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Disillusionment of the American Dream in “The Razor’s Edge” (W. Sommerset Maugham)

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Originally a novel, written by W. Sommerset Maugham, “The Razor’s Edge” is the story of an American man named Larry, who undergoes a transformation as he witnesses the changes in the world and his own life. Larry experiences disillusionment due to World War I, seeks refuge in France to “find himself”, and questions the morals of society. The Razor’s Edge entails several of the main elements of modernism, and Maugham illustrates them by exposing the darker side of the American Dream through relationships between people, society, and his or her own self.

The American Dream is a central idea that is constantly being invalidated throughout the movie in order to create the necessary elements of modernism; belief that America is the new ideal Eden, faith in progress, and confidence in the ultimate triumph of the individual’s achievement. The opening scene is of a community having a picnic. American flags surround the people and there are men playing baseball (Americas “national sport”) in emphasis of America’s vitality. The community is praising the departure of two men leaving to serve in the war; they are viewed as heroes because they are all delusional and their idealistic illusions of patriotic duties are skewed. Once the men enter the war, they realize that it is much more gruesome than they were anticipating. They witness friends die, attempt to help people beyond healing, and fight for life in the war-torn camps. This is where the men become disillusioned and lose their false ideals (remaining from the prior Victorian Age) about the world. America has lost its romantic sentiment, thus falsifying the first of three main points to the American Dream.

When the men return home, Larry has a difficult time adjusting back to American life and he acts secluded and offensive, especially toward his fiancée, Isabelle. However, the community has faith in progress. They all believe that with enough time, Larry will get better. Regardless, Larry decides that he needs time in France to find himself and be alone. Larry well overstays his vacation in France so his fiancée, with progressive faith, visits in hope that he will decide to come back to America. The couple doesn’t see eye-to-eye and they split up. Isabelle’s faith is destroyed and Larry is left to continue his life in Europe.

At this point, Larry is an expatriate, an American who left his homeland to develop himself. (Men from WWI would most often leave America to find refuge in France where alcohol was legal, thus subscribe to that lifestyle.) Expatriates are common in modernism writing, but Larry was different than most expatriates because he didn’t stay in France to become a belligerent drunk, but traveled to Tibet to reach enlightenment. Ironically, back in America, things are far from calm; they are in an economic panic and people are going bankrupt left and right

The Great Depression destroyed the lives of Americans in the 1930’s as well as any notion of the American Dream. America’s unspoiled nature had rotted, nobody had faith in the economy (suicides were skyrocketing), and everyone gave up on achieving the American dream because it had become something unattainable. America had finally become disillusioned and it was overwhelming. Being such a tragic event, Isabelle moved to her Uncle Elliot’s lavish house in Paris (with her new husband, Grey, a friend of Larry’s) where they were still able to go out and have fun like they did in America, before the crash.

Larry visits Isabelle and Grey after encountering Uncle Elliot, and they go out that night. Here, they meet up with an old friend, Sophie who is now a prostitute and alcoholic/opium addict. Larry cleans her up and falls in love with her, but due to Isabelle’s jealousy, Sophie is taunted into drinking, smoking, and is found dead in the river the next day. Larry thought Sophie was his gift for living a god life, but he says to Isabelle, “There is no payoff to living a good life.” This quote introduces another aspect of Modernism; irony.

Irony is present in several parts of this movie. The community celebrating the men leaving to the war is not an event to celebrate because it was a morbid occasion. It is also ironic that Larry reaches enlightenment just about they time that America’s economy crashes. Isabelle marrying Grey, Larry’s friend, is also painfully ironic. Lastly, Larry’s fiancée, Sophie, dies before they can get married. Irony is not always satirical, especially in this time frame of depression.

Modernist writers use the depression as inspiration (irony!) for the literature read all over the world today. Modernism is a break from tradition and a peek into the lives of the past through historical events and those who live them.

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