The Razor's Edge
The Razor's EdgeIntroduction
W. Somerset Maugham
The Razor's Edge, by British novelist W. Somerset Maugham, was published in London and New York in 1944. Maugham was seventy years old when the book was published, and it was to be the last of his major novels. He was one of the most popular writers of the day, and The Razor's Edge was an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic. More than one million copies were sold within a few years.
The novel spans a period of twenty-four years, from 1919 to 1943, and takes place in many different locations, including Chicago, Paris, London and India. It is a novel of ideas and of character. The main characters are upper-middle-class Americans, although Maugham, in his own person as the writer Somerset Maugham, is the narrator. The principal character is Larry Darrell, a former World War I aviator who is haunted by the fact that his friend was killed in the war saving Larry's life. Seeking an answer to the question of why evil exists in the world, Larry sets out on a quest that takes him to India, where he studies with a guru and gains mystical illumination. Larry's spiritual approach to life is contrasted with the materialism of the other characters, such as Gray Maturin, who becomes a wealthy stockbroker, and Elliot Templeton, a worldly, superficial man who spends most of his time socializing at upper-class parties.
In his depiction of a young man who rejects the dominant values of American culture and looks to the East for spiritual inspiration, Maugham anticipated the work of the Beat writers of the 1950s and the values of the counterculture of the 1960s.
Playwright, short story writer, and novelist William Somerset Maugham was one of Britain's finest twentieth-century writers. He was born in the British Embassy in Paris on January 25, 1874. His father, a lawyer who was serving in the British Embassy, died when Maugham was ten; his mother, who had a keen interest in art and literature, died when Maugham was eight. After his father's death, Maugham was sent to live with his uncle in England.
Maugham was educated at King's School, in Canterbury, and then attended medical school at St. Thomas's Hospital in London, from which he received an M.D. degree in 1897. But Maugham never intended to practice medicine. Instead, he wanted to be a writer, and he wrote constantly. His first novel was Liza of Lambeth (1897), which was based on his medical experience. This was followed within a few years by two more novels and Maugham's first collection of short stories: Orientations: Short Stories (1899).
Maugham had long held ambitions to be a playwright, and in 1907 his play, Lady Frederick, ran for over year at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Over the next quarter of a century, Maugham was an extremely popular dramatist. He had twenty-nine plays produced, including The Circle (1921), Our Betters (1923) and The Constant Wife (1926).
In 1911, Maugham began writing what is usually considered his finest novel, Of Human Bondage (1915). His literary activities were temporarily interrupted by World War I; from 1914 to 1915 he served with a British ambulance unit and with military intelligence in Geneva. In 1916, he visited the South Sea Islands where he collected material for The Moon and Sixpence (1919), a novel based on the life of the artist Paul Gauguin. The following year, he was again in war service, this time as chief agent in Russia for the British and American secret services. In the same year, Maugham married Syrie Wellcome, with whom he had already had a daughter, Liza, in 1915. The marriage was not a happy one and the Maughams were divorced in 1927.
In the 1920s, Maugham traveled throughout the world and yet still found time to continue his literary output. He forged a reputation as a short-story writer with the publication of The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories (1926) and Ashenden (1928). The stories in the latter collection were based on Maugham's experience in the wartime secret service.
In 1930, Maugham published one of his finest novels, Cakes and Ale. He was then one of the most widely read authors in the English-speaking world, and he continued to publish novels during the 1930s, including The Narrow Corner (1932) and Christmas Holiday (1939). Another novel, The Razor's Edge, was published in 1944. It was in part based on a trip Maugham made to India in 1936. Maugham's last novel was Catalina (1948). Maugham died on December 16, 1965, at his villa in France, at the age of ninety-one.
The Razor's Edge begins in 1919. The narrator, Somerset Maugham, is invited to a lunch in Chicago given by his friend Elliot Templeton. He meets Mrs. Louisa Bradley, her daughter Isabel and Isabel's fiancé Larry. The next day at a dinner party Maugham meets a friend of Larry's, Gray Maturin, who is also in love with Isabel. Gray's rich father has offered Larry, who does not have a job, a promising position in his company. But Larry is still suffering from the shock of seeing his best friend killed during World War I. He has no ambition or desire to work, and he turns the job offer down. Instead, he says he intends to go to Paris and loaf around for two years. Disappointed, Isabel says she will wait for him.
In the fall of the following year, Maugham meets Larry in Paris, and Elliot, Mrs. Bradley and Isabel meet him in the spring. Larry shows no interest in returning to Chicago. He tells Isabel he spends his days reading. He reads French and Latin literature, and is teaching himself Greek. He loves acquiring knowledge. He asks Isabel to marry him straightaway, but she refuses because he does not have enough money. They break off the engagement but remain friends, and Isabel remains in love with him. Isabel is puzzled by Larry's attitude, but Maugham explains to her his theory that Larry is searching for God.
Larry goes to work in a coal mine near Lens, in northern France, where he gets to know his coworker, a Pole named Kosti. Kosti is an uncouth man, but he is educated and knows a lot about mystical religion, and this arouses Larry's interest. In the spring, Kosti and Larry leave the mine and wander across Belgium and into Germany, where they find work on a farm. They stay there through the summer, but Larry decides to leaves after Becker's daughter-in-law Ellie, whom he does not even like, crawls into his bed one night. He makes his way to Bonn, where he remains for a year.
Meanwhile, Isabel marries Gray Maturin, and they settle down in Chicago. Within three years she gives birth to two daughters. Gray prospers and becomes a partner in the family business. He and Isabel are wealthy and happy. Then in October 1929, the New York stock market crashes. Gray's father Henry dies of a heart attack and Gray is destroyed financially. He cannot find another job and his health breaks down. With no other option available, he and his family go to live on their plantation in South Carolina.
Elliot, who remains wealthy in spite of the stock market crash, takes pity on the Maturin family and installs them in his apartment in Paris. A little while later, Maugham meets Larry by chance in Paris, and Larry calls on Gray and Isabel. He tells them he has just returned from five years in India, two of which he spent in an ashram, studying with a holy man. Two days later, Larry cures Gray of a bad headache by the use of auto-suggestion, while Isabel admits to Maugham that she is still in love with Larry.
Isabel persuades Maugham to take them on a tour of the rougher areas of Paris. In a café they meet a drunken American named Sophie MacDonald, who is an old friend of Isabel's. Sophie has never gotten over the loss of her husband and baby in a car crash. She became promiscuous and took to drink. Some while later, Larry, who has known Sophie since she was fourteen, decides he wants to save her from the degradation of her life. He proposes marriage, and she accepts. Isabel is distraught at this news, but Maugham advises her to befriend Sophie in order to keep Larry in her life. Isabel agrees to do so, but she is not at home when Sophie arrives at her apartment for the shopping expedition they had planned. Isabel has left instructions for a bottle of Polish vodka to be left on a tray in the vacant apartment. Sophie is duly tempted and goes back to her former dissolute lifestyle. Her marriage to Larry never takes place.
Meanwhile, Elliott's health is failing, and he is desperately disappointed not to have received an invitation to a grand party given by Princess Novemali. Maugham manages by a trick to get him an invitation, and Elliott dies happy.
- 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.
Maugham meets Larry by chance at a play performance. Larry talks about his life in Germany, and how he spent some months in a monastery in Alsace. But he was not satisfied with the answers given to his spiritual questions by the monks. He returned to Paris and then traveled to Spain, where he lived in Seville with a girl. Then he traveled to India. He was fascinated by Indian spirituality and made his way to the holy city of Benares and later to a place called Madura. He absorbed the Vedantic philosophy of reincarnation and liberation. Eventually he became a disciple of the renowned saint, Shri Ganesha. When he had been at the guru's ashram for two years, he had a mystical experience one morning at sunrise. Larry then decided to return to Europe. He tells Maugham that he now intends to return to America, get a job as a car mechanic and live with calmness and compassion. Eventually he plans to settle in New York, where there are lots of libraries, and become a taxi driver.
Six months later, Sophie MacDonald has her throat cut and is thrown into the river in Toulon. Maugham is asked by the police to identify the body. Larry is there also. He informs Maugham that he has got rid of all his money and has booked his passage on a ship leaving for America from Marseille. Gray and Isabel are also returning to America. Using Isabel's capital, Gray is getting back into business as vice-president of an oil company in Dallas, Texas. Maugham does not see Larry, Isabel or Gray again, but he assumes that the Maturins are happily settled in Dallas and that Larry is pursuing exactly the life that pleases him.
Paul Barton is a young American whom Elliot Templeton helped make his way in the world. But when Barton became successful he snubbed Elliot, and Elliot hates him for it.
Becker is the German farmer who offers Larry and Kosti employment.
Ellie Becker is the daughter-in-law of Becker. She is a widow; her husband was killed during World War I. She initiates a bizarre nighttime sexual encounter with Larry, in which Larry thinks she is Frau Becker.
Frau Becker is the wife of Becker. She is uneducated and is jealous of Ellie. Frau Becker takes an amorous interest in Larry.
Gregory Brabazon is one of the most successful decorators in London. Elliot engages him to decorate the house of his sister Louisa in Chicago.
Mrs. Louisa Bradley
Mrs. Louisa Bradley is Elliot Templeton's widowed sister and Isabel's mother. She opposes Isabel's plan to marry Larry when Larry refuses to take the job Henry Maturin offers him. Some years later, she becomes ill with diabetes and dies in 1930, soon after the stock market crash.
Larry Darrell is an orphan who grew up in Marvin, Illinois. During World War I, he was an aviator, and he saw his best friend killed saving his life. This experience profoundly affected him and altered his personality. Before the war, he was a normal boy, but, now that he has returned, he has no ambition and does not want to get a job. Instead, he prefers to loaf around Paris for two years, reading and studying for long periods. This costs him his engagement to Isabel, since she will not marry him unless he returns to America and secures their future. But Larry is interested not in money but in philosophical questions. He wants to be able to answer the ultimate questions about the nature and purpose of life. He leaves Paris and goes to work in a coal mine, making friends with a Pole, Kosti, who stimulates his interest in mystical religion. Larry and Kosti then work on a farm in Germany before Larry leaves for Bonn. After this, he stays in a monastery in Alsace for three months, studies science in Paris, has an affair with Suzanne Rouvier, and then lives with a Spanish girl in Seville. He then travels to India where he spends five years (from 1925 to 1930), two of them in the ashram of Shri Ganesha. Larry studies Vedanta and has a moment of mystical illumination. Returning to Paris, he meets up again with Sophie, whom he has known since childhood. He wants to marry her in order to save her from her unsavory lifestyle, but his plan is thwarted by Isabel's devious plan. Finally, Larry returns to America, planning to become a mechanic and eventually a taxi driver in New York. He has acquired spiritual wisdom and wants only to be of service to others.
Shri Ganesha is the renowned Hindu holy man whom Larry adopts as his guru. Shri Ganesha radiates peace, goodness, and selflessness.
Kosti is a Pole who works in a coal mine in France. Larry works with him and shares a room with him. Kosti is a rough-and-ready former Polish cavalry officer. He cheats at cards, but he is also an educated man who talks to Larry about mysticism. Kosti travels with Larry to Germany, where they find work on a farm.
Sophie MacDonald went to the same school as Isabel, and she also knew Larry when they were both in their teens. Larry says that she was a modest, idealistic girl who wrote poetry. After the war, she began to write about the misery of the poor and the exploitation of the working classes. Isabel thinks that as a young girl Sophie was in love with Larry, but Larry disagrees. Sophie marries Bob Macdonald and has a baby, but both husband and child are killed in a car accident. Sophie cannot get over the shock of her loss. She takes to drink and becomes promiscuous. But when Larry returns from India and meets her again, he wants to save her. She gives up drink, and they agree to marry, but Isabel, jealous of Sophie and unwilling to let go of Larry, sabotages the relationship by tempting Sophie with vodka. Sophie falls into the trap and returns to her dissolute lifestyle. She is murdered in Toulon in 1934, and her body is thrown into a river.
Gray Maturin is a big, powerful man, a friend of Larry's. He is in love with Isabel and marries her some time after Larry and Isabel break off their engagement. Gray joins his father's stockbrokerage firm, and during the 1920s he becomes very wealthy. He and Isabel have two daughters, and the family is happy. Gray is a good husband and father. But in 1929, the stock market crashes, and Gray's finances are wiped out. His health suffers, and he has frequent headaches. He cannot find another job. Gray gradually recovers after Elliott provides him and his family with an apartment in Paris. Eventually, Gray gets a job as a vice-president of an oil company and returns to America to live in Dallas.
Henry Maturin is a rich man who owns the best brokerage house in Chicago. He is a ruthless businessman, but he is very fond of his son, Gray, whom he invites to join the brokerage firm. Henry Maturin dies of a heart attack when he hears that he has been ruined by the stock market crash in 1929.
Isabel Maturin is Louisa Bradley's daughter and Elliot Templeton's niece. She expects to marry Larry but is willing to allow him to spend two years in Paris before they set a date. She is shocked when Larry says he has no intention of returning to America. He wants to marry Isabel straightaway in Paris, but she refuses because she thinks his income is too small for them to live on. She has been raised to expect a certain standard of living and is not prepared to adjust, even for love. She expects Larry to change his mind and agree to return to America and find a job. She has always in the past been able to control him, or so she believes. But Larry shows an independence of mind that is beyond Isabel's power to influence. She marries Gray Maturin instead and has two daughters. They are wealthy and happy until the stock market crash, after which Elliott's generosity and a legacy from her mother help to ease her situation. Despite her marriage, Isabel never ceases to be in love with Larry. Possessive and selfish, she is horrified when she discovers that Larry is about to marry Sophie, and hatches a plot to ensure that Sophie gives in to her alcohol addiction and that the marriage does not take place. Eventually, Isabel and Gray move back from Paris to America, settling in Dallas, Texas.
W. Somerset Maugham
Somerset Maugham appears as himself in the novel. He is the narrator, who meets the different characters as the years go by and tells their story. He comes across as tolerant, diplomatic, and modest. Maugham is largely passive, but he does play a part in the action when he filches a party invitation that the dying Elliot Templeton desperately wants to receive, and sends it to him.
Dr. Bob Nelson
Dr. Nelson is a doctor from Marvin, Illinois. He is Larry's guardian, but the two men are not close, and Dr. Nelson has little influence on Larry's decisions.
Suzanne Rouvier is a friend of Maugham. As a young woman, she kept the company of artists in Paris and was both model and mistress to several. She also had an affair with Larry, who was kind to her when she was recovering from typhoid and took her and her daughter on a holiday in the country. Soon after this, Suzanne began an arrangement with an affluent businessman from Lille, who now keeps her in an apartment in Paris. She is thoughtful and considerate to him and marries him after his wife dies. Having taken up painting herself, she arranges an exhibition of her paintings. She is content with her life.
Elliott Templeton is Isabel's uncle. A wealthy man and a snob, Elliott was not born rich but was successful as an art dealer. He assiduously cultivates social relationships with the high-born and loves the aristocratic social world of London and Paris. He tries to introduce Larry into Parisian society but Larry is not interested, to Elliott's disgust. Elliott becomes even more rich in the 1920s because he follows Henry Maturin's investment advice. In 1926, however, at the age of sixty-five, he becomes disillusioned with the changing Paris social scene and buys a house in Antibes on the Riviera, where he entertains lavishly. In 1929, acting on a tip from his friends at the Vatican (he is a Catholic convert), he sells his stocks before the financial crash. In gratitude, he builds a church on a tract of marshland that had been reclaimed by Mussolini. For what is seen as his piety, the Vatican awards him a courtesy title of count, which greatly flatters his sense of his own importance and good breeding. When he becomes old and sick, he no longer receives social invitations and this leaves him lonely and bitter. But he is cheered up just before his death when he receives an invitation—thanks to Maugham's ruse which he knows nothing of—to a particularly desirable fancy-dress party. When Elliott dies, he insists on being buried in the costume of a Renaissance count whom he claims as his ancestor. For all his snobbery and superficiality, Elliott is a kind-hearted man, helpful and obliging, as well as courteous and amiable.
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?
Topics for Further Study
- Larry Darrell is changed by his experiences during World War I. Today, psychological trauma caused by war is called post-traumatic stress disorder. Research the history of this term. What are the causes and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and how is the disorder treated?
- When Larry stays for several months at a monastery, what does he find unsatisfactory about Christianity, and why does he eventually prefer Vedanta?
- What role does Suzanne Rouvier play in the novel? Is she an essential character, or would the novel be just as effective without her? How does she compare with Isabel and Sophie?
- Write a short story in which the central character is changed by some important, possibly traumatic, event. How does the incident change the way the character sees the world, or make him think deeply about his priorities in life? If such an event has happened to you, write the story based on your own experience.
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.
Compare & Contrast
- 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.
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.
The Razor's Edge had a mixed reception when first published in 1944. Joseph Warren Beach in The New York Times called it a "novel of ideas." He appreciated the skillfulness of Maugham's storytelling technique, commenting that "The story is carried forward with Maugham's usual deftness and ingenuity of manipulation." Cyril Connolly, in a positive review in New Statesman and Nation, called the novel "powerful propaganda for the new faith … the Vedanta of the West." He noted that an interest in mysticism and the spirituality of the East was not a new thing for Maugham, who despite being a worldly writer was also "fascinated by those who renounce the world." For Connolly, the best-drawn character was Elliott Templeton, whose career through the social world of London and Paris "Maugham paints with lingering tenderness, right down to the wonderful death scene which is a kind of farewell offering to his old corrupt world of Paris and the Riviera." Connolly admired the descriptions of India and also argued that Maugham succeeded in his hardest task, which was to convey the nature of mystical experience. But he thought the novel would have been more effective had Maugham not given Larry any specific religious system to embrace. Kate O'Brien in Spectator also praised the novel but thought that the depiction of Larry was a weak element. Maugham used "Larry too easily throughout, as a beautiful symbol, and never attempt[ed] to hack down to the bones of the man himself."
Over the last fifty years, the novel has generally been accorded a high place in Maugham's work, although critics have also argued that the novel is flawed. Much of the criticism centers on the character of Larry. John Whitehead's comment in Maugham: A Reappraisal is typical of later verdicts (and differs from Connolly's view). Whitehead argues that Maugham was unable "to convince the reader that Larry underwent any real religious experience in India or had any true potential for saintliness."
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 truly who he is. He is not his body, his senses, his individual mind, or his ego. Over the years, Ramana Maharshi's experience of the absolute, unchanging, infinite consciousness deepened, and he attracted visitors and disciples from all over India. Maugham writes in "The Saint":
When men asked how it was possible to attain this blessed state, he told each one to ask himself, "Who am I?" He sought to impress upon the aspirant that he was not the body which he temporarily inhabited, but the Self which was eternal.
What Do I Read Next?
- Maugham's short story "The Fall of Edward Barnard" (in The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands, 1921) has remarkable parallels to the plot and themes of The Razor's Edge, especially the clash of Eastern and Western cultures. Two young men from Chicago are in love with the same woman, Isabel. One of them, Edward, travels to Tahiti. He is expected to return in two years and marry Isabel, but he discovers a new set of values in Tahiti and does not return.
- A Passage to India (1924), by E. M. Forster, is set in India when that country was governed by Britain. The novel deals with the difficult relations between the English and the Indians. Like The Razor's Edge, it discusses Indian religion but in a less explicit, more allusive way.
- Siddhartha (1922), by Herman Hesse, is about a young man's search for enlightenment in ancient India. It contains descriptions of mystical philosophy and experience that are similar to but more convincingly presented than those of Larry in The Razor's Edge.
- Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (first English edition published in 1947), translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, is a short explanation by Shankara (686-718 a.d.) of the Vedantic philosophy that Larry Darrell adopts in The Razor's Edge. There is also an informative introduction. Isherwood was one of a group of expatriate English writers in California who were deeply involved with Vedanta. It has been suggested that Isherwood was the model for Larry, although both Maugham and Isherwood scoffed at the idea.
It is this truth that Larry Darrell grasps, not only as an intellectual theory but as a direct experience, and this is what makes him radically different from the other characters. It is what makes him so detached from worldly life. He can be in the world—and act in the world for the good of others—but not of it. The fact that Larry's ultimate goal is to become a taxi driver in New York nicely conveys this point. A man who can maintain a state of detached equanimity even amidst the honking horns, screeching tires, and scurrying pedestrians of Manhattan has surely passed some kind of spiritual threshold. In this respect Larry is in direct contrast to Elliot Templeton. Elliott's sense of identity is so bound up with his social position that when he becomes old and sick and does not get any party invitations he mopes around and sulks like a child. He is at the mercy of how others regard him. In spiritual terms, he is ignorant of the real nature of the Self. Maugham underlines this point with gentle humor when he has Elliott stipulate that he is to be embalmed and buried dressed in the costume of the Count de Lauria, whom he claims as an ancestor. For Elliott, clothes are the man. Even in death, he retains his attachment to appearances rather than reality.
Larry's spiritual realization also has consequences for that most urgent of human instincts: sexual desire. Larry tells Maugham after his return from India that he intends to live a celibate life, and does not believe this will be difficult: "I am in the fortunate position that sexual indulgence with me has been a pleasure rather than a need."This statement is borne out by the manner of Larry's sexual encounters in the novel. Even before his spiritual illumination in India, he is not as driven as many men are by the need for sexual fulfillment. Two of the women he makes love to—Ellie, the daughter-in-law of the German farmer, and Suzanne Rouvier—take the initiative themselves, and his attitude seems to be that he can take it or leave it. Some critics have suggested that Larry is a latent homosexual, or bisexual, but there is no support for this in the text. According to Isabel, when she and Larry were engaged, Larry's desire for her was perfectly normal. Her certainty that, at the age of thirty-two, Larry is still a virgin stems from her belief in his innocence, not his homosexuality. The simple explanation is that intensity of sexual desire varies naturally in people, and Larry, a man of very refined sensibilities, finds that his greatest pleasures come from knowledge and spiritual awakening, rather than from sexual indulgence.
Larry's desire for celibacy, which he believes promotes spiritual freedom, is one of the main points of contrast between him and two of the female characters in the novel: Isabel and Sophie. Isabel admits to Maugham that she is a very sensual woman, and for her, sex serves the needs of her possessive personality. If Larry is a man who can let go of his attachments, Isabel is a woman who must cling on to hers. She tells Maugham that it is through sex that a woman keeps a man, and she adds, "it's not the first time she goes to bed with him that counts, it's the second. If she holds him then she holds him for good." Some might call this love; others might call it sexual enslavement. But Isabel is the one who is enslaved. This is conveyed in remarkably harsh language when Maugham the narrator tells of his car journey back to Paris in which Isabel is in the back seat and Larry in the front, while Gray drives. Larry's arm is stretched out across the seat, and Maugham catches sight of how Isabel's eyes are fixed on his "sinewy wrist with its little golden hairs and on that long, delicate but powerful hand." He is shocked by the expression on her face:
It was a mask of lust. I should never have believed that her beautiful features could assume an expression of such unbridled sensuality. It was animal rather than human. The beauty was stripped from her face; the look upon it made her hideous and frightening. It horribly suggested the [b―] in heat and I felt rather sick.
It is because of sexual desire that Isabel cannot let go of Larry, even though she is married to Gray and has two children. Her slavery to passion warps her personality and later makes her behave in a devious and malicious way toward Sophie.
Sophie is another character who falls victim to uncontrolled sexuality. However, she is very different from Isabel. Isabel has no spiritual inclinations; she is a conventional woman who takes the world as she finds it and lives as someone of her class is expected to live. Sophie on the other hand has a more sensitive, questing nature, and in that respect she is more like Larry. As a girl she was idealistic; she read a lot and wrote poetry. She felt the misery of the poor and wanted to be a social worker, to sacrifice herself in service to others. Larry says she had "a lovely purity and a strange loftiness of soul." But when life treated her so cruelly, taking her husband and baby, she was too weak to recover and sank into a life of promiscuous sex and alcohol addiction.
Sophie's weakness reveals Larry's strength. Larry, for all his sweetness, is a tough, independently-minded man. He has the strength to defy conventional expectations and pursue the life to which he is called. The moral seems to be that those who wish to serve must first make themselves strong, otherwise they will not be able to endure the inevitable buffets of the world. Larry's strength lies in his spiritual nature and the use he makes of it. Through his illumination in India and his consequent decision to become celibate, he escapes the snares of sexuality that warp Isabel and contribute to Sophie's destruction. With his awareness of the absolute, eternal consciousness of Brahman, and his desire to live a saintly life, helpful to others, Larry needs nothing more for his happiness.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Razor's Edge, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Nicky-Guninder Kaur Singh
In the following essay, Singh explores how Hindu mysticism and Oriental spirituality "are absolutely central to the text" of The Razor's Edge.
Even the slightest acquaintance with W. Somerset Maugham's stories, novels, and critical writings, shows his literary expertise. But Maugham would never strike one as a philosopher. Indeed he never claimed to be one. In a letter to Klaus W. Jonas he wrote, "I have little patience with the novelists who preach or philosophise. I think it much better to leave philosophy to the philosophers and social reform to the social reformer." This letter which forms the preface to The World of Somerset Maugham, draws a clear line of demarcation between literature and philosophy. The theme reappears in other writings of his. For instance, in A Writer's Notebook Maugham praises Santayana for his gifts of imagery and metaphor, and regrets his turning towards philosophy. "It was a loss to American Literature when Santayana decided to become a philosopher rather than a novelist." Did Maugham really believe that there was such a gap between the literary and philosophical enterprises? If we look closely at his own works there seems to be an interplay of the two. The Razor's Edge is not simply art for art's sake: it raises profound questions about personal identity and moral philosophy, and it elucidates them in light of Hindu metaphysics. We discover in this novel ancient values and modern concerns coming together imaginatively and artistically; indeed, Maugham's fictional creation brings us to a fascinating conjucture, a point in human history where the radically different ideas of East and West intersect.
The following verse from the Katha Upanisad forms the epigraph to The Razor's Edge.
uttisthata jâgrata prâpya varân nibodhata:
ksurasya dhârâ nisitâ duratyaya; durgam pathas tat kavayo vadanti (I.3.14)
The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over;
thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.
This verse clearly is the source of the title of the novel, which was published in 1943. Though he did travel to India in 1936 and spent time in the country, sometimes even as a guest of Mâhârâjâhs, it is difficult to say how far Maugham was influenced by the Indian milieu. Some Eastern influence has been traced in his writings, and his personal library contained many classics from the East. In Points of View Maugham himself acknowledges his familiarity with Indian philosophical texts such as Sir Charles Eliot's Hinduism and Buddhism; Radhakrishnan's History of Indian Philosophy and his translation of the Upanisads; Krshnaswamy Iyer's Vedanta or the Science of Reality; Professor Barnett's Brahma-Knowledge, and Sankara's Vivekachudamani. Maugham's acquaintance with Hindu philosophy was not just through books but also through direct encounter with Hindu sages. One chapter in Points of View is devoted to his meeting with a Hindu Mâhârishi in Tiruvannmalai near Madras and is rich in Hindu philosophical concepts describing the sage's extraordinary personality. Clearly it was not shooting tigers or seeing the Tâj Mahal or the caves of Ajanta but Indian philosophy embodied in the Swami—the "saint in the flesh" as he called him—that impressed Maugham most during his trip to India, though the exotic sensual aspect of the East is the first to strike the Western reader of Maugham's works.
Several of Maugham's works have an Asian setting, but its significance should not be exaggerated, because it is by no means the most important and meaningful contribution of the East to his imagination. Klaus W. Jonas has identified the novels, the plays, the travel books, and several volumes of the short stories that are set in the East. In "Maugham and the East" Jonas even attempts to show a synchronization between the publication of the "exotic" writings and the events of the author's own life. His thesis is that "Maugham is primarily concerned with the depiction of the European in a strange, exotic environment and with the effect which remote out-posts, tropical climate and the native population exercise upon him." Jonas attends to the geographical and social environment but as for the literary and philosophical environment of the "exotic" East in Maugham's writing, Jonas offers no in depth study. Even critics who acknowledge the Eastern mystical element in Maugham's literary output are generally inclined to reject it as an aberration. To quote Joseph Warren Beach:
Those of us who are not much taken by the notion of sainthood in vacuo, nor easily impressed by selflessness except where it is shown working in a medium, are not likely to hail this oriental model of spirituality…. And it does not help much for Maugham to have put himself into the story as one of the characters by way of offering his own type of humane hedonism as an alternative to Hindu mysticism.
In similar vein a review in The Catholic World hastily dismisses The Razor's Edge: "it is a novel of manners with a dash of mysticism thrown in, for what purpose it is hard to say."
We cannot fully appreciate the value of this novel if we regard its Hindu mysticism and Oriental spirituality as side issues. They are absolutely central to the text which is, in fact, constructed upon the fundamental Hindu experience of liberation. The Razor's Edge (which was published after Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale) is about a young American who has a close encounter with death while serving as a pilot during the First World War. The war over, he gives up his life of material and emotional comfort to search for his real self. In this essay, I will not argue whether or not Maugham made any serious study of Hindu philosophy or any of its central texts such as the Katha Upanisad, but I do suggest that we read Maugham's novel as a modern, Western appropriation of the classical Sanskrit text. Besides Maugham's title and overture, which is a direct citation from the Katha Upanisad, the theme of the novel bears an exact parallel with a key event in the life of a Katha Upanisad protagonist, namely, young Naciketas' journey into the realm of Yama. During his encounter with the Hindu God of death, Naciketas opts for a knowledge of the self over a life of luxury, love and money. Larry, the lad from Marvin, Illinois and Naciketas, the Brahmin boy, make identical passages: both give up the pleasant mode for a realization of their true self, and both go on to experience the co-presence of immanence and transcendence. This striking connection between the two literary pieces compels me to re-read Maugham's The Razor's Edge as a fictional hermeneutics of the classical Indian text.
At the very outset, Maugham expresses his reservations about The Razor's Edge's genre:
If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it. I have a little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage.
Why would an author view his novel as a "little story"? What we find here is a remarkably subtle emulation of the literary format of the Upanisad. Belonging to the Taittiriya school of the Yajur Veda, Katha Upanisad is one the most philosophically powerful and sophisticated of the Upanisads. Yet, ironically, it is known as katha, literally, a little story. But simplicity must not be mistaken for insignificance. From ancient times and across cultures, the pure story-form has conveyed the most profound and absolute meaning. Maugham, who spoke with disparagement about complicated and convoluted dialectics, may have been drawn to the simple narrative of the Katha Upanisad. Further-more, like all Upanisads, the Katha maintains the dialogue form which is conducive to explanations and narrations. The Razor's Edge is also set up as a dialogue between the author and his characters. The novelist is right inside his own novel, on the same plane as his fictional characters, and conversing with them. He is not a distant, omniscient, authoritarian voice but rather an immanent figure in his own work—just as Yama appears in his realm. In so far as both stories are told in the form of dialogue—and neither ends with death or marriage!—there is an implicit stylistic link between the ancient Indian scripture and Maugham's own imaginative creation.
At the beginning of his novel Maugham expresses his apprehension that he may not be able to understand the "Other:"
It is very difficult to know people, and I don't think one can ever really know any but one's own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives' tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things you can't come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them. You can only know them if you are them.
Maugham poses the problem of the hermeneutic process: can we ever know others without being them? A Writer's Notebook also offers a sobering picture of cross-cultural understanding: "The student of a country other than his own can hope to know comparatively few of its inhabitants, nor with the difference of language and of culture will he even after many years become intimate with them. Even with the English and American … there can be no real understanding." Profound issues raised by literary critics, linguists and anthropologists are couched here in simple idiom. From food to sports to stories to the belief in God, each is an important ingredient in the constitution of a people's culture—how then can we comprehend without sharing and partaking in their physical and ideological world? Can we ever hope to understand another who is culturally apart from us? Although the American-English encounter forms the subject in the above passage, I see here the widely travelled Englishman tacitly articulating his apprehension about understanding the distant Eastern culture. Maugham even criticizes Henry James for not being able to create an Englishman through and through after living in the country for forty years. By emphasising the distance between the two coasts of the Atlantic, he is preparing the reader for the even greater gulf between the West and India.
In both the Katha Upanisad and The Razor's Edge, an encounter with death sets the plot in motion. Critical of his father's empty rituals, young Naciketas is sent off to the House of Death. The ancient story begins with his father Vajasravasa, a Brahmin priest, offering old and feeble cows as sacrifice. Naciketas is hurt by the formalism and hypocrisy of the action and proposes that he himself may be presented as an offering. He keeps persisting in his request. The third time the father is enraged and says: "Unto Yama I give thee." The obedient Naciketas takes his father's words literally and goes to the abode of Yama. The god of death is absent for three days and nights. Upon his return, he offers three gifts to compensate for the delay and discomfort he had caused the Brahmin's son. As the first gift Naciketas asks for an appeasement of his father's anger; as the second, a description of the fire sacrifice which is the path to heaven; and as the third, knowledge about what happens after death. While the first two boons are granted immediately, Yama pleads with Naciketas not to press for the third request.
In Maugham's novel, Death visits Larry's close friend during World War I. Patsy was a twenty-two year old aviator who was going to marry an Irish girl after the war. But his plane crashed, shattering his hopes and dreams. Seeing his friend die at such a close proximity, Larry's comfortable world is changed. His fiancée cannot understand and wonders what happened to the fellow who was quite normal before the war: "One of the nice things about him was his enormous zest for life. He was so scatter brained and gay, it was wonderful to be with him; he was so sweet and ridiculous. What can have happened to change him so much?"
None of his friends realize the magnitude of Larry's close experience with death in the war. While they go on with their everyday life styles, Larry withdraws inwardly, to an inner cosmos. He is found reading William James' Principles of Psychology with the deepest concentration for hours in the library. His life begins to revolve around the fundamental question:
I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it's the end.
His passionate quest seems to be but an English translation of Naciketas':
yeyam prete vicikitsâ manusye 'stity eke nâyam astîti caike;
etat vidyâm anusistas tvayâham, varânâm esa varas trtîyah
This is Naicketas' ardent request for his third boon, instruction from Yama concerning what happens after death—"there is this doubt in regard to a man who has departed, some holding that he is and some that he is not" (I.1.20). A passion for knowledge dominates Naciketas' and Larry's existence.
While an encounter with death is the cause of transformation in both characters, in neither instance is it feared. Nor is death a phenomenon that is gruesome in itself. Lord Yama's pleasant nature and hospitality echo in the Western novel. It is to make up for his absence at his home for three days that the God of death offers Naciketas the three boons. He makes obeisance to the boy and apologizes for making him stay in his house without food for three nights (I.1.9). Similarly, Elliott Templeton (the socialite uncle of Larry's fiancée), even while he is dying, insists on making a courteous and elegant reply to Princess Novemali's dinner invitation. At a most tragicomic juncture in the novel, Elliott sends his "regrets" from his deathbed: he could not make it to the Princess's party, which indeed he had desperately wanted to attend, "owing to a previous engagement with his Blessed Lord."
This r.s.v.p. illustrates an extension of the social world that Elliott lived in and expresses the same values that are upheld in the house of Yama where the Brahmin boy should have been properly greeted and fed. That societal intercourse and propriety carry on after death is envisioned in both the Eastern and Western texts.
In both narrations, the encounter with death is a significant moment which sets the central protagonist at a very complex juncture: it makes both Naciketas and Larry come face to face with the choice between the life of the pleasant and the life of the good. The distinction between sreyas (that which is good) and preyas (that which is pleasant) clearly outlined in the Katha Upanisad is central to Hindu philosophy.
Both the good and the pleasant approach a person. The wise, pondering over them, discriminates. The wise chooses the good in preference to the pleasant. The simple-minded, for the sake of worldly well-being, prefers the pleasant. (I.2.2)
In lieu of the third boon, Yama offers Naciketas sons and grandsons, cattle, elephants, gold, horses, vast expanses of land and life of as many years as he would choose. Yama places every imaginable pleasure before Naciketas.
Whatever desires are hard to attain in this world of mortals, ask for all those desires at thy will. Here are noble maidens with chariots and musical instruments, the like of them cannot be won by men. Be served by these whom I give to thee. O Naciketas, (pray) ask not about death. (I.1.25)
But Naciketas rejects the transient pleasures of the world. "Let thine be the chariots, thine the dance and song," he says to Yama. Opting for sreyas, Naciketas persists in his search for immutable and permanent knowledge.
The antithetical modes of the good (sreyas) and the pleasant (preyas) also face Larry, and like Naciketas, he chooses the "good." Maugham's twentieth century version of Yama's pleasant offerings entail stock-gambling materialism, a house on the Riviera with Savonnerie carpets, lavish entertainment, a routine where husband and wife do not dine by themselves for three months, luncheons at Claridges, gluttonous dinners at the Ritz…. The pleasant life-styles—of Isabel with a stable marriage and lovely children and butlers and diamond rings and sable coats or that of Gray Maturin (whom Isabel eventually marries) with high stocks and great economic security or that of Elliott Templeton (Isabel's uncle) with invitations from society's highest échelons as his greatest wish and who is always found hobnobbing with princes, dukes, and counts in the most extravagant clothes over expensive wines and meals—are all rejected by Larry in favour of loafing around and discovering something more permanent. Maugham's twentieth century images of the pleasant life with its manifold frivolties are all found in Yama's presentation: "sons and grandsons that shall live a hundred years, cattle in plenty, elephants, gold and horses. Choose vast expanses of land and life for thyself as many years as your wish" (I.1.23). In spite of all the changes, in spite of all the technological advances, the same economic power, aesthetic delights, and ideals of marriage and progeny mark the world of preyas—be it the one offered to Naciketas or Larry.
And the choice for sreyas leads both the Indian and American protagonists to the highest form of knowledge. This knowledge is not an abstract cognition of facts and concepts, but rather an experience, an experience that is simultaneously one of immanence and transcendence. The Katha Upanisad and Maugham's imaginative hermeneutic process bring to light the presence of the Universal Reality within the individual self. Ironically, with death as the point of departure, Naciketas and Larry make a voyage towards infinity and eternity. In the two instances, Lord Yama and Shri Ganesha (whom Larry meets with in India) are the vehicles which lead them onward in their journey. These two figures play the role of the Gurû, that is one who restrains(ru) darkness (gu), leading their disciples from the road of ignorance (avidyâ) to illumination (vidyâ).
Lord Yama informs Naciketas that the self is made up of five layers. He uses the parable of the chariot to explain that the individual is made up of the body, senses, mind, intellect, and bliss:
âtmânam rathinam viddhi, sariram ratham eva tu:
buddhim tu sârdhim viddhi, manah pragraham eva ca (I.3.3)
Know the Self as the lord of the chariot and the body as, verily, the chariot, know the intellect as the
charioteer and the mind as, verily, the reins.
In this seemingly simple parable, the complex nature of the person is drawn. The chariot with its sensitive horses represents the psycho-physical vehicle in which the transcendent owner rides: the physical self is the external carriage and subject to the conditions of mortality; the horses are the senses (indrayâni hayân âhur, I.3.4) which are held by the reins (mind); these reins remain at a critical point for they can either control or be dragged away by the team of the senses; the charioteer (intellect) ultimately holds the reins in the hands but again the pull of the horses could exert an influence on the driver's role. With proper guidance, the senses like the horses, can take one to the proper goal. The owner or âtmâ mahân, however, remains beyond—sitting blissfully in the back seat. This subtle self constitutes the inner reality of each individual. Verses reminiscent of those in the Bhagavad Gita resound in the Katha Upanisad to describe the immutablity of this intrinsic self: it is unborn, eternal, abiding and primeval, not slain when the body is slain. Lord Yama depicts the owner of the chariot in great poetic beauty: "anor aniyân mahato mahiyân, âtmâsay jantor nihito guhâyâm—smaller than the small, greater than the great, the self is set in the heart of every creature" (I.2.20.). Both sides of the scale "large and small" have been utilized to portray the utter transcendence of the self: by being"greater than the great and smaller than the smallest," all qualities and quantities are annihilated; by being infinite and infinitesimal at once, all categorizations of space, time, gender are transcended. It is this totally formless self that abides constantly within the cave-like heart (guhâyâm).
Thus does Lord Yama explain the self to Naciketas, and what we discover in turn is the paradoxical co-presence of transcendence and immanence. But are they not mutually exclusive? How can the Infinite formless reside within an individual form? How can the singular reality be manifest in multiplicity and plurality? If the transcendent becomes immanent can it really be transcendent? Maugham is attempting to explain this incomprehensible Upanisadic worldview to the Western reader. Having given up the world of pleasure, including his lovely fiancée, and a prospective stable married life along with all economic guaranties promised by his wealthy friend Gary Maturin, Larry lands in India. What Somerset Maugham records in Points of View as his own wish is also true of Larry in The Razor's Edge: he does not go to India "to shoot tigers or buy or sell anything, but only to learn." As soon as he gets off at the port in Bombay, Larry meets with one of the Ramakrishna Swamis who asks him to spend time in India for"The East has more to teach the West than the West conceives." Actually they had travelled together from Alexandria and Larry gets his first introduction to Hinduism through him at the Elephanta Caves, in front of the famous trimurti with the three manfestations of Ultimate Reality—Creator, Preserver, Destroyer. It is at the suggestion of this saffron-robed Swami friend that Larry goes to see Sri Ganesha. "He will give you what you are looking for," Larry is told.
Larry then recounts his insight to the narrator in the form of a conversation at a café in Paris several years later. That the transcendent is immanent within the self forms the theme of their dialogue. Five points from the Katha Upanisad come to the fore: the self has a transcendent core; the individual self is but the absolute transcendent; the transcendent is immanent in the myriad of forms; nowhere and in no way is the transcendent exhausted in its immanence; and that to recognize the transcendent as immanent, an inward journey into the self has to be made which results in the experience of transcendence.
The first point is that the material, sensual, mental, intellectual, and the transcendent âtman combine together to make up the individual self. Translating the âtman as soul, Larry explains that"it is distinct from the body and its senses, distinct from the mind and its intelligence." Perhaps Larry's translation of âtman as soul may not be the best for it may bring to mind the Christian conception. Yet, we clearly find him approaching the self not simply as a synthesis of (dualized) body and mind—an antithesis which has dominated Western philosophy. For Larry the self is rather that integral unity of body, senses, mind, intellect, and the"subtle self" that we find in the chariot image from the Katha Upanisad. One also notices Larry explaining the âtman through the terminology of the Gita: "It is uncreated; it has existed from eternity." Lord Krsna's words stressing the transcendent nature of the core of the self seem to have entered his own vocabulary.
A second aspect that emerges is that the individual self is the Absolute Self. A basic identity is established between persons existing in particular form and body and the Universal Reality that keeps expanding, always growing, and is without any spatial or temporal or causal limitations. The owner of the chariot is the Owner and Enjoyer par excellence. As the Katha Upanisad unfolds, Lord Yama explains this self through many lovely similes: "agnir yathaiko bhuvanam pravisto rûpam rûpam prati rûpo babhûva—it is like the fire which is one but entering this world becomes varied in shape according to the object it burns;""vayur yathaiko bhuvanam pravisto rûpam rûpum prati rûpo babhûva—it is like the air which is one but entering this world becomes varied in shape according to the object it enters" (II.2.9). Thus the fire in one form is not any different from Fire Itself, nor the air in a vessel any different from the Air outside. Can we claim that the fire in a log of wood is not Fire or that the fire in a piece of coal is not Fire?
Maugham, of course, does not argue for cases as fire or air but uses instead the supreme example of his human protagonist. For Larry, his own self "is not part of the Absolute, for the Absolute, being infinite, can have no parts; rather, it is the Absolute itself." He explains to his European companion the Absolute in terms of the Upanisadic conception of Brahman:
It's nowhere and everywhere. All things imply and dependupon it. It's not a person, it's not a thing, it's not a cause. It has no qualities. It transcends permanence and change: whole and part, finite and infinite. It is eternal because its completeness and perfection are unrelated to time. It is truth and freedom.
Although the term "It" may connote, for some; an impersonal relationship, Maugham's deliberate choice of the word reveals a remarkable intuition of Hindu metaphysics. The Radhakrishnan translation which he relied on had referred to âtman in the masculine form. Maugham's usage of the neuter, far from being impersonal, actually reveals a more personal and a more sensitive translation. It is a fine appropriation of the idea of Brahman for it substantiates the formless and infinite characteristics of the Ultimate. True to the Sanskrit "Brahman" (etymologically the root brh refers to constant expansion and bursting forth), Larry's usage of the term "Absolute" signifies pure dynamism and energy which cannot be confined to space, temporality, causality, or gender;"It" is sheer Transcendence. But this sheer Trancendence, the total Absolute, is everything particular, it is all the manifold forms of relations and relativities. Like Yama, Larry resorts to literary devices to explain a phenomenon that goes beyond normal language. He uses the analogy of "the drop of water that has arisen from the sea and in a shower has fallen into a puddle, then drifts into a brook, finds its way into a stream, after that into a river, passing through mountain gorges and wide plains, winding this way and that, obstructed by rocks and fallen trees, till at last it reaches the boundless sea from which it rose." Can the drop of water in some tiny puddle be any different from the ocean Itself? The self in a particular form is not a part, nor a division, nor a fracture or fraction of the all-pervasive and absolute Reality, but rather That Reality Itself.
Larry underscores his thesis once again in the novel. This time it is in the context of his meeting with the Swami whose presence is a benediction and makes him very happy:
I felt that at last I had found what I wanted. The weeks, the months passed with unimaginable rapidity. I proposed to stay either till he died, and he told us that he did not intend very much longer to inhabit his perishable body, or till I received illumination the state when you have at last burst the bonds of ignorance, and know with a certainty there is no disputing that you and the Absolute are one.
The final goal for Larry is to know without any doubts or uncertainties that he and the Absolute are one. This knowledge constitutes an immediate and exhaustive illumination. No ontological, epistemological, teleological or moral proofs are required to attest the identity. This insight is the highest goal set forth in the Upanisads. The path of ignorance (avidyâ in Upanisadic terminology) comes to an end with the recognition of the identity between the individual and the Absolute Self.
This intimacy between the two discloses yet another central Upanisadic relationship: the Transcendent is immanent. It is placed within all. During his conversation with Naciketas, Lord Yama describes the âtman as thumb-sized (there are two references to angustha-mâtrah, II.1.12 and II.3.17) and even uses the simile of a dwarf that is seated in the centre of the body (madhye vâmanam âsînam, II.2.3). It seems to me that the smallness is emphasized to convey the âtman as a substrate that inheres in everything. Such images are essential to portray that the infinite and illimitable vastness can be within the finite. Earlier too we found Lord Yama comparing the âtman with the basic elements of fire and air, a comparison that further reveals the âtman as the basic ingredient of the cosmos.
Lord Yama's instruction to Naciketas that the Transcendent is immanent receives an experiential exegesis in The Razor's Edge. When Larry reaches the temple in Madura he sees it packed with men, women, and children. He witnesses them making obeisance at one shrine or another and he hears them calling one another, quarrelling with one another. In Larry's words, "There was an ungodly row, and yet in some mysterious way God seemed to be near and living." In Madura, God, who seems so distant in the Judeo-Christian image of Him as Almighty Father, is suddenly felt by the young American to be present in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is as though the Hindu temple gravitationally pulled the Transcendent into its vicinity, making It reside within its own precincts.
There are two other moments when Larry strongly voices his perception of the Transcendent as immanent. While discussing the notion of personal gods, Larry emphatically states,
I believe that God is within me or nowhere.
Clearly Larry believes the Transcendent exists within his very own self; the idea of worship to an external deity—outside of himself—is outrightly rejected. According to him, "the need to worship is no more than the survival of an old remembrance of cruel gods that had to be propitiated." Through his awareness of the Transcendent residing within himself, Larry becomes conscious of the identity between the individual self and the Ultimate Self.
After the rapturous experience in the mountains in India, Larry once more expresses the Transcendent as immanent.
I felt in myself an energy that cried out to be expended. It was not for me to leave the world and retire to a cloister, but to live in the world and love the objects of the world, not indeed for themselves, but for the Infinite that is in them.
Here Larry is giving vent to the joy that he experienced on the dawn of his birthday when he was ravished by the beauty of the mountains with their deep jungle, the mist entangled in the treetops, the lake below him, the sun shining like burnished steel. "I'd never known such exaltation and such a transcendent joy," he utters. This heightened experience fills him with an infinite energy which he wants to expend in loving the objects of the world—and as he says—loving them "not indeed for themselves, but for the Infinite that is in them." In the moment of his exalted consciousness, Larry discerned the Infinite in the objects around him. Instead of seeing the ephemeral and delicate mist he has seen the eternal and transcendent reality. Yama's idea of the transcendent fire being immanent in the varied forms is palpably felt by Larry.
However, the immanence of the self does not exhaust its transcendence and the Transcendent transcendent remains. This fourth insight gained by Larry is a central element of the Katha Upanisad. Is the owner of the chariot limited to his or her chariot? Surely there may be many more under one's regard. Throughout the Upanisad it is maintained that while the âtman permeates all, there is still evermore beyond.
As the fire which is one entering the world becomes varied in form according to the object
So also the One Self within all beings becomes varied according to whatever it enters and also exists outside them all. (II.2.9)
The concept of transcendence is important throughout Hindu philosophy and we see it celebrated as early as in the Rg Veda. The Hymn of Creation (Rg Veda 10.90) provides a beautiful depiction of the entire cosmos being generated out of the sacrifice of the Cosmic Man. This Primeval Man (Purusa) is huge, as huge as the imagination can possibly conceive (thousand-headed, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed),—yet he still extends beyond! Thus immanent though the âtman may be, it still retains its extension and infinity.
That the infinite Reality cannot be encapsuled within any form or all forms as such is also illustrated in The Razor's Edge. We may recall Larry emphatically stating that the self "is not part of the Absolute, for the Absolute, being infinite, can have no parts, but the Absolute itself." The self thus does not get limited and confined to any particular format. In fact, in this connection, Larry makes a very perceptive point about Hindu art. If there is but the Transcendent Reality, why, then, the 330 million gods and goddesses?
The Absolute is in Isvar, the creator and ruler of the world, and it is in the humble fetish before which the peasant in his sun-baked field places the offering of a flower. The multitudinous gods of India are but expedients to lead to the realization that the self is one with the supreme self.
According to Larry, the Hindu imagination has evolved the millions of manifestations of the Transcendent Reality to explain that the intrinsic self is the All. Although he does not explicitly say so, Larry strongly implies that the plurality of forms and images in Hindu art only goes to show that there is no one image in which the Transcendent is immanent. No single image can contain the Transcendent.
The final point that emerges is, in fact, the most essential one, and it permeates both the Katha Upanisad and The Razor's Edge. The protagonists learn that the path to recognizing the transcendence that is immanent within requires an inward journey to be made, and it leads to the experience of transcendence itself. Knowledge in the Hindu worldview is not simply knowledge for knowledge's sake; the Katha Upanisad raises the issue of how this knowledge is attained and how it performs a soteriological function. It discloses that the knowledge of the self comes only with a moral way of life, and leads to ultimate liberation and immortality. Lord Yama's comments expressing the intricate relationship amongst the epistemological, ethical, and soteriological dimensions seem to be highlighted by Maugham in a fictional context thousands of years later.
Knowledge of the self does not come in a flash; it is a gradual process, requiring years of moral discipline. To quote Lord Yama:
This self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing. It is to be attained only by the one whom the self chooses. To such a one the self reveals Its own nature. (I.2.23)
The knowledge regarding the deep-seated inner self cannot be gained through outward methods. Therefore all usual intellectual talents, methods of instruction, and external techniques of listening are of no avail. This illumination is self revelatory—an individual is, so to say, chosen for the enlightenment. And who is chosen?
Not he who has not desisted from evil ways, not he who is not tranquil, not he who has not a concentrated mind, not even he whose mind is not composed can reach this (self) through right knowledge. (I.2.24)
The criterion is the morally cleansed person. Only by being physically and mentally serene does one prepare oneself for the ultimate enlightenment. The serenity is attained after many years of discipline. An unethical life style with evil habits has to be discarded; a mental equilibrium with a tranquil psyche acquired. The epistemological and ethical dimensions fuse together in Hindu philosophy as the former is impossible without the latter: only a morally superior person is fit to receive the higher type of knowledge. By not accepting all the wonderful material pleasures offered by Lord Yama, Naciketas has shown his high ethical standards. Yama is very happy with his pupil and only then goes on to instruct him. In the Laws of Manu we find a division of Hindu life into four equal stages (âsramas) with the first quarter being devoted to learning which means that the pupil actually lives in the Guru's home, developing ethical, mental, and intellectual virtues. Similarly, we find an episode in the Chândogya Upanisad where Lord Indra ends up spending 101 years with Prajâpati prior to attaining knowledge of the Self. By stressing the combination of praxis and intellectual advancement, these examples from Hindu scripture elucidate the fusion of ethics and epistemology. The individual is a total unit and therefore knowledge of the intrinsic self cannot be acquired without bringing the body, senses, mind, and intellect into a harmonious whole.
Since the knowledge of the self pertains to the metaphysical reality, it cannot be informed by a physical or objective vision.
The Self, though hidden in all beings, does not shine forth but can be seen by those subtle seers through their sharp and subtle intelligence. (I.3.13)
One needs to go beyond the regular intellect and reason, and reach the most subtle and refined insight in order to perceive the hidden self. Not with eyes that focus ahead on the phenomena but with eyes that turn inwards (termed âvrtta-caksuh by Lord Yama) can the eternal self be seen. Indeed, for a transcendent goal, a transcendental approach has to be taken.
The self is without sound, without touch and without form, undecaying, is likewise, without taste, eternal, without smell, without beginning, without end, beyond the great, abiding. By discerning that, one is freed from the face of death. (I.3.15)
The method of yoga is emphasized by Yama as an epistemological technique. From the root yuj, meaning to yoke, Yoga brings to mind the image of the horses controlled by the reins and held firmly by the charioteer. By yoking the senses singlemindedly, one discerns the inner self—the self without sound, smell, touch, form, the self without a beginning or an end, and one attains that very transcendence. The disclosure of transcendence takes place when the senses are withdrawn from the external world and retreat into the ground of one's being. By going into the very "is-ness" of the phenomenal self, the transcendent self shines forth. Thereafter the individual does not see himself or herself confined to his or her individuality; but rather as a transcendent being, partaking of the infinity and eternity of the Transcendent Itself. Knowledge in this Upanisadic framework is not knowledge of something; knowledge is experiencing the spaceless, timeless, causeless, genderless Reality. The subject and object of knowledge are but one, and the knowledge into essence leads to the experience of ultimate liberation and joy. Epistemological insight (darsan) leads to spiritual salvation. As Lord Yama says, "by discerning that, one is freed from the face of death."
Soteriological freedom from the cycle of birth and death is the natural accompaniment of knowledge. By recognizing transcendence, one becomes transcendent and is no longer subject to rebirth. The unity of the self extends into the unity of the cosmos; the myriad phenomena become a unified entity. In Lord Yama's poetically charged words:
yad eveha tad amutra, yad amutra tad anviha
mrtyos sa mrtyum âpnoti ya iha nâneva pasyati (II.1.10)
Whatever is here, that is there; what is there, that too is here
Whoever perceives manyness here goes from death to death.
By recognizing the unity of all, by recognizing that the here and the hereafter are one, Naciketas triumphs over death. The god of death tells the pupil that there is after all no death! The problem of death resolves itself in eternal and transcendent life. All opposites and contradictions dissolve. This world is to be celebrated, every moment to be lived to its utmost, nothing to be feared, nothing to be craved; for, "Whatever is there, that is here." Why look for something else somewhere else? The Transcendent is but here—immanent in all. The Katha Upanisad ends on a triumphant note. Having attained knowledge and the entire technique of yoga enunciated by the God of Death himself, young Naciketas is set free from passion and death; his particular example manifests the opportunity of salvation for everybody.
Thus Naciketas, having gained this knowledge declared by Death and the whole rule of Yoga, attained Brahman and became freed from passion and from death. And so may any other who knows this in regard to the self. (II.3.18)
Larry spends several years in India before he has the revelatory experience. He stays in the ashram for two years during which he meditates, reads a lot, and listens to Sri Ganesha, that is, when the Swami chooses to talk. By reading, meditating, and listening to the words of wisdom, he develops his inner faculties. Living in the ashram goes together with learning in the ashram. He is not attending a formal institution of education that merely imparts instruction. What he learns is the method of Yoga that is simpy defined by Yama as "the steady control of the senses—tâm yogam iti manyante sthirâm indriya-dhâranâm" (II.3.11). Larry becomes quite skillful at the yogic techniques, for on his return to America he is able to help Gray out of his acute migraine headaches. Where all medical inventions including "aspirin" and advanced "American prescriptions" fail, Yama's age-old advice works. By making him concentrate on a coin, Larry impels the unconscious of the suffering and contorting Gray to take over and heal himself immediately.
Only after having lived in the ashram for two years, does Larry get an insight into the Transcendent Reality. On the morning of his birthday, Larry goes up in the mountains and perceives the ravishing beauty of the scene. This is how he describes his experience: "a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained." The physical beauty fills him with a metaphysical insight, and all that was confusing and perplexing becomes suddenly elucidated. The formless self is seen through the âvrttacaksuh (inner eye). He does not learn about the facts of the flora and fauna or about the minerals or the atoms in the water that would delight any botanist or geologist. The knowledge pertaining to transcendence is gained through his inner eye and cannot quite be verbalized in any ordinary words. Perhaps Larry "sees" the Reality through the channel of the heart, mind, intellect—just as Naciketas is instructed by Yama to do. For the result, it seems to me, is exactly the one articulated by Lord Yama:
hrdâ manîsa manasîbhiklpto ya etad vidur amrtâs te bhavanti (II.3.9)
They who apprehend Reality by heart, by thought, by mind, become immortal.
Literally, the Sanskrit term amrtâ denotes immortality (a + mrtâ); but it has also come to signify the experience of intense joy—a joy of such intensity that perhaps no mortal can feel it! Larry experiences amrtâ in both these senses, for while he feels totally liberated from any mortal confinements he also feels a transcendent joy. "No words can tell the ecstasy of my bliss," he exclaims. Death is no longer feared by him. While continuing to explain his ineffable experience he says, "I was so happy that it was pain and I struggled to release myself from it, for I felt that if it lasted a moment longer I should die; and yet it was such rapture that I was ready to die rather than forgo it." Through the rapture of his epistemological disclosure Larry overcomes death. In mortal frame he becomes Immortal (amrtâ).
The epistemological-soteriological nexus—central to the Katha Upanisad—finds another interesting point of exegesis in Maugham's novel. As Larry recalls his noetic experience, "I had a strange sensation, a tingling that arose in my feet and travelled up to my head, and I felt as though I were suddenly released from my body and as pure spirit partook of the loveliness I had never conceived." This ascending process recounted by Larry is marked out by Lord Yama as the path to immortality:
A hundred and one are the arteries of the heart; one of them leads up to the crown of the head. Going upward through that, one becomes immortal; the others serve for going in various other directions. (II.3.16)
The Upanisadic point of view is that if a person has lived an ethical life and found the self within, then, at the time of death, the intrinsic self goes up through the crown of the head, merging with the Transcendent one. Freed from the cycle of birth and death, never again will it return to this world in any embodied form. By depicting the sensation going from Larry's feet to his head, and by stressing his "release," Maugham reflects this Upanisadic verse; Larry has discerned his real self, he has been freed forever from the cycle of life and death.
In Lord Yama's teaching, the path and the objective are the same: freedom is attained by becoming free from everyday constraints. "When all the knots that fetter the heart are cut asunder, then a mortal becomes immortal" (II.3.15). Here immortality is understood as a harmonious mode of being. Immortality is not achieved after death but is a state that can be accomplished in our world. Larry as we know is quite free from attachment, and the freedom of the immortal state is reflected in his exterior. Very often we hear the narrator describe in an impressed tone how "Larry appeared as unconscious of the time as of the surroundings," Or, "Although he spoke of serious things he spoke of them quite naturally…." The peace and calm that surround Larry and radiate from his person enable one to understand Lord Yama's statement: "When the five senses knowledge together with the mind cease [from their normal activities] and the intellect itself does not stir, that, they say, is the highest state" (II.3.10). The psychological mastery of Larry over himself affects his appearance. The physical change is conspicuous after his return from India and the narrator wonders—making the reader wonder even more—as to what it signifies.
He was a year younger than Gray, they were both in their early thirties, but whereas Gray looked ten years more than his age, Larry looked ten years less. Gray's movements, owing to his great bulk, were deliberate and rather heavy; but Larry's were light and easy. His manner was boyish, gay, and debonair, but with it had a serenity that I was peculiarly conscious of and that I did not recollect in the lad I had known before … in Larry … there was a singular detachment…. I don't know whether to call it awareness or a sensiblity or a force, that remained strangely aloof.
Maugham uses Larry's transformation to portray the contrast between the two life styles: on the one hand, the decadent and material life of Gray Maturin which leads to his deteriorated health; on the other, the ethical discipline which leads Larry to his intellectual-spiritual progress. Indeed Lord Yama's ethical ideal is concretized in Larry's "natural," "serene," "detached," "aloof" presence and expression.
Untouched by the murkiness and slipperiness of the material world, Larry remains free. The freedom from passions (rajas) that Naciketas attained (mentioned in the final verse of the Katha Upanisad) is also attained by Maugham's hero. No sexual, economic, professional or social ambitions entangle Larry.
He is without ambition and he has no desire for fame; to become anything of a public figure would be deeply distasteful to him; and so it may be that he is satisfied to lead his chosen life and be no more than just himself.
Being "just himself" is the most vital mode of existence. Unlike the rest of his friends, who not knowing themselves try to be something other than themselves, Larry is very much at home with himself. As a result, his body, his senses, his mind, and his intellect do not waver or fluctuate tempestuously. His is a handsome, well harnessed chariot: the horses are not going wildly out of control, the reins are held strongly by the driving mind and his essential self seems to revel fully in freedom like that of an owner resting—aloof—in some deeply hidden chamber of the carriage.
Interestingly enough, Naciketas' victory over death is also given a modern twist by Maugham. In a culture which is continuously battling against death, trying desperately to find some new method that fights against the inevitability of death in the medical, cosmetic, dietary, athletic arenas, Larry's success is depicted in his remaining youthful. In Maugham's words, "He has plenty of time, for the years have left no mark on him and to all intents and purposes he is still a young man." A twentieth century approach to immortality?
The story that begins with death, ends with life. When asked about what he would do when he returned to America, Larry simply replies, "Live." When asked again to qualify his response, Larry answers, "With calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness, and continence." Maugham's hero seems to have absorbed the very virtues put forth to the Brahmin boy by Lord Yama in the Indus Valley. After having experienced the singular unity, Larry transcends all either-or categorizations. No longer is the subject in quest of an object; he realizes that the Ultimate objective was his subjective self. "Whatever is here, that is there and whatever is there, that too is here." No wonder, then, that Larry decides to return to America. Perhaps America and India do not seem to be two different and distant continents anymore. He intends to put the ancient Indian virtues into practice in the metropolis of the modern world, New York City. Upon his return, Larry looks forward to driving a taxi. A modern version of the chariot, the taxi is for Larry "an equivalent to the staff and the begging-bowl of the wandering mendicant."
Playing the role of Hermes, then, the go-between of gods and men, Maugham translates, analyzes, and elucidates the ancient Sanskrit text for the modern English-speaking reader. Just as Hermes tried to convey the message of the distant gods to the mortals, Maugham takes up the task of explicating and articulating the complex theme of transcendence and immanence present in the classical Hindu text for his Western contemporaries. Now Maugham, a self-claimed agnostic, had no intention of delivering sacred messages from the gods but he was certainly fascinated by the Hindu conception of the Transcendent. He says, "I have sometimes gone back, beyond Mohammed, Jesus and Buddha, beyond the gods of Greece, Jehovah and Baal, to the Brahma of the Upanishads. That spirit, if spirit it may be called, self-created and independent of all other existence though all that exists, exists in it, the sole source of life in all that lives, has at least a grandeur that satisfies the imagination." He expresses this fascination for the Upanisadic notion of the Transcendent in The Summing Up which was published in 1938. Maugham must have spent the next few years performing Hermes' task—grappling with this five thousand year old concept and rendering it imaginatively in The Razor's Edge which came out in 1943. As Gadamer who has given new directions for the study of the hermeneutic enterprise would say, Maugham creates "a dialogue with the past." In Maugham's own words the Gadamerian dialogue is simply paying homage to the past. In The Summing Up he wrote:
I have little sense of reverence. There is a great deal too much of it in the world. It is claimed for many objects that do not deserve it. It is often no more than the conventional homage we pay to things in which we are not willing to take an active interest. The best homage we can pay to the great figures of the past, Dante, Titian, Shakespeare, Spinoza, is to treat them not with reverence, but with the familiarity we should exercise if they were our contemporaries. Thus we pay them the highest compliment we can; our familiarity acknowledges that they are alive for us.
Maugham has attempted to bring the temporally and spatially distant text to life for us; in a very simple and delightful manner, he has attempted to familiarize the Western reader with the Katha Upanisad. And as far as I can see, Maugham's hermeneutic procedure, his "paying homage," is quite accurate, valuable, and enjoyable.
The horizon of the ancient Hindu scripture is fused with Maugham's twentieth century horizon. Throughout the novel we discover contemporary images, references, and vocabulary from Maugham's own culture bringing out the import of the ancient and distant text. By appropriating the classical text to his own concrete historical situation, Maugham sets up a dynamic encounter between the traditional text and modern reader. He accomplishes the imperative enjoined by Gadamer:
Every encounter with tradition that takes place within historical consciousness involves the experience of the tension between the text and the present. The hermeneutic task consists in not covering up this tension by attempting a naive assimilation but consciously bringing it out.
We remember that at the very outset of the book Maugham clearly makes us aware of the Other. He distinctly notes his apprehension about understanding another culture. The Razor's Edge is not a naive assimilation; during the course of the novel, the reader is again and again made conscious of the chasm between the East and the West. Even his protagonist Larry, who lives in India and absorbs so many of its ideals and values, admits that he cannot quite believe in the theory of reincarnation with the same fervour as the Indians themselves. "I don't think it's possible for us Occidentals to believe in it as implicitly as these Orientals do. It's in their blood and bones. With us it can only be an opinion. I neither believe in it nor disbelieve in it." Moreover, Maugham clearly realizes that Larry's experience of the Absolute in the Indian scenario is not something easily understandable. At the end of the novel he admits, "I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature. I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his innermost heart as I sometimes think I can do with persons more nearly allied to the common run of men." Very often a poignant contrast between the two milieus is brought out humorously. For instance, when Larry mentions to the narrator that "Shri Ganesha used to say that silence also is conversation," the English gentleman quickly retorts, "That suggests a jolly social gathering of intellectual dons at the University of Cambridge." One way or the other, gravely or humorously, Maugham is constantly juxtaposing the Indian context of the Katha Upanisad to that of the Occidental context of the author and reader, thereby accurately highlighting for his reader the wide historical and cultural gulf.
Simultaneously, however, The Razor's Edge is very valuable in breaking the fear of the "foreign," "the other," "the alien"; it paves a path for co-operation of East and West. The novel opens up avenues for readers that a religious text may close. Scripture, another's scripture especially, may be "too reverential," too daunting to enter into. Maugham's fiction creates a sense of familiarity. The modern reader can identify with Larry's nausea at the material world and with his quest for something higher and deeper. The identification with the protagonist creates an attitude of open-mindedness and cordiality disclosing the efficacy of the traditional Hindu text. Indeed, Maugham's artistic interpretation enables the Western audience to absorb the "unfamiliar" worldview of the Katha Upanisad into their personal worldview. Maugham in his fictional recreation succeeds in making the ancient Sanskrit text come "alive for us."
Maugham's success in doing so may be attributed to the conversational mode of the novel. The Hindu philosophical concepts are analysed informally in a Parisian café—during a conversation between Larry and the narrator. The primacy of conversation as a hermeneutical method has been underscored by Gadamer. According to Gradamer, when interpretation is performed in spoken language, "it does not mean that it is transposed into a foreign medium; rather, being transformed into spoken language represents the restoration of the original communication of meaning." Thus the comprehension of ancient and distant philosophical issues becomes fluid and meaningful for the present through Maugham's dialogical style. Although some readers may object to the narrator's questions and his plea to Larry for clarifications as a clumsy didactic device on Maugham's part, the conversation between Larry and his European companion does make the intricacies of Hindu philosophy vibrant and lively. Such a use of conversation is fully vindicated by Gadamer as a creative and legitimate process of interpretation: "When it is interpreted, written tradition is brought back out of the alienation in which it finds itself and into the living present of conversation, which is always fundamentally realized in question and answer."
Of course, there is the added element of enjoyment in reading The Razor's Edge; instead of a translation and exegesis that would come across or underneath or between the verses, Maugham's artistic rendering of the Katha Upanisad creates an aesthetic delight. There is a stylistic play in interpreting the ancient story by means of another story, making the readings and re-readings very provocative. Devoid of any dull x=y equations, The Razor's Edge provides tantalizing glimpses into the Katha Upanisad; without narrowing any possibilities, it stimulates the reader's imagination to discover the tacit connections between the classical Hindu text and the modern Western novel. Wolfgang Iser has rightly emphasized the importance of the reader's imagination in a literary text: the moment the imagination is put out of action, "we feel we have somehow been cheated." In Maugham's artistic hermeneutic process, the reader continuously faces the task of mediating between the ancient and modern texts, of working out the interplay between the philosophical and literary dimensions. Searching for the Transcendence of the Katha Upanisad immanent in Maugham's The Razor's Edge ends up being a very engaging and envigorating process.
Source: Nicky-Guninder Kaur Singh, "Crossing the Razor's Edge: Somerset Maugham and Hindu Philosophy," in Durham University Journal, Vol. LXXXVII, No. 2, July 1995, pp. 329-42.
Archie K. Loss
In the following essay excerpt, Loss discusses ways in which The Razor's Edge departs from Maugham's earlier novels including its focus on Americans and its detailing of a broader range of characters.
The Razor's Edge, Maugham's last major contribution to the novel, appeared in 1944, toward the end of World War II, and was written for the most part while its author was living in the United States during that conflict. His residency on these shores was appropriate to its subject, since most of the characters in The Razor's Edge are Americans, but in theme and in form the novel carries on where the earlier novels left off: the character who emerges by its final chapters as most central to its theme, Larry Darrell, is in many ways an extension or amplification of the personal qualities we have already noted in Charles Strickland and Edward Driffield, and the novel in which he figures depends more heavily than either The Moon and Sixpence or Cakes and Ale upon the narrator-as-novelist as a connecting force, giving sequence and form to the narrative, which, in this case, is of greater length than that of those previous novels. The Razor's Edge has its own peculiar qualities, however, which give it a special place in the Maugham canon of long fiction.
One unusual aspect of the novel I have already mentioned: it deals almost exclusively with Americans. In the opening chapter of the book, the narrator—who is in fact given Maugham's name—comments on the difficulties this decision posed: "It is very difficult to know people and I don't think one can ever really know any but one's own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives' tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in." Because "you can only know them if you are them," it is difficult to give such characters credibility in a book. It is to Maugham's credit that he handles his American characters so well. It is true, of course, that by the time he wrote The Razor's Edge he had the benefit of having traveled in this country many times for many years. He also had the benefit of having many personal friends who were American. In addition, his work had an immense popularity here, reflected in the generous sales of this particular work, which became an immediate bestseller.
The Americans with whom he deals in this novel are a special sort; they are all well-educated and well-to-do, and most of them at least have leanings toward England or the Continent. Elliott Templeton, in some ways the most interesting of them all, has spent most of his life in England or in Europe, and Larry Darrell spends at least part of his life there. The Bradleys have lived all over the world in the course of the diplomatic career of the late Mr. Bradley, and Mrs. Bradley has an extensive European acquaintance. In other words, they are all fairly cosmopolitan, and much of the novel in fact does not take place in the United States, but in France and in England. Nonetheless, given the special sort of Americans they are, Maugham's characters in The Razor's Edge remain for the most part consistent to their nationality; however special, they are representative American types, later versions of the innocents abroad from the fiction of Mark Twain and Henry James.
A second aspect of the novel that sets it apart from those already discussed in this book is that it does not concentrate upon the lives and fates of two or three characters. Rather, it tells the story of a sizable group of characters over a long period of time, never concentrating for very long on any one character. Of Human Bondage, for all its length and number of minor characters, remains in memory principally the story of two: Philip and Mildred. The Moon and Sixpence concentrates upon three characters: Charles Strickland, Blanche Stroeve, and her husband Dirk. Cakes and Ale has a somewhat broader canvas, but focuses principally upon Rosie and Edward Driffield; the narrator Ashenden is an important third principal, but Alroy Kear is important only in the frame. In The Razor's Edge one follows the lives of eight characters over a period of approximately twenty years; five of those eight receive more emphasis than the other three, and one, Larry Darrell, comes by the end of the novel to seem most important of all. In effect, here is a chronicle novel, albeit a short one, in which the stories of the various characters are tied together by the device of the author-narrator.
In writing about Chekhov's approach to drama in The Summing Up, Maugham remarks on the difficulty of writing a play like The Cherry Orchard, which does not focus upon a few individuals, but rather upon a group. In recognition of this difficulty, the narrator of The Razor's Edge begins with the comment, "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage." Although the novel that follows this admonition has more form and substance than this statement implies, it remains a good question whether the device works or not. Before considering that question seriously, however, one needs to look at what happens in the novel itself.
The character who prompts the whole effort, and whose life stands in marked contrast with the lives of the other characters, is Larry Darrell. When he is first encountered in the novel he has just returned from World War I, in which he served as a flier. This experience contributes greatly to his decision not to become part of the materialistic society in which he lives. He rejects the offer of a good job with the Maturin Company and also rejects the notion of going to college as an undergraduate. "I don't mind if I make mistakes," he tells the narrator at one point. "It may be that in one of the blind alleys I may find something to my purpose."
Larry's goals turn out to be largely ascetic. As he goes to live in France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe, and then later in India, it becomes clear that his is a spiritual quest—a search for the meaning of life—which he feels he must conduct at his own pace, in his own way, earning his living as he can. With each step that brings him closer to the unattainable state of spiritual perfection, he moves further away from the ties that bind him to the other characters in the novel. Toward the narrator, however, he remains to the last fairly open, recognizing in him a stance, not ascetic, yet similar to his own. The artist, like the philosopher, remains apart from others; this is perhaps the ultimate tie between Larry and the author-narrator.
Given Larry's nature, it is not strange that he should find such satisfaction in Eastern philosophy. Chapter 6 of the novel, which has the form of a long digression, gives us a detailed view of Larry's spiritual development. In it, one sees how Larry moves from the Christian experience to the Hindu, much in the manner of so many young Americans of a later generation, the 1960s. For Larry, the stumbling block to Christianity is the old, unanswerable question, "If an all-good and all-powerful God created the world, why did he create evil?" Neither Larry nor the monks he lives with in Germany can answer that question, and the failure to do so leads him to proceed further with his spiritual quest. In India, through study with a guru, Larry, to the extent that he can, comes to terms with the absolute by adapting an ancient philosophy to his present needs. Setting as his goal self-perfection—with its concomitant ideals of self-abnegation and sexual abstinence—he plans to return to the United States, support himself by manual labor or by driving a taxi, and continue his studies.
Larry is the ultimate idealist in a world filled with people who have either lost their ideals or have adopted strictly materialistic ones. Even the narrator, sympathetic as he is to Larry's quest, feels in the end the distance between them: "I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his inmost heart as I sometimes think I can do with persons more nearly allied to the common run of men." As Larry melts into the common mass of Americans at the end of the novel, one can only guess, with the narrator, what will become of him in the future.
Isabel Bradley—whose love for Larry ends in frustration—is not able to share his ascetic ideals. She moves from the point early in the novel at which she is willing to let Larry go off for a few years to make up his mind about things, to the point later at which she comes to the painful recognition that he is forever lost to her. She knows by then that she has no chance to realize the love she has felt for him for so long. Given the nature of her character, such a realization is inevitable.
Born into a family of wealth and prominence, brought up in various parts of the world as her father's diplomatic posts dictated, Isabel is scarcely in a position to appreciate the ascetic way of life. She has aristocratic features characteristic of her family, a great sense of joie de vivre, and a liveliness and intelligence that speaks more for sociability and conversational ability than for intense intellectual interests. From the first she feels a rapport with the narrator that corresponds to what Larry feels, though she and Maugham seem more like personal cronies than intellectual allies; she reveals herself to him freely, discussing her feelings about both Larry and Gray Maturin. She loves Larry very much, but she is not willing to accommodate her standards to his. She cannot understand why he wants to live in Europe and spend all of his time reading. "We're the greatest, the most powerful people in the world," she says of her fellow countrymen. "We're going forward by leaps and bounds. We've got everything. It's your duty to take part in the development of your country." It seems inevitable that, her love for Larry notwithstanding, Isabel should become the wife of Gray Maturin, who is spiritually Larry's opposite. In the end, after the vicissitudes of the stock-market crash of 1929 and its aftermath, she, Gray, and their children settle in Dallas, where the narrator imagines them leading a charmed, decidedly upper-middle-class life. In the end, Isabel has been unable to have only one thing that she has most wanted—to marry Larry.
Gray Maturin, in contrast with Larry, is, as the narrator puts it toward the end of the book, "the quintessence of the Regular Guy." In almost every way different from Larry, he represents Isabel's philosophical choice; the pragmatic entrepreneur who feels as she does that America is the most exciting place in the world to be. Gray is the man of action, in contrast with the more contemplative Larry; he is tall and muscular, in contrast with Larry's slighter, more wiry, build; Gray is ultimately at one with the world he lives in, with all its weaknesses and faults. His only goals are to be married to Isabel, to have a family, and to make a fortune. For Gray, who is not so much anti-intellectual as nonintellectual, to be is to do; for Larry, to be is to think. Gray's type was best defined in American fiction by Sinclair Lewis, in such novels of the twenties as Babbitt and Arrowsmith. In Maugham's Gray Maturin we almost feel that one of Lewis's characters has been filtered through a different artistic consciousness.
Gray's only moment of serious weakness in the book comes after the crash and the failure of his father's business. Like his father, Gray defines himself largely in terms of that business, and, until he is able to build a similar place for himself once again, he suffers from a sense of failure and also from intense migraines that incapacitate him for days. In spite of his weaknesses and inadequacies, Gray is a character with whom we can feel some sympathy. He and Isabel—the most materialistic of the characters—represent one approach to reality in a novel that shows various approaches, some valid, some not.
Philosophical positions aside, of all the characters in The Razor's Edge, Elliott Templeton has the most flavor. Elliott is also the most Europeanized of the American group. Originally of the Southern aristocracy, he has lived in France and England since shortly after the turn of the century, when he arrived bearing letters of introduction to some of the best people. He is a social butterfly and a snob, but he has gotten to know everyone "worth knowing." The narrator, hard-pressed to account for Elliott's snobbishness given his equally strong intelligence and taste, ascribes it ultimately to a form of romanticism: "I can only guess that to be on terms of intimate familiarity with these gentlemen of ancient lineage, to be the faithful retainer of their ladies gave him a sensation of triumph that never palled…. In the company of such as these he felt that he lived in a spacious and gallant past."
It is similar feelings that prompt Elliott to convert to Roman Catholicism and to dedicate part of his considerable fortune—which weathers the crash because he has converted it to gold—to the construction of small chapels in imitation of those of the Romanesque period. Elliott is by turns foolish and wise, but he is always shrewd about money. His death scene—which becomes tied, like his whole life, to a social event—is one of the most memorable scenes of the book.
Maugham knew the type of character Elliott represents well, having encountered it many times in many places. If with other characters in the novel Maugham seems to be working from literary prototypes, in Elliott's case he is dealing with a closely observed type. Missing only from the development of Elliott's character is the logical fact of his homosexuality; one must read between the lines for that, but it certainly can be felt. At no time in his fiction does Maugham openly present a homosexual character, but with Elliott he comes very close.
The other characters in The Razor's Edge are given briefer treatment; they are the minor figures in the canvas, though they play at times crucial roles. Especially important among these are Sophie MacDonald and Suzanne Rouvier, the only nonAmerican character in the book to have any great significance.
Sophie and Suzanne form an interesting contrast; the one is a woman who destroys herself, the other a woman who finds a new life for herself in her mature years. In Maugham's work the women most favorably portrayed are always those, like Rosie Driffield in Cakes and Ale, who take a realistic view of themselves and their chances; in The Razor's Edge Isabel falls into this category, and so does Suzanne. Suzanne makes the best of what might have turned out a bad bargain; Sophie (partly as a result of the workings of fate) makes the worst of what might have been at least a satisfactory one. Together, their stories form a complement to the longer, more complicated one of Isabel and her involvement with Larry and Gray, though, even so, it is difficult to justify the amount of detail we are given about Suzanne, who otherwise plays little part in the book.
Maugham dealt with the themes important to The Razor's Edge in one of his early short stories, "The Fall of Edward Barnard," published in the same collection as the celebrated "Rain." In this story, two young men are in love with the same woman, but she favors one over the other. The favorite—Edward Barnard—has moved to Tahiti as representative of an American business firm; the one not favored—Bateman Hunter—is in business in Chicago with his father, who, like Gray Maturin's father in The Razor's Edge, owns an imposing home on the lake.
The object of Edward's and Hunter's affections in this story is Isabel Longstaffe, a product of Chicago who combines American aggressiveness with European refinement. This Isabel is a neoaristocrat for whom Louis XV furnishings (compare the description of the furnishings of the Bradley house in The Razor's Edge) are an appropriate backdrop. Bateman has learned that Edward never plans to return from Tahiti to marry Isabel, and much of the story has to do with his recounting the reasons why.
Edward, it seems, has succumbed to the influence of the Tahitian environment and begun to consider his philosophical position, his attitude toward life. Like Larry Darrell, he has begun to read simply for the sake of reading, and he now rejects the whole idea of material success that took him to Tahiti in the first place. "I haven't failed," Edward tells Bateman. "I've succeeded. You can't think with what zest I look forward to life, how full it seems to me and how significant." Edward surrenders to his friend all rights to Isabel, and, at the end of the story, Bateman and Isabel look forward to their life together, with all its material success, in what they feel is the greatest country in the world.
Edward's fall is clearly fortunate, both for him and also, ironically enough, for Bateman. As in The Razor's Edge, this short story presents us with two ways of life, one more idealistic than the other. In "The Fall of Edward Barnard" the alternatives are less equal in their attractiveness than they are in The Razor's Edge. Mixed with the desire for greater self-knowledges on Edward's part is a certain euphoria that comes (as for Strickland in the later pages of The Moon and Sixpence) from the tropical environment, but thematically, as well as in certain of its details, this early short story represents Maugham's first run-through of the materials of his novel of more than twenty years later. It also serves to highlight some of the major themes of the novel.
In The Razor's Edge, Maugham never makes completely clear whether it is Larry's way that should prevail or the way of Isabel and Gray. Part of the problem is that—as with Charles Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence—Maugham never quite succeeds in bringing Larry Darrell to life. As a character on a philosophical quest, Larry lacks credibility. As a result, the novel in which he figures becomes to some extent a novel without a hero.
It is true that Maugham has the narrator say that the whole purpose of the novel is to tell Larry's story, and that chapter 6, with the detailed account of Larry's spiritual development, is the most important in the book. It is also true that in one of the key scenes of the novel (and also, incidentally, one of the least credible) it is Larry, the ascetic, who teaches Gray, the materialist, how to overcome the terrible pain of migraine by the application of principles of yoga that Larry has learned in India. This overly explicit example of the triumph of mind over matter is intended to illustrate the spiritual theme associated with Larry; it overstates that theme at the same time that it shows its significance to the book.
In contrast, Isabel—though she is never able to have Larry as her own—has everything else with Gray, including a good sexual life, and the narrator, who is, he says, "of the earth, earthy," is perpetually noting the gown by Molyneux, the luncheon at a certain restaurant, and the other trappings of materialistic success that are so important to Isabel's and Gray's way of life. Furthermore, when mind does triumph over matter in Gray's cure, the result is that Gray is able to earn even more money than before. This application of the principles of yoga does not seem to make much difference to the spiritual progress of the world. On the whole, viewed in terms of actions and consequences in the novel, the more materialistic characters—not only Isabel and Gray, but also Elliott Templeton and Suzanne Rouvier (whose real significance to the book may lie in her having this quality)—fare very well, even in comparison with Larry, and the narrator at times seems strongly to share their view.
John Brophy has noted that Maugham's attitude toward his characters can be described as that of a clinician. He notes their condition, remarks on whether it is stable or growing worse, and then moves on to the next character or story. Such an attitude comes across clearly in the pages of The Razor's Edge, where one feels that ultimately, despite gestures in the direction of Larry, the narrator does not wish to pass judgment in his favor, merely to indicate the direction his life has taken. Despite his sympathy for Larry and despite the amount of space devoted to his story, one ends by feeling that Maugham wishes to suspend his judgment and let the reader decide.
Source: Archie K. Loss, "Innocents Abroad: The Razor's Edge," in W. Somerset Maugham, Ungar Publishing, 1987, pp. 58-71.
Forrest D. Burt
In the following excerpt from the conclusion to his W. Somerset Maugham, Burt discusses how Maugham "cultivates the special relationship that he has established with his readers" in The Razor's Edge.
Puzzlement in Fiction
Factors beyond the text—such as Maugham's celebrity status, image as a British gentleman, secret agent during World War I, tasteful craftsman of fiction, and a model of the effective use of the queen's English—undoubtedly influenced the reception of each of his later works. In The Razor's Edge, Maugham's pattern continues. He approaches the readers as equals—respected members of the audience and as fellow travelers on adventures of life, one in whom he confides. He begins: "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don't know what else to call it." Thus, his growing number of readers knew immediately that they had yet another treat ahead of them.
In The Razor's Edge, the last novel in the tradition of The Moon and Sixpence and Cakes and Ale, the Ashenden narrrator/character is named Mr. Maugham. Visiting in Chicago, he is contacted by a friend of many years, Mr. Elliott Templeton (a close parallel to Alroy Kear), and invited to dinner. That evening Maugham meets Isabel, Elliott's niece, Isabel's mother, Gray (who will eventually marry Isabel despite her preference for Larry), Sophie, a friend of the family, and most noteworthy, Larry Darrell, Isabel's fiancé, who has just returned from the war. With Elliott, Mr. Maugham will have a relationship very much like that between Mr. Ashenden and Alroy Kear. Larry is the character about whom Mr. Maugham has a sense of puzzlement—similar to that between Willie Ashenden and Rosie and between the narrator and Charles Strickland. And the relationship between Isabel and Mr. Maugham is warm and open, yet flirtatious at times and at others quite critical. This relationship Mr. Maugham no doubt had with a few women in his life—perhaps most notably with Barbara Back, wife of Ivor Back, the prominent London surgeon, and with the novelist G. B. Stern.
Mr. Maugham is at first impressed and later quite puzzled by Larry. Then he learns that Larry has put off his marriage to Isabel, feeling that he must go to Paris and to the East in search of the meaning and purpose of life—to find God. Still later he learns that Larry had a friend in the war who lost his life saving Larry from certain death. This and his natural goodness and sensitive nature lead Larry on a quest for meaning and answers.
Maugham cultivates the special relationship that he has established with his readers. He takes unusual liberties in developing this highly structured work—which on the surface may seem quite casual (moving back and forth in time, using the flashback technique, a narrator who is a world traveler)—all a plausible harmony. In a sense the reader is a fellow traveler with Maugham.
Typical of the personas of earlier works, the Mr. Maugham narrator shows a fascination with an exceptional individual such as Larry gradually becomes. Although modern readers no doubt identify with Mr. Maugham's attraction to such a saintly individual, they most likely relate even more strongly to Mr. Maugham's inability to reach the same lofty heights as Larry does. These dimensions of the novel and of reader participation were present in other novels, of course—notably in Cakes and Ale. Here, though, readers experience the emotions and attitudes from a greater distance, have less of a sense of what Larry's life and values meant than, for instance, Strickland's or Driffield's. Mr. Maugham's answer to his lack of understanding comes at the end of the novel: "I am of the earth, earthy; I can only admire the radiance of such a rare creature, I cannot step into his shoes and enter into his inmost heart as I sometimes think I can do with persons more nearly allied to the common run of men." In contrast to Larry, Mr. Maugham, the English gentleman, sees life through the eyes of moderation, pragmatism, objectivity.
The novel follows the common Maughamian pattern of concealment: concealing information—about Larry's quest, his adventures, his findings, etc.—and revelation: revealing the emotions and attitudes of the narrator, Isabel, Larry, Sophie, and Elliott. And there are close parallels here to Cakes and Ale and The Moon and Sixpence: Larry to Rosie and Strickland; Mr. Maugham to Willie Ashenden; Elliott Templeton to Alroy Kear, etc.
Mr. Maugham presents the novel in a deceptively casual manner—admitting misgivings for even calling it a novel, etc. But beneath this surface informality the reader finds a highly structured, intricately worked-out system of individuals, use of time, events, etc. We know of the date of the opening, reference is made to the publication of The Moon and Sixpence, ages are given of characters, dates of events—such as the stock market crash, etc.—that give the novel historic credibility.
But beyond this craftfulness there is a shift in concern from plot to character—as was true in Cakes and Ale. That is, the novel concerns Larry—about whom we learn very little. At the beginning of chapter 6, in the heart of the novel, Mr. Maugham states: "I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of the story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry." He adds ironically that if it had not been for this conversation he would not have written the book. Here the Mr. Maugham narrator/author (as the two are fusing at this point) teases the reader, enticing him or her to read further. Also here Mr. Maugham is shifting the focus on character, that of Larry. As in countless other Maugham novels the involvement is an intensely dramatic one. And what the reader comes away with is, like the Persian rug, in direct proportion to what he or she has put into it; it is an experience in which there is no intrinsic meaning.
Source: Forrest D. Burt, "Conclusion," in W. Somerset Maugham, Twayne Publishers, 1985, pp. 134-42.
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.
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.