Places: The Razor’s Edge

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1944

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Chicago

*Chicago. Razor’s Edge, TheIllinois’s largest city, which in the early twentieth century was one of the most prosperous of midwestern cities and a major center of the rapidly expanding industrial economy of the United States. In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Chicago symbolizes rising American materialism. By setting the novel’s opening scenes there, Maugham emphasizes the materialism that his young seeker, Lawrence Darrell, seeks to leave behind him. The narrator–Maugham himself–first meets Darrell at the Chicago home of Mrs. Bradley and her daughter Isabel, to whom Darrell is engaged. The Bradley home is located on Lake Shore Drive, in a wealthy section of Chicago near the Lake.


*Paris. France’s capital city and an old center of European civilization contrasts with the newness of Chicago. Long associated with high society and the arts, the Paris of this novel is two very different places. On one hand, it is the socially elite city loved by Elliott Templeton, Maugham’s friend and Mrs. Bradley’s brother, where fashionable and aristocratic people gather. On the other hand, it is home to artists and intellectuals, many of whom live unconventional, bohemian lives. Paris thus offers two kinds of alternatives to the materialistic American Midwest. Elliott’s apartment is in the elegant Left Bank. Lawrence Darrell, on the other hand, takes a dingy room in the Latin Quarter, a section of Paris near the Sorbonne, the famous French university, and home to students and nonconformist artists. Paris and the other places in Europe suggest the bohemian alternative to materialism and elegant but dying Old World tradition and sophistication.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is not the setting for any significant episodes in The Razor’s Edge, but it is always in the background, as Maugham himself is English, and his novel is the story of his encounters with other peoples and places. As the narrator, Maugham continually refers to his own return trips to London, and Templeton and Darrell also visit London briefly several times. In a sense, London is the vantage point from which all other locations in the novel are viewed.


*Lens. Mining town in the northern region of France known as Nord-Pas-de-Calais, near Belgium. It occupies an important place in the novel because it is there that Darrell begins the wanderings that detach him from his social roots, introduce him to religious mysticism, and ultimately lead him to South Asia. After studying in Paris, Darrell goes to Lens to work as a miner. In the company of a disgraced former Polish cavalry officer named Kosti, he leaves the mine and travels through Belgium and into southern Germany, where he and Kosti work for a time at a small farm near the city of Darmstadt.


Germany. Center of medieval Christian mystical tradition that is the place where Darrell makes the decisive turn from bohemianism to religious mysticism when he leaves the farm alone and goes to Bonn. There he meets the Benedictine monk Father Ensheim, who introduces him to the writings of the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart. Ensheim invites him to stay at his monastery in Alsace, a region then in France near Germany.

*French Riviera

*French Riviera. Strip of southern France’s Mediterranean coast, near Italy, that is a fashionable and expensive resort region. Here, the prosperous and socially ambitious Elliott Templeton builds a home and spends his last years. While India is the geographical symbol of Darrell’s quest for wisdom, the Riviera is the symbol of Templeton’s quest for social standing.


*India. South Asian country to which Darrell goes after meeting an Indian swami, a wise man, aboard a cruise ship on which he is working as a deckhand while returning to America. The Indian persuades Darrell to disembark at Bombay. Under his guidance, Darrell visits Indian religious centers and is drawn ever more deeply into Indian culture. Eventually, he develops insights into himself that make him decide to return home, by way of France, to lead the life of an ordinary mechanic.

BibliographyBrunauer, Dalma. “The Road Not Taken: Fragmentation as a Device for Self-Concealment in The Razor’s Edge.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 8, nos. 1-2 (March, 1987): 24-33. An original and penetrating insight into the psychology of spirituality in the novel.Connolly, Cyril. “The Art of Being Good.” In The Condemned Playground–Essays: 1927-1944. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945. Maugham is praised for his handling of major characters, especially his sensitive portrayal of Larry Darrell, and for his determination to use his narrative talents in the service of truth.Cordell, Richard A. Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Includes a judicious commentary on The Razor’s Edge as a novel worthy of the interest of a discriminating reader.Hawkinson, Kenneth Steven. Three Novels by W. Somerset Maugham: An Analysis Based on the Rhetoric of Wayne C. Booth. Dissertation Abstracts International 47, no. 7 (January, 1987): 2370A. Provocative analysis of The Razor’s Edge according to Booth’s critical theories as outlined in his highly regarded Rhetoric of Fiction.Morgan, Ted. Maugham: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980. A good, gossipy biography with illuminating details about the background of The Razor’s Edge.Weeks, Edward. “The Atlantic Bookshelf.” Atlantic Monthly 173 (May, 1944): 123-129. One of the few contemporary reviews to see The Razor’s Edge as ahead of its time. Discusses the tension between “the urgent quest of youth and the cynical retreat of age.”
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