Themes and Meanings

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Part of the meaning of The Razor’s Edge is found in the passage from the Katha Upanishad (c.1000 B.C.) from which Maugham drew his title: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over: thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” Larry seeks answers, but the Eastern text from which Maugham derives his title clearly indicates that answers are not easy to find.

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The Razor’s Edge is concerned with the conflict between one’s quest for material things and one’s quest for an understanding of the self, of the universe, and of the relationship of the self to the universe. On the one hand is Larry, an exile from the materialistic Chicago society in which he was reared. On the other are people such as Isabel, Gray, and Elliot, people who will leave the world little of worth when they take their leave of it, but people who, in society’s eyes, live well.

Maugham, who puts himself into the book as the narrator, understands the superficiality of most lives. His book at times seems to undertake a quest for meaning, while at other times it seems to be little more than quite delicious and tantalizing gossip about people who in a later age would be classified with the jet set.

Maugham’s novel was one of the first significant modern novels to focus on a dropout in society, Larry Darrell, whose quest leads him to seek non-Western solutions to his encompassing questions. The Beat generation that developed two decades after the publication of The Razor’s Edge was filled with people such as Larry, most of them dropouts who went to the East to find spiritual refuge or who joined Eastern cults in the United States.

Larry went to India to find answers, but what he found were even more vexing questions. This book contains no essential resolution to the problems it poses, unless one believes that Larry’s apathy to the things of this world is a resolution of sorts. Larry at least questions his society, and he seems to have found inner peace.

Maugham suggests that Larry will live out his life working in some menial endeavor, never having reached the potential that was certainly possible for him before the war caused him to change his value system. Maugham does not suggest that this is an undesirable outcome; for Larry, it is perhaps the best possible.


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As in his other works, Maugham develops the existential theme of characters attempting to make their lives meaningful in a meaningless world. In The Razor's Edge, the protagonist Larry Darrell forsakes wealth, security, and personal relationships to seek a spiritual meaning in life. Traveling to India, he finds it in the Hindu religion — in the belief in transmigration of souls and in a highly personal mystical experience. When he returns to America, having given up his annuity, he is content to accept the life of an ordinary workingman.

Other characters seek meaning in different ways. Elliott Templeton, a wealthy art collector and consummate snob, remains true to his standards and his Catholic faith and dies in peace. Buffeted by the depression, Gray and Isabel Maturin find a new start in business and a comfortable social niche in Dallas. Only Sophie Macdonald leads a self-destructive existence that ends in her death, following a trauma that deprived her of the will to live.


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Materialism versus Spirituality

The main character, Larry, is an embodiment of the spiritual approach to life as it is found in the Hindu religion. He is contrasted with the characters who embody American materialism. From the beginning, Larry is more interested in pursuing intellectual and spiritual knowledge for its own sake than in becoming part of the great American industrial money making machine. He turns down a job with Henry Maturin's company, choosing instead to go to Paris, where he spends most of his time reading...

(The entire section contains 1544 words.)

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