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.
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.
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.
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...
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