At a glance:
- Author: Ring Lardner
- First Published: 1925
- Type of Work: Short story
- Genres: Social realism, Short fiction
- Subjects: Values, Murder or homicide, Barbershops or barbers, Small-town life, Jokes
- Locales: United States, Michigan, North America
“Haircut” is one of Lardner’s darkest satires. Told by the town barber, who insists to the end that Jim Kendall was basically a good man who was just a little wild, it is a story about moral blindness. The reader listens to the barber as he describes Jim’s pranks, all of which are distasteful jokes meant to make Jim feel powerful at the expense of others. For instance, Jim likes to play jokes on ten-year-old Paul Dickson, who is mentally handicapped as the result of being dropped on his head as a baby. In addition, Jim takes joy in planting doubts in the minds of husbands regarding their wives’ fidelity and delights in making fun of people’s physical deformities.
Jim allows his family to suffer in poverty, while he drinks his wages and spends his time trying to impress the other town ruffians with his cruelty. After young Julie Gregg refuses his advances, he plays a joke on her which humiliates her in front of the entire town. What Jim had not considered, however, was that Julie was one of Paul Dickson’s only friends. A few days later, Jim consents to take Paul on a hunting trip. Afterward, the townspeople think Jim’s being shot to death was an accident, but the reader is left with the impression that the “cuckoo” has had his revenge on Jim Kendall. It is a story that indicts everyone. Jim Kendall is cruel. The barber is so morally blind that he mistakes Jim’s evil for innocent fun. The townspeople never question Jim’s motives or those of his cronies at Wright’s poolroom and, because no one sees Paul as human, they cannot conceive of him plotting to kill Kendall. Even the reader is lulled to sleep by the easy delivery of the barber. It is only on the second read that many readers understand how terrible the people in this town are, and how awful Lardner thinks people are in general. This story is the basis of some critics’ claim that Lardner is a nihilist.
Cervo, Nathan. “Lardner’s ’Haircut.’” Explicator 47, no. 2 (Winter, 1989): 47-48.
Cowlinshaw, Brian T. “The Reader’s Role in Ring Lardner’s Rhetoric.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 2 (Spring, 1994): 207-216.
Evans, Elizabeth. Ring Lardner. New York: Ungar, 1979.
Jones, David A., and Leverett T. Smith, Jr. “Jack Keefe and Roy Hobbs: Two All-American Boys.” Aethlon 6, no. 2 (Spring, 1989): 119-137.
Lardner, Ring, Jr. The Lardners: My Family Remembered. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Robinson, Douglas. Ring Lardner and the Other. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Yardley, Jonathon. Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner. New York: Random House, 1977.
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