There are several possible symbols in Hernando Tellez’s short story “Just Lather, That’s All.” The razor is an obvious possibility, given its significance in the narrative. Additionally, one could view the process of shaving itself as a symbol, a process meticulously described by the narrator, the barber, as he discusses the intricacies of preparing soap, sharpening the razor, applying the lather, and shaving his customer’s beard.
The customer in “Just Lather, That’s All,” of course, is Captain Torres, a notoriously brutal army officer responsible for innumerable human rights violations in the guerrilla war ravaging this fictional but realistic—certainly modeled on the author’s native Colombia—town. As the barber prepares for and shaves Captain Torres, he describes in minute detail the process of shaving, with obvious pride in his work. He is a professional. More than that, he is an artist, viewing every step of the process as though he is producing a work of art. As the barber shaves the army officer, he undergoes an internal debate regarding the moral and practical propriety of slitting his customer’s throat. In the end, he chooses professionalism over militancy, which makes the story’s conclusion appropriately ironic.
If one must choose an element of “Just Lather, That’s All” on which to focus for its symbolic meaning, the titular substance, lather, is an appropriate selection. The lather assumes an importance in Tellez’s narrative that forces the reader to contemplate its significance. Tellez devotes considerable time to the barber’s contemplation of how he would go about killing Captain Torres. He considers the interaction between razor and skin and the blood that would drain from his victim’s neck. The razor is the instrument, and the physical properties of skin are described in detail, but the process of removing the lather through the strokes of the razor provides for a compelling element of symbolism. The lather is the narrative. As it is removed from the captain’s skin, a barrier between barber and murderer is eliminated. The lather serves as insulation. It also, however, represents the barber’s innocence. The razor is depicted as an instrument of shaving, but also as a means of killing. The lather, in contrast, is benign, its presence demonstrative of the barber’s moral compass. As he thinks to himself, “I don’t want blood on my hands. Just lather, that’s all.”
Lather represents the barrier between characters. As it is systematically removed, the relationship between characters is strengthened.