Friday, August 28, 2009

Questions Along The Razor's Edge

I just finished reading W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel, The Razor’s Edge, first published in 1943 but still very relevant in its study of human nature and spiritual longings. Maugham takes his title from an Upanishads quote: The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over, thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.

The story that unfolds is told by a first-person narrator whom one presumes to be Maugham himself, and centers around three well-defined characters: Larry Darrell, a winsome young spiritual sojourner completely absent of materialistic longings; his one-time fiancée Isabel Maturin, who never stops loving Larry even though her needs for a cushy lifestyle and a respectable reputation overpower this longing; and the unflappable socialite Elliott Templeton, who spends a lifetime building the right connections and attending the best of Parisian and British gatherings, only to find himself forgotten and lonely at the end of a life built along a rope of sand.

Maugham’s narrative spans about two decades, taking the reader through the heart of the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression. We see the characters grow and develop to a degree, but in the end they have become more fully entrenched in the context they sought to cultivate at the beginning of the story. Larry (who has less page time than the other main characters, interestingly) has his spiritual peace in the midst of his simplicity; Isabel her comfortable (if romantically unsatisfying) suburban life after riding out the Depression in Europe with her family; and Elliott his one final, high-society party invitation (although a forgery), which he declines because of his impending death.

What seems particularly timeless about Maugham’s story of nearly 70 years ago is the questions he subtly poses through the interplay of the characters. What truly makes for a satisfying life? How does one hold spiritual restlessness and material pragmatism in dynamic tension? To what extent should others define who we must be and what we should do?

And, a final question, perhaps: What sharp edges of the razor are we sidestepping, consciously or not?


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