Published in 1944 when Somerset Maugham was 70 years old, The Razor’s Edge would come to be considered the last of his major works of fiction. The philosophical awareness that any man naturally arrives at by the advanced age at which Maugham produced this story of the one man’s search for the meaning of life would was only heightened and intensified by Maugham’s relentless curiosity about the world around him. A testament to Maugham’s own search for meaning in life can be apprehended simply through the knowledge that he chose his title for this novel from the Kasha-Upanishad which was composed almost a thousand years before the birth of Christ as one of the concluding sections of the founding document of Hinduism.
The tale of Larry Darrell’s transformation from normal, everyday kind of a guy into a seeker of greater meaning following his exposure to the horrors of a society he never imagined before heading off to battle in World War I is one that spans decades and circle around the globe. The overarching theme is whether it is not so much nobler, but more satisfying to all involved to accept a life of comfortable materialism or search for a greater spiritual meaning no matter what the price tag. A meaningful existence for Maugham appears to be one based on some sort of spiritual guidance, though Larry seems to quickly reject Christianity as the only possible route to discovering an answer to the question of why evil exists in the world.
Perhaps the most unusual narrative device (unusual for others if not for him, that is) that Maugham employs to tell the story of his fascinating young war veteran is to interject himself as a character interacting with his fictional character in the fictional world he constructs for them. Maugham, indeed, is the narrator charged with telling Larry’s life story and the structural foundation upon which that story is told looks toward the postmodern age of the future as much as is a reflection upon modernism in its last waning days years as the dominant mode of American storytelling.
Because Maugham the narrator can only relate what he learns from Larry, the novel is really designed more as a series of flashbacks resulting from the irregular and unplanned meetings occurring over the span stretching from just after the end of World War I to the height of World War II.
The Razor’s Edge has been adapted twice into a feature film. The first starred Tyrone Power as Larry Darrell and suffered from an inability to fully portray Sophie MacDonald’s dissolution. The second adaptation met with resistance to the idea of Bill Murray—just a few months after Ghostbuster had left theaters—trying to taken seriously as a dramatic actor. The Razor’s Edge was a dream project for Murray and the reviews hardly reflected the reality. The real shame is that if he had still been young enough to play Larry twenty years later, the film would probably have been a big hit and Murray would have gotten an Oscar nomination. The really fascinating element at play in the story of Murray’s version of novel is that life imitated art as the criticism directed toward the funny man for stepping outside the established conventions and expectations others set for him parallel the same critique of Larry Darrell for rejecting conventional middle class values and masculine expectations by others within his societal milieu.