This term, the Sixth Form Reading Group have been discussing W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Written during the height of the Second World War, Maugham’s novel follows a young man who has returned from WWI a changed person, no longer fitting into the social world that had previously been so easy for him. Opting to give up a promising marriage to a rich and beautiful girl, Larry chooses instead to fly to Paris with no other plan than to "loaf". Chance encounters bring the narrator into contact with Larry as the years progress, and with a growing interest he observes someone who has followed his belief that there is a more meaningful life away from the path that society had originally set out for him.
This week, we began by discussing Part One of the novel, in which the narrator (ostensibly Maugham) recounts how he came across Larry amongst a party of wealthy Americans in Chicago. While the others discussed whether the dining room should be redecorated in the style of Louis Quinze or Chippendale, Larry’s candid response leaves no one impressed: "If Aunt Louisa is happy with what she’s got, what is the object of changing?". His alien detachment from the preoccupations of his class, his rejection of a secure job that would guarantee his future fortune, and his singular capacity to spend an entire day ensconced in the corner of a library with William James’s Principles of Psychology draw Maugham to this unpresuming young man and form the backdrop for a novel of self-exploration. Only by stepping away from society can Larry begin to understand what is truly important in his life.
In our discussion, we considered why the narrator takes such an interest in Larry: is he envious of his freedoms, critical of his attitude, or just merely curious? And Larry himself: is he being selfish or just true to himself? Are the selfish ones those who wish him to conform, or are they just practical enough to fit into this world with ease? And finally, what should we make of Larry’s trauma? Why would Maugham give us a jarring snapshot of the event that changed Larry’s life at the end of an exquisitely-crafted section of the novel?
The delight in these questions is that we need no firm answer: we can, as Maugham does, leave them to be picked up again when we stumble across them later in life.
- Mr Jenks (Teacher of English)