What are the plots and themes of the short stories "Haircut" by Ring Lardner, "Diary of a Madman" by Nikolai Gogol and "The Lament" by Anton Chekhov?
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In "Haircut," a small town barber in 1920 talks to a customer who is new in town, voiceless and unnamed, telling him the story of the last years and the death of the town anti-hero who is said to be very funny and always joking, "Jim was comical," but who in reality is mean, brutal, not funny, and cruel. The plot is thus constructed within a "frame" of flashback narrative reminiscence occurring during a present moment while a haircut is being given. The framed plot is that a new doctor comes to town and the local beauty is enamored of him while continually rejecting the advances of this town anti-hero jokster causing rivalry and enmity. The jokster, Joe, plays a cruel joke on the beauty, Julie, and on the doctor, Doc Stair. Paul, who has cognitive hindrances resulting from a fall onto his head, is the protagonist who sees the truth about Joe and resolves all Joe's joking with dramatic finality.
The theme of this story relates to the cloudy quality of human insight and understanding: the town countenanced (put up with) Joe's vicious ways, while the one who fell on his head understood Joe's villainy truthfully and acted to punish him.
"The Diary of a Madman" (also "Memoirs of a Madman") leads through significant days in an under bureaucrat's life as "titular councillor," which is a bureaucratic job classification. The plot that develops has three central points:
- the way he is treated by His Excellency, the director of his bureaucratic office wherein Ivanovitch writes abstracts of Government reports and mends to a sharpened point the feather quill pens used by His Excellency.
- the infatuation for the director's lovely daughter that Ivanovich develops and stealthily pursues through secret reconnoiterings of the exterior of the director's house.
- the treatment he receives after, at the end of his wits from the dehumanizing treatment he receives as a titular councillor for the Government, he conceives the idea that he is "Ferdinand the Eighth, King of Spain."
Spain has a king; he has been found, and I am he. I discovered it today...
The theme of this piece is an important one for Gogol and comes up in other stories, like "The Overcoat." First, Gogol is criticizing the dehumanizing regime of Government bureaucracy and the deranging effect this dehumanization has upon minor bureaucrats. Second, a metaphor comparing the protagonist to the King of Spain expresses the theme that all humans are at heart royal and worthy of respectful treatment. There is similarity with "Haircut" in that true humanity lies in a different direction from the direction that is acknowledged as lauded (praised).
In "The Lament" a peasant cab driver in St. Petersberg suffers the death of his only son and is so heartsick with grief that he drives his cab as if stupified:
as if he were trying to keep his equilibrium, and gapes about like someone suffocating, and who does not understand why and wherefore he is there.
His desire is to tell someone the sad story of his son's sudden death and mournful funeral so as to relieve his suffering and honor his son's memory. He has only his passengers to engage as an audience, yet they won't or can't or don't like to listen. In the end, he tells the tale to the receptive though unresponsive ears of his cabby horse. The theme is similar to that in "Madman": the dignified humanity of even the lowliest person is worthy of giving notice to and worthy of being honored. A vision of true humanity ties all three stories and themes together.
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