Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The real meaning of “Haircut” is conveyed as the reader begins to understand the situation in the small town as told, but not understood, by the barber. The barber is insensitive and imperceptive. His recounting of the crude jokes told in his barbershop, which are the counterparts of the cruel tricks played by Jim Kendall, and his appreciation of those jokes, shows his insensitivity. He speaks of Jim as being the life of the town who is sorely missed rather than as the sadistic, violent, and insensitive bully he really was.

Ring Lardner is satirizing the smug values of people who live in isolated, small communities (and, by extension, any closed community in which evil is condoned). Although the barber seems to believe that his town is unique in having an entertaining practical joker, he is unaware of how typical a character such as Jim Kendall is and how many other towns are populated by Jim Kendalls. By not recognizing the cruelty that lurked beneath the surface of the tricks played by Jim Kendall, the barber, in a sense, is vicariously participating in it. His appreciation of Jim Kendall’s not-so-amusing stories and practical jokes stems from his own insensitivity, ignorance, and latent cruelty.

The theme is conveyed by the dramatic irony of the narrator’s thickheaded obliviousness to the cruelty perpetrated by Kendall, and the shock at the end when it becomes apparent that Paul Dickson deliberately killed Kendall. The barber, although he has access to all the facts, fails to put these details together or to realize that the shooting was anything but accidental.

The primary effect of the story is to shock the reader with the realization of what has been called “the banality of evil.” Jim Kendall, who is in reality a sadistic personality, is described by the barber as being “all right at heart, but just bubblin’ over with mischief.” Evil can often be ignored or rationalized, especially when it is condoned or explained away by “good” people.