocks before the financial crash. In gratitude, he builds a church on a tract of marshland that had been reclaimed by Mussolini. For what is seen as his piety, the Vatican awards him a courtesy title of count, which greatly flatters his sense of his own importance and good breeding. When he becomes old and sick, he no longer receives social invitations and this leaves him lonely and bitter. But he is cheered up just before his death when he receives an invitation—thanks to Maugham's ruse which he knows nothing of—to a particularly desirable fancy-dress party. When Elliott dies, he insists on being buried in the costume of a Renaissance count whom he claims as his ancestor. For all his snobbery and superficiality, Elliott is a kind-hearted man, helpful and obliging, as well as courteous and amiable.

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