Saturday, January 26, 2008

Reliability of Narration in The Razor’s Edge (Annotation G3-4/Goddard)

No doubt arises about who is narrating The Razor’s Edge, as Mr. Maugham uses the first person point of view. On three separate occasions in the course of the novel, he refers to himself by name, twice as Mr. Maugham, and once by Mr. M. Less than subtle preambles, every few chapters the narration takes a tone of apology, cluing in the reader of an inferior memory. If Mr. Maugham’s narrator is unsure of his ability of story telling, how can his readers trust his reliability?
From the first sentence: “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving,” (Maugham, 3) the narrator makes questions of his honesty. In that opening chapter, Mr. Maugham nearly apologizes for his inadequacies as an Englishman writing about Americans. The comparison to Henry James, an American writing about the English, is apt. Whereas James took great strides to capture the English vernacular, Maugham simply avoids nuances in the American dialect. Aside from the normal punctuation in dialogue, there is no real shift in tone or voice from one speaker to the next. Of the major players, Larry, Isabel, Gray, and Elliot, they all speak about the same dialect, something neither English, nor American.
Dialogue opportunities aside, Mr. Maugham introduces Elliot Templeton, as a lifelong acquaintance. Although Elliot is ever present in the beginning of the novel, he is left as just what he is an acquaintance. It’s Elliot’s family, his niece Isabel whose importance to the story is so pertinent. The narrator’s intimacy with his characters stays relatively objective and distant, since years sometimes pass between their meetings.
Objectivity of relations are apparent with the theme of generation and custom with the Elliot character and the Larry character. The narrator is not as old as Elliot and not as young as Larry. Elliot, a representation of the old cares about social status, wealth, and religion (Catholicism) as identity. Larry conversely appears at random intervals of the story and as a direct generational adversary. Larry has no need for money, and he prefers to loaf. In his loafing about the globe, Larry spends time in India where he adopts the local religion. After years of his absence, Larry and Mr. Maugham meet again in Paris. Larry’s long confessions are in a voice and speech pattern strikingly similar to the narrator.
Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge is well written, of course, and the story is compellingly exciting. The apologies at the beginning of nearly every chapter could easily be omitted. His compulsion to tell the reader of his memory, and the possible holes in it, are a distraction to the story.

Maugham, W Somerset. The Razor’s Edge. New York: Vintage International, 2003.

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