“The sharp edge of the razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard.” ~ Katha-Upanishad
“The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that’s neither immoral nor illegal.” ~ Elliot Templeton in The Razor’s Edge
“As long as man sets his ideals on the wrong objects there can be no real happiness. Until men learn it comes from within themselves.” ~ Holy Man in The Razor’s Edge
“If I ever acquire wisdom, I suppose I’ll be wise enough to know what to do with it.” ~ Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge
What I first saw the movie The Razor’s Edge, I felt as if the author had written the story just for me. I’m so much like Larry Darrell. Seeking wisdom is so much more important to me than earning money. I know money is important too, but after a while using it to accumulate things gets boring. I mean if I had lots of money, I would like to use it for things I want or need to enhance my search, like books and edifying travel. But mostly I’d like to use it to help people. To me self-improvement, and helping improve the lives of others is the best way I can use this life I have.
I think W. Somerset Maugham poses interesting questions in The Razor’s Edge and the movie follows the outline of Maugham’s story almost to the letter. Is there value in searching for self-knowledge over seeking wealth, and who is happier, the wealthy person or the seeker? Who contributes more to society the artist, philosopher, or mystic, or the consumer? Maugham offers the reader an interesting mix of characters to help us make up our own minds about these questions.
Elliot Templeton is a vain American who has denounced his country in favor of living in Paris and ingratiating himself with the wealthy and titled. He helps them sell their precious artwork to survive economic hard times after WW I. Since he is cultured and quite knowledgeable about art and antiques, he becomes indispensable, and thus builds up vast wealth of his own. He becomes the man everyone invites to their parties. However, though he appears completely self-absorbed, he can be extremely generous and kind at the most surprising times.
His Niece, Isabel on the other hand is rather cold, or maybe practical is a better word for her. She claims to love Larry Darrell, her childhood friend, with a deep and profound love. We discover later, however, that part of why she “loved” him was because she thought she could manipulate him to do what she wanted. When he asks her to share his three thousand dollars a year and travel the world to discover the meaning of life, she refuses to marry him. She wants to have fun and in her mind you can’t do that without lots of money.
So, Isabel marries another childhood friend, Gray Maturin who’s father owns a stock brokerage firm. Contrary to the picture painted of stock brokers today, these two are honorable men. Their goal is to help their clients build a secure future by investing conservatively. Unfortunately they are seduced by the craze that leads to the Great Depression and not only lose everything for their clients, but they lose their personal fortunes as well. Isabel and Gray end up living on about three thousand dollars a year. I love the irony of that little twist. Isabel turns out to be loyal, however, when Gray is so wracked with guilt about losing his client’s fortunes that he suffers from debilitating headaches and is unable to work.
Somerset Maugham uses himself as a connecting character in the story. He’s the outsider and thus observer who ruminates on the various characters, their actions and motivations and whether they learn anything or remain as they were when he first met them.
The main character of Maugham’s story is Larry Darrell. He, Isabel, Gray, and another character who plays a big role in the turning point of the story, Sophie, all grew up together in Chicago part of a rather smart set. But when Larry lies about his age and enlists in the Canadian Air Force to fight in WWI, he’s changed by the experience. Gray tells Somerset at one point that Larry was always a different kind of person. He didn’t care about money, always seemed a little bit detached and would disappear from parties without a word. When he returns from the war, he’s even more of a loner than he was before he enlisted. Even Maugham, who is a keen observer of human nature, can’t quite make him out. But he suspects that Larry is looking for something most people don’t even know exists and that thing can only be found inside himself.
Larry tries to tell Isabel what it is he’s chasing when he proposes she join him on his quest. “The only thing that makes me unhappy is making you unhappy. I don’t think I’ll ever find peace until I make up my mind about things. It’s difficult to put into words. The minute you try, you feel embarrassed. You say to yourself, who am I to bother my head about this, that or the other. Wouldn’t it be better just to follow the beaten path and let what’s coming to you, come? And then I think of the guy I knew, a minute before he was full of life and fun, and then … he was dead. I’ve seen many men die; but, this one was different. It was the last day of the war, almost the last moment. He could have saved himself, but, he didn’t. He saved me, and died. So, he’s gone and I’m here, alive. Why? It’s all so meaningless! You can’t help but ask what life is all about. Whether there’s any sense to it or whether it’s just a stupid blunder!”
Because of that one segment, I loved Larry. I understood his inability to put into words not only his deep need for his quest, but for his hope of finding the answers he was seeking.
And so Larry goes in search of the meaning of it all. And in the end, he finds it. But it’s not something he can tell other people. He has to live the truth of what he’s discovered. He knows every person who asks these same questions must find the great truth for themselves.
My favorite scenes in the movie are after Larry has had his profound experience in the Himalayas. The light in his face is extraordinary. You know he’s been touched by something deeply profound and personal. Tyrone Power plays the part of Larry and his performance riveted me to the film.
Now that I’ve read the book, I find that the screen play follows the text of the book most carefully except that it is Larry who does a few things at the end, like confronting Isabel with what she did to break up his upcoming marriage to Sophie, that are done by Maugham in the book. I think Larry making these discoveries himself strengthens his character, which I like very much. But perhaps in the end it doesn’t matter. This book is about people like Larry who hunger to find something meaningful beyond themselves and that is accomplished in both versions. That’s why this is one of my favorite stories of all time. I’m on a similar journey. It’s comforting to know that an author the caliber of W. Somerset Maugham has noticed and written about people like Larry and me.
Thanks for reading, liking and commenting. I appreciate it very much. I hope you have a wonderful weekend.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018
Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. If you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.