William Somerset Maugham's novel THE RAZOR'S EDGE has been counted among one of the Bestselling Novels of the 20th Century almost from the first day of publication. Panned by the critics, it has been loved by the public. The novel has been serialized, made into motion pictures, and published in hardback or paperback continuously every year since 1944.

The story follows a young American, Larry Darrell, as he searches for the meaning of life and Spiritual Enlightenment after seeing his best friend die in front of his eyes during World War I. Even though the plot is set in those years so many years ago Maugham's theme stands the test of time. Our lives or the clothes we wear may vary from the characters as Maugham writes them, but, for the most part, we remain pretty much the same. Maugham's understanding of vanity, disappointment, ambition and love, weaved into the novel's sex, drugs and violence continue to give the novel a feel of being thoroughly modern.

Many people question if THE RAZOR'S EDGE: Is True or False?. However, it is said by Maugham to be based on a true account and is discussed most thoroughly at the above link. So saying, there are four major tangent points, each as important as the other, in both Darrell's life AND Maugham's that had to come together in order for The Razor's Edge to be:

  • First the Darrell character HAD to be the right chronological age to participate in the war.

  • Second, he HAD to see his best friend die so he would be driven to go on his spiritual quest.

  • Third, he HAD to meet that specific holy man in the temple at Madura so he could be sent to see the Maharshi inorder that his Enlightenment would transpire.

  • Fourth, Darrell HAD to cross paths with Maugham at the Cafe Du' Dome along the sidewalk in Paris following his Enlightenment experience in order to tell his story.

Before you go on to the list of notes below, it should be brought to your attention that even though The Razor's Edge was one of the best selling novels of the 20th Century it was NOT Maugham's first attempt using the exact same plot. Maugham had used the exact plot three previous times, but was unable to make it work until he turned his efforts to writing The Razor's Edge. His third and final attempt before the success of The Razor's Edge was done in 1924 --- a full twenty years before The Razor's Edge was published --- and found in The Road Uphill. Now, on to the NOTES:

William Somerset Maugham:

NOTE: Underlined Red are Click-through Links

  • Born in Paris in 1874

  • Saw very little of his mother who died when he was eight

  • Always kept pictures of his mother

  • His father died when Maugham was ten

  • Was the youngest of four children

  • Eventually left in the care of an older uncle who was an Anglican reverend who sent him to Canterbury College – an extremely unhappy time for him
  • Almost went on to become a reverend

  • Elected to attend Heidelburg University

  • Eventually chose medicine as a career. Studied and qualified as a doctor at St Thomas Hospital in London

  • Served as an ambulance driver during WWI

  • Later served as an intelligence officer

  • Left medicine after publishing his first novel

  • Seemed to have some shame – as he stammered and was short

  • Though remembered as a novelist was perhaps more famous as a playwright in his lifetime

  • Published his greatest work Of Human Bondage in 1911

  • Married in 1916 but was eventually divorced

  • Wrote several hours every morning

  • Traveled extensively throughout India and the far east

  • Fainted in front of the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi the first time they met

  • Had many enemies because he included so much of his true life in his novels

Larry Darrell:

  • Born in Connecticut in 1899

  • Father was a Professor of romance languages at an eastern university

  • Mother died in childbirth during his delivery. He was around eight years old when his father died

  • Double first names – good for an orphan – like Maugham

  • Seems disconnected from everything

  • Has an interest in aviation – a innate drive to be closer to God

  • An American, in WWI he flew with the British RAF against the Germans through Canada

  • Wounded twice, but not severely

  • He seems rather emotionally empty

  • Reads William Jame's Principles of Psychology along with volumes of other books to learn about himself

  • Doesn’t want to go to university

  • Seems to escape all modernity

  • Escapes to Europe after the war – perhaps to make some sense of the place where he experienced so many horrors

  • Escapes from materialism by traveling to Asia

  • After the war he ceases to live by Christian virtues

  • After returning to France from India he strangely goes to England to purchase new clothes prior to visiting his old friends in Paris

  • Is loath to reveal where he lives

  • "Larry is a deeply religious person who does not believe in God"

  • Learns that salvation is not the answer but that the renunciation of the Self is

  • Has his epiphany on a mountain top on his birthday – it is in a sense his second birthday – when he is reborn into his new self

  • No ambition – tells friends he plans to become a cab driver - but doesn't

  • Although not so, thought by some to be based on the life of a man named Guy Hague

Elliott Templeton

  • Born in 1861 of an old Virginia family

  • Name is suggestive of a place of worship

  • He does go on to build a church in his later years when society does not provide him with the personal nourishment that he had chased all his life

  • Is the most developed character in the novel though he is not the focus of the story

  • Snob

  • The root of his trouble is his romanticism

  • He is reminiscent of Henry James, American Victorian author

  • He is gracious and generous to friends and family

  • Is eventually rejected by the society he seeks when he becomes old

  • Somerset fixes the final invitation to a party in order to allow him to die happy

  • His story seems to be the glue that holds all the other plots together

  • Both Larry and Elliott search for answers to a psychic emptiness and in the end find a degree of solace in religion

  • At the end the Bishop pronounces Elliott a good though flawed man

Hollywood's version of the Ashram. Larry Darrell is
shown standing on the left,- the Maharshi is on the
right holding walking stick. See their meeting below.

(please click image)


Shri Ganesha:

  • Neither thin nor fat

  • Palish brown color and clean shaven with close-cropped white hair

  • Lived in a cave in the hills for many years

  • Sat in the attitude of meditation on a raised dais covered with a tiger skin

  • He said, "Silence is also conversation"

  • Said to be based on the venerated Indian holy man the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi

Isabel Bradley:

  • Born in 1900, most likely Chicago, Illinois -- although could have been born abroad as her father was a foreign diplomat and traveled extensively. Spent some part of her childhood in a rural area 60 miles from Chicago where she met Sophie and Larry

  • Name a version of "Elizabeth" – which means "God’s protection"

  • Embodies the quest for money

  • Initially inclined to fat as a young woman

  • Good skin - essentially very attractive

  • Was happier when involved with Larry

  • Larry says he will marry her - but money is too important to her to give it up

  • Doesn’t really love Gray – he merely provides her with economic security

  • Gray is Larry’s best friend

  • Has two daughters with Gray, Joan and Priscilla, born 1923 and 1925 respectively

  • The daughters admire her but love Gray

  • She grows more chic during her hiatus in Paris after the crash

  • She enjoys the power that Gray has

  • Larry is the one for whom she feels the strongest attraction but she gives him up because he hasn’t much money and little interest in obtaining more

  • The narrator seems drawn to her attractiveness – perhaps there is some symbolism in this?

  • Is responsible for Sophie’s death

  • She lacks sympathy and is hollow at the core

  • Maugham says that she lacks "tenderness"

  • Might be motivated by Larry’s lack of interest in her

  • Ultimately she loves herself most of all

  • She has charm and style

Gray Maturin:

  • Maugham writes Larry is one year younger than Gray, making Gray's birth year 1898

  • The name is suggestive of a bland colourlessness

  • He speaks in banalities at best and cliché at worst

  • Interested in sports and the making of money

  • Close relationship with his father

  • Works hard and takes his responsibilities seriously

  • Loves Isabel desperately

  • His mother is a upper class snob and very much like Isabel

  • He loves his family because he hopes to find happiness in them because his work is meaningless beyond the creation of wealth

  • Like his father he is an honorable man

  • He never really recovers from the stock crash

  • His very nature was wrapped up in his job

  • He felt shame for all the money that he lost

  • He knew that he had been married for his money and so he was worried that he might lose his family if he continued to be poor

  • Larry cured him of his headaches

  • Eventually they will move to Texas even though, through Isabel, they own a huge once highly successful plantation in South Carolina they were unable to sell during the depression

Sophie Nelson MacDonald:

  • Lost her husband and child in a meaningless random accident with a drunk driver

  • Doesn’t cope well with the sense of meaningless – for her there is no purpose and this renders her will to live moribund

  • She wants to die because there is no reason to live – "Good riddance to bad garbage" is her response to a warning from Maugham about where her wildness might lead her

  • Found in the water in the end – a baptism of sorts

  • Larry has known her since she was a young girl

  • She was initially rather tomboyish and a fresh young poetic soul whom Larry had really taken to

  • Her happy marriage to Bob MacDonald makes Isabel’s accommodation for personal comfort look pretty shallow

  • When she appears the second time she very much changed – promiscuous and drugged but there is something sexy about her for the author

  • Isabel believes she is bad but what has turned her bad have been circumstances beyond her control

  • This is meant to cause the reader to wonder about the nature of evil

  • Is it a real moral condition or a reaction to circumstance that in some cases might be described as bad luck – the bad are merely the less fortunate and deserving of our assistance rather than punishment

  • Isabel is jealous of Larry’s interest in her

  • Perhaps Larry is more interested in saving her than loving her

  • She is lured back to alcoholism and eventually drugs again by Isabel’s trap (see)

Larry,- in the black beret,- seen here from the 1946 movie version of "The Razor's Edge,"
played by Tyrone Power, enters the opium den in Paris in search of Sophie. Sophie (Ann
Baxter) is shown passed out on the sofa with one of the den's denizens. The 1946 black
and white movie holds fairly close to W. S. Maugham's novel in plot, story line and intent.

Father Ensheim

  • The name means "a home/house"

  • Benedictine Monk

  • He seems a deep and mystical man

  • Feels that God created the world for his own glorification which does not sit well with Larry

  • Larry feels that children expect safety and protection from their parents and should not have to beg for it, as Christians must with Yahweh.

  • His notions of eternal damnation seem unjust to Larry

  • Larry neither likes the notion that the focus of religion is the cultivation of a faith that permits personal salvation - seems to reflect insecurity on God’s behalf

  • At this point in the story Larry expresses Maugham’s doubts

  • The cruelty of his and Larry’s life had caused him to doubt the value of Christianity

  • "He couldn’t believe in a God that wasn’t as good as an ordinary man."

  • It was Father Ensheim that first suggested to Darrell to go to India for his answers


  • Larry meets him as a fluke

  • "Kosti" in Slavic languages seems to mean "bone"

  • Larry meets him after Isabel refuses to wait for him

  • They both work in a mine as a ritual purification or even a decent into hell

  • Polish, huge, fleshy and ugly but the possessor of blue eyes.

  • Former cavalry officer

  • He has rejected his past – just as Larry has done

  • Covered in coal dust almost like makeup

  • Very educated and well read but he hides this from others

  • Seems to remain a bit of a snob.

  • He had been removed from the Army because he had cheated at cards

  • Larry and Kosti are parallels – they both seek a meaning to life, are cut off from their roots and are interested in mystical things

  • Was Catholic and philosophical when drunk

  • Larry leaves Kosti because there is no more to learn from him

  • He helps point Larry down a certain road


Mrs. Bradley:

  • "Bradley" means "broad clearing"

  • Was very handsome when younger

  • Has good eyes

  • She’s a widow with three sons and a daughter

  • Her husband had been a diplomat

  • Left her much money

  • Had come from a Virginian family

  • She was out of touch with fashion

  • Was not impressed with Brabazon because, as a woman of character, she isn’t influenced by fashion

  • She never changed despite her travels around the world – she wasn’t all that impressed with them really

  • She had common sense – made accommodations to obtain security – in common with Suzanne Rouvier – and her daughter

  • They met Larry at the family farm

  • She doesn’t want Isabel to marry until Larry has found steady work – perhaps because she knows her daughter’s predilections

  • Was a bit of a snob – seems concerned with traditional stability – has what she wants but does not seem all that happy

Suzanne Rouvier:

  • Suzanne means Lilly in Hebrew – a woman who had been falsely accused of adultery

  • a symbol of France "Fleur de lis"

  • Became the mistress of an artist after having been seduced at age 15

  • Her mother was a widow

  • She had a child with the Scandinavian

  • She suffered from typhus at one point and seems almost to have died – saved in a way by Larry taking her in

  • She was M. Achilles mistress every so often to make a little extra money to pay for her daughter’s upkeep

  • She eventually learns to paint, though not well

  • She had been in love with Larry though not he with her

  • Had a practical approach to life – seems in control

  • Seems mostly to be enjoying herself

  • She seeks security

  • She has large blue eyes

  • Thought to be possibly based on the life of the French artist Suzanne Valadon

Gregory Brabazon:

  • The decorator

  • Was not thought to be a gentleman but was believed to have taste

  • Short, fat and bald with quick gray eyes – English

  • Noisy but astute man of business.

  • One of the most successful decorators in London

  • Thought Mrs. Bradley’s rooms were too dark - he matches the rooms to the owners

  • He is a litmus test for personal security – think of the story of the "Emperor’s New clothes"

America and Chicago:

  • A vibrant American city

  • Incorporated in the 1830’s

  • One of the most cultured of American cities

  • Third largest in the union

  • Has it’s own stock market which is an artificial way to make money

  • Not as extravagant as New York

  • Fairly hierarchy free – money is the gage of status

  • Perhaps too much emphasis on greed and gain

  • New Yorkers have forgotten their roots

  • Europe is somehow described as being dead

  • America doesn’t provide Elliott with the culture he wishes to experience – it doesn’t have the aristocracy he wishes to experience – he senses that there is more to life than money

  • Perhaps he longs for that southern aristocracy that his family left behind in Virginia

  • Isabel and Gray leave Chicago for Paris when the market collapses - they regroup in France

  • Larry finds no initial solace in America so he too leaves – but he eventually returns to share his newfound wisdom with America


  • A place that is more concerned with status than wealth

  • Opposite of the Americans to whom wealth is all

  • Society is cliquey

  • A city concerned with style and hence superficial things – therefore it can never really reward someone with security of place, family or mind.

  • Had been a centre of European Christianity until fairly recent times when France ultimately lost its faith as a nation

  • Larry goes to Paris, the city of light (reason), hoping to find answers to questions but doesn’t – he hoped for Enlightenment

  • Maturins don’t take all of their French possessions to Texas –thereby making a break with France

  • Larry had passed time in Paris during the war

  • Larry and Elliott reject Paris in the end and immerse themselves in religion, but Isabel loves it

  • It is here that Gray is cured – but does Paris or Larry cure him?

Premature Death:

  • More difficult to deal with than other forms of death

  • Symbolic of lost potential

  • Renders life meaningless as it occurs contrary to the normal life cycle

  • Larry – lost both of his parents and his friend Patsy, the Irishman

  • "I’ll be jiggered" Patsy’s last words on the revelation that he was about to die – it was a terrible shock for him to know that he would die so young

  • Starts out having a childlike sense of being immortal

  • Feels shame for the lack of respect he has for the dead – "They looked so terribly dead."

  • Because it makes no sense he then seeks a reason for what happens in this world – the old Why do bad things happen to good people?" question

Hinduism - The Problem with Evil:

  • Hinduism is a religion without a single starting point

  • Its goal of life is release from this world and spiritual linkage with the creator Brahma

  • Only consciousness is real and all things of this world are distractions

  • The goal of life is achieved not through action but through knowledge

  • Larry is concerned too much psychic energy in religion is wasted on the insecurity of belief

The Novel’s Construction:

  • A traditional pattern is revealed – hero quest

  • This is not a linear novel

  • The beginning seems odd

  • Reads more like a stream of consciousness journal

  • A very personal feeling sort of document

  • Narrator is a character and author of the story

  • Sometimes he turns from the narrative and speaks directly to the reader

  • Continues to disclaim his expertise in certain topics such as American dialect and philosophy and then goes on to demonstrate a certain facility with them – a disarming technique that puts the reader at ease


  • People are products of the societies they inhabit

  • Brits seem to think of Americans as inferior

  • Americans are generally viewed as self absorbed or involved

  • People laughed at Elliott and yet they continued to attend his parties – because they were snobs too

  • Ultimately connection to society is presented almost as a false promise – the connection with society is secondary to the connection with the absolute

  • Elliott rejects America because its values are organized around wealth

  • Elliott seems to think that marriage will provide with stability and a lover


Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.



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Desmond T. Burke

the Wanderling