Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

The Razor’s Edge, completed when its author was seventy years old, was the first book in which Maugham used an American cast of characters. The book is in many ways a product of Paris in the 1920’s, when many Americans who had experienced World War I at first hand were forced to reconsider their basic philosophical orientation and fled the United States to go to Paris, where they hoped to find themselves.

More important, perhaps, the book was one of the first to deal with the kinds of problems that reached a crisis point in the 1960’s as a result of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam and the social dislocation that went along with that period. Maugham understood well the conflict between material and spiritual quest, and in pursuing this conflict in The Razor’s Edge, he anticipated the concerns of books such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums (1958). Perhaps he also sensed that an upcoming generation was going to revolt against the materialistic orientation that the Great Depression had imposed upon many people.

As a Bildungsroman, The Razor’s Edge is in a class with Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe (1904-1912), Roger Martin du Gard’s Jean Barois (1913), J. D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Hermann Hesse’s Demian (1919) and Siddhartha (1922). (Maugham’s Larry Darrell, however, is a bit older than the protagonist in the typical Bildungsroman, and his spiritual quest results from his exposure to the horrors of war, not merely from the pressures of growing to maturity, as is often the case in the Bildungsroman.) Indeed, The Razor’s Edge is one of the best-realized books of an author whose artistic life spanned seventy years; it ranks with his best-known book, Of Human Bondage (1915), in its development of theme and character.

Maugham’s earlier novel, The Moon and Sixpence (1919), explores some of the spiritual questions that Larry Darrell has to face in The Razor’s Edge. In The Moon and Sixpence, Charles Strickland, the protagonist, who is modeled on the artist Paul Gauguin, is married to a woman not unlike Isabel Bradley. Strickland, a reasonably successful businessman, one day abandons his wife and family to go off and paint, first in Paris and then in the South Seas. Strickland does not hate his wife; he merely comes to realize that there is more to life than what he is doing, and he sets out to find fulfillment.

Had Larry married Isabel, he might indeed have settled into the marriage for a while, doing what was expected of him, conforming to the norms of his society and being made miserable by them. He might also, like Charles Strickland, have met the crisis of impending middle age by fleeing from the trap into which he had worked himself.

Maugham was a remarkably fine teller of tales rather than a highly innovative writer, and it is as a teller of tales that he will be remembered. His popularity bridged the span from writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad to writers such as J. D. Salinger and John Updike. By the time of his death in 1965, sixty-eight years after his first novel was published, more than forty million copies of his books had been sold, The Razor’s Edge alone accounting for sales of five million.

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Critical Evaluation