The Razor's Edge Criticism
by W. Somerset Maugham

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Bryan Aubrey

(Novels for Students)

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Crowds of panicked stock traders fill the sidewalks outside the New York Stock Exchange on the day of the market crash Published by Gale Cengage

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses Larry Dar rell's enlightenment and his desire for celibacy, which contrasts with the needs and attitudes of Isabel and Sophie.

Unanimity among literary critics is a rare phenomenon, but in the case of The Razor's Edge, there is near universal agreement that the flaw in the novel is the characterization of Larry Darrell. Robert Lorin Calder, for example, argues that Larry is the weakest of the main characters. In contrast to the fully realized Elliott Templeton, Larry "remains on the level of the ideal—a symbol or abstract representation of the potential of the spirit."

Similarly, M. K. Naik argues that Maugham failed to evoke the real nature of a spiritual quest. But the development of spiritual values

cannot come about, in an ordinary man, without severe struggle and trial…. The actual picture of the change in Larry gives one the impression that the process has been over simplified. Larry has hardly to face any struggle in his progress to salvation, either from enemies within or from without.

There is no arguing with these verdicts, which have been echoed by other critics. Larry simply seems too good to be true. Although he tells Maugham that he finally gained the illumination he sought in India, and the narrative strives to give the impression that Larry has been on a long spiritual quest, the truth is that he does not seem much different in the end than he was in the beginning. He was never greatly attached to things or to people—witness his lack of interest in making money and the ease with which he renounces Isabel—so the spiritual development that he later describes does not have much impact on the reader.

However, it would be a pity if this flaw in the novel, serious though it is, should be allowed to obscure or diminish its philosophical depth. Maugham was brave enough to tackle a large and important theme: what is the ultimate truth of life, and by what values are we to live? Larry's pursuit of enlightenment is at the heart of these questions, and Maugham the narrator remarks (in the first section of chapter 6) that had it not been for the conversation he had with Larry about his spiritual experiences, he would not have thought it worthwhile to write the book.

Maugham had long had an interest in Indian religion, and in 1936 he traveled to India with the intention of meeting scholars, writers, artists, religious teachers, and devotees. He was particularly inspired by his meeting with one of India's most revered saints, who became the subject of Maugham's essay, "The Saint." The man's name was Ramana Maharshi, and he lived in an ashram (hermitage) at the foot of the holy mountain Arunchala, a few hours' journey by car from Madras. Soon after he arrived, Maugham sat in a hall with the Maharshi's devotees as the holy man meditated. At this time, he writes, "A little shiver seemed to pass through those present. The silence was intense and impressive. You felt that something strange was taking place that made you inclined to hold your breath." Ramana Maharshi became the model for Larry's spiritual teacher, Shri Ganesha, in The Razor's Edge. Indeed, when Larry sits silently with Maugham in a café after Sophie's death and says, "Shri Ganesha used to say that silence also is conversation," Maugham the author is quoting the exact words Ramana Maharshi said to him on his visit, when Maugham was unwell and could not think of a question to ask the guru.

The crucial incident in Ramana Maharshi's life came when he was sixteen years old. Up until that point, he had been a normal boy who enjoyed all the usual pastimes of one his age. Then suddenly one day he feared that he was going to die. In order to overcome this fear of death he decided to examine exactly what it means to die. What is it that dies? He concluded that the body dies but the essence of the Self is immortal, and this is...

(The entire section is 16,319 words.)