Maugham’s Unicorn

Horses-Mobius

Somerset Maugham uses two interesting literary devices in his novel The Razor’s Edge. One is that he is a cameo character in his own story. He uses himself having conversations with the other characters as a means of advancing the plot. The story revolves around a group of friends that Maugham occasionally visits, sometimes after an absence of several years. Like real life friends, they update him on what has happened in their lives since the last time they were together. As a result, for much of the book, readers do not “see” the characters doing things in real time. Instead, they are told about them second-hand as Maugham records his conversations. It gives the book the feel of a personal journal.

The other literary device he uses is having the main character, Larry, drift in and out of the story. It reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s unicorn in her book Many Waters.

“Oh, that’s a unicorn. They’re very odd. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. If we want one, we call and it’ll usually appear.”

Larry makes sudden and unanticipated appearances throughout the book. He is there, and then he isn’t. Like L’Engle’s unicorn, sometimes when he goes out, he takes people with him, not physically but emotionally. Maugham makes it clear that if it weren’t for Larry, he would not have written the book—yet, compared to the other main characters, his story takes up the least number of pages.

I wonder why Maugham did that. Why would he cast himself as himself in his fiction? Why is his most influential character his most ephemeral? For that matter, why are there unicorns, and where do they go when they “go out”? I must think about this because I sense that they are connected. I wonder if Larry and the unicorns are acquainted. Or perhaps Larry is looking for unicorns. Perhaps he is looking for Rhino.

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