Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

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.

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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.

Themes

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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.

Themes

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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 and studying. He wants to become enlightened; he has no interest in money. The Maturins, on the other hand, are the embodiment of American prosperity. They are hard-nosed businessmen who know how to make money. It would never occur to either to them that the real purpose of life might be something other than the acquisition of wealth. The difference between these two approaches is the difference between East and West. Larry explains this toward the end of the novel, in his long conversation with Maugham: "They [Indians] think that we with our countless inventions, with our factories and machines and all they produce, have sought happiness in material things, but that happiness rests not in them, but in spiritual things."

After studying with his Indian guru for two years, Larry realizes that spiritual knowledge consists of the realization that the essence of the individual, the Atman, is one with Brahman, the all-pervading eternal spirit, the nature of which is bliss and joy. This is not just a matter of intellectual understanding, but of direct experience. When a person has this knowledge and experience, he is no longer attached to the things of the world, leaving him free to live, as Larry puts it, "With calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness, and continence." The needs of the small ego no longer drive his actions.

When Maugham the narrator meets Larry after the latter's return from India, he talks to Isabel about this aura of detachment that Larry possesses. He says that even though Larry is easy to get on with, "one's conscious of a sort of detachment in him, as though he weren't giving all of himself, but withheld in some hidden part of his soul something." Isabel agrees, saying that sometimes, just when Larry seems to be just like everybody else,"you have the feeling that he's escaped you like a smoke ring that you try to catch in your hands."

The fact that Larry does not cling to possessions, or to people, or to his own emotions, is a marked contrast to Isabel. She is both materialistic and possessive. The reason she decides not to marry Larry is because he refuses to provide her with the material luxuries that she thinks is appropriate to her station in life. Isabel is a woman who likes to be in control. One of the reasons she loved Larry in the first place was because she felt that she could control him. Later she discovered this was not the case. But even when she marries Gray, she cannot let go of her obsessive attachment to Larry, which causes her to scheme against Sophie when Sophie and Larry become engaged to marry.

The other character who is contrasted with the world-negating Larry is the worldly Elliot Templeton. As an arch-snob, he is excessively concerned with social position. He loves the trappings of wealth, such as fine art and furniture in fine houses, and lavish parties in Paris where the rich and high-born rub shoulders with one another. Whereas Larry wants to discover the deepest truths about life, Elliot lives only for its superficialities. He is fascinated by trivia rather than truth. Larry searches for reality, but Elliot is satisfied with appearances, which for him are the reality.

The Problem of Evil

In chapter 6, when Maugham reports his conversation with Larry in a Parisian café, Larry tells him that it was the question of why evil exits in the world that propelled him on his long spiritual quest. This was after he had experienced the carnage of World War I, in which his friend had been killed saving Larry's life. Larry's Polish friend Kosti believes that "evil is as direct a manifestation of the divine as good," an idea that horrifies Larry. The Christian explanation he receives from the monks at the monastery in Alsace does not satisfy Larry either. When he asks why God created evil, the monks reply that it was so that man could conquer wickedness and resist temptation, accepting those things as trials sent by God to purify them and make them eventually worthy of His presence. Larry finds a partial answer to his question in the Hindu belief in reincarnation, which he describes as "at once an explanation and a justification of the evil of the world." According to this view, there is no such thing as injustice or innocent suffering; the evils that afflict humans are simply the consequences of sins committed in past lives.

But this does not answer the question of how the process begins in the first place. Larry mentions the philosophy of Ramakrishna, that good and evil are both components of "the sport of God," and neither can exist without the other. Larry says he rejects this idea, but what he proposes in its place is in fact very similar:

The Chinese craftsman who makes a vase in what they call eggshell porcelain can give it a lovely shape, ornament it with a beautiful design, stain it in a ravishing color, and give it a perfect glaze, but from its very nature he can't make it anything but fragile. If you drop it on the floor it will break into a dozen fragments. Isn't it possible in the same way that the values we cherish in the world can only exist in combination with evil?

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