Places Discussed

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*Chicago. Illinois’s largest city, which in the early twentieth century was one of the most prosperous of midwestern cities and a major center of the rapidly expanding industrial economy of the United States. In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Chicago symbolizes rising American materialism. By setting the novel’s opening scenes there, Maugham emphasizes the materialism that his young seeker, Lawrence Darrell, seeks to leave behind him. The narrator—Maugham himself—first meets Darrell at the Chicago home of Mrs. Bradley and her daughter Isabel, to whom Darrell is engaged. The Bradley home is located on Lake Shore Drive, in a wealthy section of Chicago near the Lake.


*Paris. France’s capital city and an old center of European civilization contrasts with the newness of Chicago. Long associated with high society and the arts, the Paris of this novel is two very different places. On one hand, it is the socially elite city loved by Elliott Templeton, Maugham’s friend and Mrs. Bradley’s brother, where fashionable and aristocratic people gather. On the other hand, it is home to artists and intellectuals, many of whom live unconventional, bohemian lives. Paris thus offers two kinds of alternatives to the materialistic American Midwest. Elliott’s apartment is in the elegant Left Bank. Lawrence Darrell, on the other hand, takes a dingy room in the Latin Quarter, a section of Paris near the Sorbonne, the famous French university, and home to students and nonconformist artists. Paris and the other places in Europe suggest the bohemian alternative to materialism and elegant but dying Old World tradition and sophistication.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is not the setting for any significant episodes in The Razor’s Edge, but it is always in the background, as Maugham himself is English, and his novel is the story of his encounters with other peoples and places. As the narrator, Maugham continually refers to his own return trips to London, and Templeton and Darrell also visit London briefly several times. In a sense, London is the vantage point from which all other locations in the novel are viewed.


*Lens. Mining town in the northern region of France known as Nord-Pas-de-Calais, near Belgium. It occupies an important place in the novel because it is there that Darrell begins the wanderings that detach him from his social roots, introduce him to religious mysticism, and ultimately lead him to South Asia. After studying in Paris, Darrell goes to Lens to work as a miner. In the company of a disgraced former Polish cavalry officer named Kosti, he leaves the mine and travels through Belgium and into southern Germany, where he and Kosti work for a time at a small farm near the city of Darmstadt.


Germany. Center of medieval Christian mystical tradition that is the place where Darrell makes the decisive turn from bohemianism to religious mysticism when he leaves the farm alone and goes to Bonn. There he meets the Benedictine monk Father Ensheim, who introduces him to the writings of the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart. Ensheim invites him to stay at his monastery in Alsace, a region then in France near Germany.

*French Riviera

*French Riviera. Strip of southern France’s Mediterranean coast, near Italy, that is a fashionable and expensive resort region. Here, the prosperous and socially ambitious Elliott Templeton builds a home and spends his last years. While India is the geographical symbol of Darrell’s quest for wisdom, the Riviera is the symbol of Templeton’s quest for social standing.


*India. South Asian country to which Darrell goes after meeting an Indian swami, a wise man, aboard a cruise ship on which he is working as a deckhand while returning to America. The Indian persuades Darrell to disembark at Bombay. Under his guidance, Darrell visits Indian religious centers and is drawn ever more deeply into Indian culture. Eventually, he develops insights into himself that make him decide to return home, by way of France, to lead the life of an ordinary mechanic.

Historical Context

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Stock Market Crash of 1929

In the 1920s, America was increasingly prosperous. Spurred by the massive growth in the automobile industry, the Gross National Product in creased by 59 percent. Personal income rose by an average of 38 percent. Consumer goods such as washing machines, refrigerators and radios became commonplace. The rapid development of industrialization and technology, and the rise in wages, made many people (like Henry and Gray Maturin in the novel) believe there was no limit to the production of wealth, and that the economy would continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Seeing stock prices constantly rising, ordinary people began to invest in the stock market, thinking they could become rich almost overnight. Many families invested their entire life savings in the stock market, sometimes taking money out of safer investments like treasury bonds. A common practice was buying "on margin," which meant buying on credit. A person would make an investment, and then wait until the price rose in order to pay for it, and make a profit too.

Caught up in the prevailing financial optimism, banks also began to speculate on the market with their investments. In spite of some warnings, there was a collective illusion that stock prices would continue to rise. But for years the economy had been over-producing, and when in 1929, the rich began to reduce their investments and their spending on luxury items, consumers of more modest means did not have the purchasing power to maintain demand. As a result, stock prices began to fall, and investors began to sell. A rush to sell became a stampede. On October 24, 1929, thirteen million shares were sold; the following Tuesday, October 29, more than sixteen million shares were sold, and the value of stocks dropped $14 billion. The day became known as Black Tuesday. Public confidence in the market and the U.S. economy was destroyed, and many people were left bankrupt. The selling continued for another two weeks, until November 13, by which time all the gains made over the previous two and a half years were wiped out.

Although the crash caused immense distress for thousands, a myth developed, fueled by the popular press, that ruined investors committed suicide by jumping from high windows in New York, but this was not the case. Nor was there an increase in the suicide rate across the country. (In the novel, Henry Maturin dies of a heart attack, not suicide, following the disastrous news; but in the 1984 film version, he commits suicide.)

The stock market gradually recovered over the next year as buyers returned and prices rose. By the spring of 1930, about half the losses had been recovered. President Herbert Hoover declared that the crisis was over, but he turned out to be completely wrong. Hindered by a sluggish economy, the stock market plunged again in June 1930, and went on falling until it hit rock bottom in July 1932. By this time the United States had entered the Great Depression. Thousands of banks failed, unemployment reached eight million—in the novel, Guy Maturin cannot find another job—and many people lost their homes because their mortgages were foreclosed.

Literary Style

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Structure and Narrative Technique

The structure of the novel is quite complex. It covers a period of twenty-four years, from 1919 to 1943, and is set in a number of different locations, mainly Chicago, Paris and the French Riviera, but with some action set in Alsace and Toulon, France; London, England; Seville, Spain; India, and Germany. The thread that holds the structure together is the meetings that Maugham the narrator has with the characters over the years, in which they tell him their stories. This means that the action does not always unfold in a linear sequence, but often makes use of flashbacks, as one character or another tells Maugham what has happened in the years since they last met. The flashback technique is most noticeable in chapter 6, when Maugham meets Larry in 1933, and Larry relates the events in his life from 1922, when he left the German farm, to 1930 (or possibly 1932), when he returned to Europe from India. The earlier part of Larry's story of his travels—his work in the coal mine in Lens and on the German farm—has already been told in correct chronological sequence in chapter 4.

Another part of the story that is told out of chronological sequence is the life story of Suzanne Rouvier in chapter 4. Most of this chapter is set in 1932, but after Suzanne's early history is related there is a section set in 1924, which describes Suzanne's affair with Larry.

Central to the novel's structure are the five conversations Maugham the narrator has when he is alone with Isabel. These occur in chapter 1 (set in 1919), chapter 2 (1921), chapters 4 and 5 (1932), and chapter 7 (1934). Maugham uses these conversations to progressively reveal Isabel's character, culminating in her admission that she selfishly manipulated Sophie to thwart her former friend's marriage to Larry.

Literary Techniques

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The Razor's Edge advances Maugham's art of fiction in two significant ways. He continues to rely heavily on natural dialogue and dramatic encounters, but as he was living in the United States while writing the novel, he makes use of Americans for characters. Stylistically, this means American speech, just as in Liza of Lambeth (1897) his characters spoke Cockney dialect. Maugham's most ambitious attempt to record American speech is especially apparent in the colloquial expressions of Gray Maturin.

A further development concerns the method of narration. From the early 1920s, Maugham used in his fiction either a character as his spokesman or a character-narrator who closely resembles the author. The third person omniscient thus becomes a first person narrator and at times a participant. In The Razor's Edge, this character is "Mr. Maugham/' a world-famous writer. While he does not shape the events. this Maugham persona does involve himself in the story in minor ways, talking with the characters, giving them advice, and discussing their ideas and plans. To the reader, he often pretends to share confidences, as in the novel's first sentence: "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving."

Social Concerns

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No novel better illustrates Maugham's lack of social concern than The Razor's Edge, a novel that sold more than two and a half million copies in America within a four-year period. With a detached, urbane, cosmopolitan narrator, the plot ranges over more than a decade, with action occurring in at least three countries. The narrator's chief interest is in seeing what sense a varied set of characters can make of their lives, and in the end their lives do conform to a kind of pattern. While they are affected by events like the Great Depression, these remain subordinate to the narrator's emphasis upon character.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1919: In the aftermath of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles is signed. Austria and Hungary are separated; Yugoslavia is created out of Serbia and neighboring states; Poland and Czechoslovakia become independent nations. Germany is forced to pay war reparations.

    1944: The world is again at war. The tide has turned in favor of Britain, the United States and France in their struggle against Germany, Italy, and Japan. June 6, 1944, is D-Day, when the allied powers land at Normandy to free Europe from Nazi tyranny.

    Today: Europe is no longer the scene of major wars. Former enemies are now members of NATO and the European Union.

  • 1919: The United States, which suffered less economically than the major European powers during World War I, is poised for a period of huge economic expansion, known as the Roaring Twenties.

    1944: World War II has brought the U.S. economy out of the Depression of the 1930s. The war creates jobs, and industry serves the needs of war; instead of making cars and consumer items, factories produce tanks, munitions, and airplanes. In 1944, the United States builds more than 96,000 planes.

    Today: The U.S. economy continues to recover from the impact of the recession of 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, although some analysts are concerned about slow job growth, outsourcing of U.S. jobs abroad, and rising levels of debt.

  • 1919: India is ruled by Britain but there is restlessness in the country and a desire for independence. Britain promises full self-government in stages.

    1944: World War II stalls the negotiations for independence, and Indian troops fight for Britain in the British army. However, India receives its independence in 1947.

    Today: With a population of more than one billion people, India is the world's largest democracy.

Literary Precedents

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The Razor's Edge was written during the Second World War, when people were seeking values in a world shaken by cataclysm. Works with a popularized religious theme, like Lloyd C. Douglas's The Robe (1942), Franz Werfel's The Song of Bernadette (1941), and A. J. Cronin's The Keys of the Kingdom (1941) met with great popular success. From further back, during the 1920s and 1930s, works like Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and William H. Hudson's Green Mansions (1904) developed a kind of dreamy religious aura that made them popular.

Among the books in this tradition, The Razor's Edge stands apart, for Maugham makes the mystical experience of his hero Hindu, not Christian. Larry comes to accept belief in transmigration and believes, although he is not certain, that in India he achieved a genuine mystical experience during meditation. But throughout the novel one encounters the cool presence of "Mr. Maugham" — detached, analytic, and clearly dubious that Larry's experience was authentic.

Media Adaptations

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  • The Razor's Edge was made into a movie by Twentieth Century Fox in 1946, directed by Edmund Goulding, with Tyrone Power playing Larry.
  • Another film version of The Razor's Edge was made by Columbia/Tristar Studios in 1984, with Bill Murray as Larry.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Beach, Joseph Warren, "Maugham Considers Mystics," in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 353-54; originally published in New York Times, April 23, 1944.

Calder, Robert Lorin, W. Somerset Maugham and the Quest for Freedom, Doubleday, 1973, pp. 224-53.

Connolly, Cyril, "The Art of Being Good," in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 358-61; originally published in New Statesman and Nation, August 26, 1944.

Maugham, W. Somerset, The Razor's Edge, reprint ed., Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics series, Penguin Books, 1992.

――――, "The Saint," in Points of View, Heinemann, 1958, pp. 56-93.

Naik, M. K., W. Somerset Maugham, University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, p. 95.

O'Brien, Kate, Review of The Razor's Edge, in W. Somerset Maugham: The Critical Heritage, edited by Anthony Curtis and John Whitehead, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987, pp. 356-57; originally published in Spectator, July 21, 1944.

Whitehead, John, Maugham: A Reappraisal, Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1987, pp. 175-83.

Further Reading

Brander, L., Somerset Maugham: A Guide, Barnes & Noble, 1963, pp. 182-88.

This is mainly a discussion of characters. Brander also has high praise for the final discussion between the narrator Maugham and Larry, which some critics have found unconvincing.

Burt, Forrest D., W. Somerset Maugham, Twayne's English Authors Series, No. 399, Twayne, 1985, pp. 137-39.

In this survey of Maugham's life and work, Burt comments on the complexity of the novel's structure, ably handled by Maugham behind a casual veneer, and the shift in Maugham's concern from plot to character.

Curtis, Anthony, "Introduction," in The Razor's Edge, Penguin, 1992, pp. vii-xxiv.

Curtis has written several books on Maugham, and this is an authoritative introduction to the novel, covering circumstances of composition, parallels with earlier works, possible origins of the characters in real people known to Maugham, and the novel's critical reception.

Holden, Philip, Orienting Masculinity, Orienting Nation: W. Somerset Maugham's Exotic Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 131-45.

Holden discusses how in the novel masculinity is defined by work and femininity is defined by sexual desire. The male characters are largely free of desire. He then examines how India functions as a metaphor of transcendence and the release from desire.


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Brunauer, Dalma. “The Road Not Taken: Fragmentation as a Device for Self-Concealment in The Razor’s Edge.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 8, nos. 1-2 (March, 1987): 24-33. An original and penetrating insight into the psychology of spirituality in the novel.

Connolly, Cyril. “The Art of Being Good.” In The Condemned Playground—Essays: 1927-1944. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945. Maugham is praised for his handling of major characters, especially his sensitive portrayal of Larry Darrell, and for his determination to use his narrative talents in the service of truth.

Cordell, Richard A. Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Includes a judicious commentary on The Razor’s Edge as a novel worthy of the interest of a discriminating reader.

Hawkinson, Kenneth Steven. Three Novels by W. Somerset Maugham: An Analysis Based on the Rhetoric of Wayne C. Booth. Dissertation Abstracts International 47, no. 7 (January, 1987): 2370A. Provocative analysis of The Razor’s Edge according to Booth’s critical theories as outlined in his highly regarded Rhetoric of Fiction.

Morgan, Ted. Maugham: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. A good, gossipy biography with illuminating details about the background of The Razor’s Edge.

Weeks, Edward. “The Atlantic Bookshelf.” Atlantic Monthly 173 (May, 1944): 123-129. One of the few contemporary reviews to see The Razor’s Edge as ahead of its time. Discusses the tension between “the urgent quest of youth and the cynical retreat of age.”

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