The Razor’s Edge
W. Somerset Maugham

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The Razor’s Edge

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The Razor’s Edge

Copyright © 1943, 1944 by McCall Corporation
Copyright © 1944 by W. Somerset Maugham

Chapter One (i) It is very difficult to know people and I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are and these are things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them. You can only know them if you are them. And because you cannot know persons of a nation foreign to you except from observation, it is difficult to give them credibility in the pages of a book.
I have not attempted to reproduce the peculiarities of their speech. The mess English writers make when they try to do this is only equalled by the mess American writers make when they try to reproduce English as spoken in England.


American English


“They want to meet you so much,” he wrote to flatter me. “Mrs. So and So is a very cultivated woman and she’s read every word you’ve written.”

Mrs. So and So would then tell me she’d so much enjoyed my book Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill and congratulate me on my play The Mollusc. The first of these was written by Hugh Walpole and the second by Hubert Henry Davies.



(vi) We who are of mature age seldom suspect how unmercifully and yet with what insight the very young judge us.




“You learn more quickly under the guidance of experienced teachers. You waste a lot of time going down blind alleys if you have no one to lead you.”

“You may be right. I don’t mind if I make mistakes. It may be that in one of the blind alleys I may find something to my purpose.”

“What is your purpose?”

He hesitated a moment.

“That’s just it. I don’t quite know it yet.”

Chapter Two (iv) “Am I really a traitor to my country because I want to spend a few years educating myself? It may be that when I’m through I shall have something to give that people will be glad to take. It’s only a chance, of course, but if I fail I shall be no worse off than a man who’s gone into business and hasn’t made a go of it.”




“It must be a relief to you to think that at present we’re living in a country where every facility is afforded to sexual irregularity and every obstacle put in the way of marriage.”

“And quite rightly. Marriage is a serious matter on which rest the security of the family and the stability of the state. But marriage can only maintain its authority if extraconjugal relations are not only tolerated but sanctioned.”

Chapter Three (i) Most people when they’re in love invent every kind of reason to persuade themselves that it’s only sensible to do what they want. I suppose that’s why there are so many disastrous marriages. They are like those who put their affairs in the hands of someone they know to be a crook, but who happens to be an intimate friend because, unwilling to believe that a crook is a crook first and a friend afterwards, they are convinced that, however dishonest he may be with others, he won’t be so with them.
“The first time he talked in that way he said something that I’ve never forgotten, because it horrified me; he said that the world isn’t a creation, for out of nothing nothing comes, but a manifestation of the eternal nature; well, that was all right, but then he added that evil is as direct a manifestation of the divine as good.”




“It is dedicated to St. Martin because I was lucky enough to find an old stained-glass window representing St. Martin in the act of cutting his cloak in two to give half of it to a naked beggar, and as the symbolism seemed so apt I bought it and placed it over the high altar.”

I didn’t interrupt Elliott to ask him what connection he saw between the Saint’s celebrated action and the rake-off on the pretty penny he had made by selling out in the nick of time which, like an agent’s commission, he was paying a higher power. But to a prosaic person like me symbolism is often obscure.



Chapter Four(vi)

“I’ve got no reason for divorcing him.”

“That doesn’t prevent your countrywomen from divorcing their husbands when they have a mind to.”

She laughed.

“Why do you suppose they do it?”

“Don’t you know? Because American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.”



Chapter Five (ii)

It’s always difficult to make conversation with a drunk, and there’s no denying it, the sober are at a disadvantage with him.



(iv) “Then the devil took him into a high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world and said that he would give them to him if he would fall down and worship him. But Jesus said: Get thee hence, Satan. That’s the end of the story according to the good simple Matthew. But it wasn’t. The devil was sly and he came to Jesus once more and said: If thou wilt accept shame and disgrace, scourging, a crown of thorns and death on the cross thou shalt save the human race, for greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jesus fell. The devil laughed till his sides ached, for he knew the evil men would commit in the name of their redeemer.”




“Larry lacks just that touch of ruthlessness that even the saint must have to win his halo.”



“I think he’s been seeking for a philosophy, or maybe a religion, and a rule of life that’ll satisfy both his head and his heart.”

Isabel considered this for a moment. She sighed.

“Don’t you think it’s very strange that a country boy from Marvin, Illinois, should have a notion like that?”

“No stranger than that Luther Burbank who was born on a farm in Massachusetts should have produced a seedless orange or that Henry Ford who was born on a farm in Michigan should have invented a Tin Lizzie.”

“But those are practical things. That’s in the American tradition.”

I laughed.

“Can anything in the world be more practical than to learn how to live to best advantage?”




“I’ve been a secretary for twenty-one years, my dear sir, and I’ve made it a rule to believe all my employers as pure as the driven snow. I’ll admit that when one of my ladies found herself three months gone in the family way when his lordship had been shooting lions in Africa for six, my faith was sorely tried [...]



(ix) “I have always moved in the best society in Europe and I have no doubt that I shall move in the best society in heaven. Our Lord has said: The House of my Father hath many mansions. It would be highly unsuitable to lodge the hoi polloi in a way to which they’re entirely unaccustomed.”



Chapter Six (iii) I had seen dead men when I was a medical student and I had seen many more during the war. What had dismayed me was how trifling they looked. There was no dignity in them. Marionettes that the showman had thrown into the discard.




“ ‘Brahma, the Creator,’ he said. ‘Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer. The three manifestations of the Ultimate Reality.’

“ ‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,’ I said.

“ ‘I’m not surprised,’ he answered, with a little smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes, as though he were gently mocking me. ‘A god that can be understood is no God. Who can explain the Infinite in words?’ ”



“Do you know anything about Hinduism?”

“Very little,” I answered.

“I should have thought it would interest you. Can there be anything more stupendous than the conception that the universe has no beginning and no end, but passes everlastingly from growth to equilibrium, from equilibrium to decline, from decline to dissolution, from dissolution to growth, and so on to all eternity?”

“And what do the Hindus think is the object of this endless recurrence?”

“I think they’d say that such is the nature of the Absolute.”

“If the evils we suffer are the result of sins committed in our past lives we can bear them with resignation and hope that if in this one we strive towards virtue our future lives will be less afflicted. But it’s easy enough to bear our own evils, all we need for that is a little manliness; what’s intolerable is the evil, often so unmerited in appearance, that befalls others. If you can persuade yourself that it is the inevitable result of the past you may pity, you may do what you can to alleviate, and you should, but you have no cause to be indignant.”

“But why didn’t God create a world free from suffering and misery at the beginning when there was neither merit nor demerit in the individual to determine his actions?”

“The Hindus would say that there was no beginning.”

“According to the Vedantists the self, which they call the atman and we call the soul, is distinct from the body and its senses, distinct from the mind and its intelligence; it is not part of the Absolute, for the Absolute, being infinite, can have no parts, but the Absolute itself. It is uncreated; it has existed from eternity and when at last it has cast off the seven veils of ignorance will return to the infinitude from which it came. It is like a drop of water that has arisen from the sea and in a shower has fallen into a puddle, then drifts into a brook, finds its way into a stream, after that into a river, passing through mountain gorges and wide plains, winding this way and that, obstructed by rocks and fallen trees, till at last it reaches the boundless seas from which it rose.”

“But that poor little drop of water, when it has once more become one with the sea, has surely lost its individuality.”

Larry grinned.

“You want to taste sugar, you don’t want to become sugar. What is individuality but the expression of our egoism?”



“I’ve always felt that there was something pathetic in the founders of religion who made it a condition of salvation that you should believe in them. It’s as though they needed your faith to have faith in themselves. They remind you of those old pagan gods who grew wan and faint if they were not sustained by the burnt offerings of the devout.”



(viii) “He taught that God cannot help creating and that the world is the manifestation of his nature. When I asked how, if the world was a manifestation of the nature of a perfect being, it should be so hateful that the only reasonable aim man can set before him is to liberate himself from its bondage, Shri Ganesha answered that the satisfactions of the world are transitory and that only the Infinite gives enduring happiness. But endless duration makes good no better, nor white any whiter. If the rose at noon has lost the beauty it had at dawn, the beauty it had then was real. Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy. We can none of us step into the same river twice, but the river flows on and the other river we step into is cool and refreshing too.”



“You know, the Philistines have long since discarded the rack and stake as a means of suppressing the opinions they feared: they’ve discovered a much more deadly weapon of destruction—the wisecrack.”
Chapter Seven(v) “Life would be even harder for us poor women than it is if it were not for the unbelievable vanity of men.”


Women and Men

text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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