W. Somerset Maugham took the title for this novel from a line in the Katha-Upanishad (c. 1000-c. 600 b.c.e.), an ancient book of Hindu wisdom: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over: thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” In the late 1930’s, Maugham traveled throughout India and spent considerable time in the presence of the renowned Indian sage and holy man Bhagavan. One of Bhagavan’s disciples, and the probable source for the character Larry Darrell, was an American sailor who was on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Maugham frankly admitted that he himself was unable to find complete satisfaction in the life of the spirit. He so respected the attempt on the part of others to abjure materialism in favor of inner peace, however, that he wrote The Razor’s Edge in an attempt to articulate to himself the essence of his ambition.
Maugham starts the novel with the disclaimer that he has serious misgivings about in what direction the novel will go or if, in fact, it will even turn out to be a novel. By the end he has produced a novel; it was always Maugham’s chief virtue as a writer that he could not help turning experience into first-class fiction. Fortunately, by adhering to the traditional novel form, Maugham is able to preserve the distance necessary to allow the characters to reveal themselves fully and to permit readers the freedom to make up their own minds. A comparison of two central characters, Larry Darrell and Elliott Templeton, will serve to illustrate this point.
Although these two men are worlds apart in character, they are presented with equal sympathy and objectivity. As a result, these opposites help unlock the mystery of each other’s character. Templeton is vain and worldly, a hedonist and a snob who can only function in the right society and among expensive things. Darrell is selfless and otherworldly, a compassionate man who cares little for his own comfort or for the company of others, and he places no value on material things beyond necessity and function.
Maugham places himself somewhere between these two men and tries to remain impartial. On one hand he finds Templeton’s affectations charming and harmless and he appreciates Templeton’s sophisticated tastes. On the other hand, he has an abiding respect for Darrell’s pursuit of satisfying answers to ultimate questions. He knows that Templeton is shallow because he has never felt the need to look below the surface of life. Darrell has had shattering wartime experiences that will not let him rest until he can penetrate their meaning and understand what life is about. In the end, Maugham is quite frank about his own shortcomings on the spiritual side, for he admits that he is a product of Templeton’s world and generation, and not those of Darrell.
The Razor’s Edge was ahead of its time. It spoke more to the generation of the 1960’s than it did to that of the 1940’s, when it was written, or to that of the 1920’s and 1930’s, when it takes place. Much of its success is owing to Maugham’s “detached involvement.” Maugham is a character and a participant in his own book, much in the style of the New Journalism so popular in the 1960’s. When Maugham gets the invitation for Templeton, he is simply stepping in where he has to in order to give the reader the clearest...
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