Just Lather That's All Symbolism

In "Just Lather, That's All," what is a symbol that has been used?

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As has already been said, the razor is a very important symbol in the story. Among other things, one could say that it represents the changeable nature of power. Just as a razor can be wielded by a senior army officer or a humble barber, so too can political power...

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As has already been said, the razor is a very important symbol in the story. Among other things, one could say that it represents the changeable nature of power. Just as a razor can be wielded by a senior army officer or a humble barber, so too can political power be wielded by high and low alike.

The fearsome Captain Torres is certainly the most powerful man in the vicinity: he is a man who strikes fear in the heart of every man, woman, and child. A brutal, corrupt individual, Torres enjoys pretty much absolute power in this neck of the woods, and he's not about to give it up.

And yet, that power is fragile; it can be taken away from him at any time. Maybe not any time soon, but at some point in the not-too-distant future. After all, Captain Torres is engaged in a brutal war against the rebels, and it's not inconceivable that one day they'll win and summarily execute him the way that he has executed so many of their comrades.

With the razor blade in his hands, the barber has a rare opportunity to exert power over the captain. Although he chooses not to slit his throat, and for very good reasons, his brief wielding of the blade so close to Captain Torres's vulnerable neck provides us with a symbolic foretaste of what will happen one day if the rebels should succeed in their military campaign. Only if they do succeed, it's safe to say that they won't be content with just lather.

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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.

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In addition to the razor, there are a number of other important symbols in "Just Lather, That's All." Here are a couple of examples:

  • The Captain's military items—his cap, bullet-studded belt and gun holster—symbolise his "authority" and "potential for violence." (See the first reference link provided). These items also symbolise the political crisis in Colombia which provides the conflict between the two men (as they represent the opposing sides) and establishes the story's context. 
  • The heat symbolises the pressure that the barber feels as he decides whether or not to murder Captain Torres. The barber comments on the heat, for example, as he mulls over the pros and cons of committing murder ("How hot it is getting!"). In addition, at the end of the story, the barber mentions his "soaked" shirt and this emphasises both the anguish of the dilemma and his relief in deciding not to kill him.
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A very important symbol in this excellent short story that is used to explore the character of the barber himself is of course the razor that he is holding and currently using to shave the neck of Captain Torres. Throughout the story the meanings that the barber gives to the tool of his trade change and show his conflicting emotions, on the one hand being something that he uses to "rejuvenate" Captain Torres, but on the other hand, being something he could use to end his life. Note what the barber says about his razor:

My destiny depends on the edge of this blade. I can turn my hand a bit more, press a little harder on the razor, and sink it in. The skin would give way like silk, like rubber, like the strop. There is nothing more tender than human skin and the blood is always there, ready to pour forth. A blade like this doesn't fail. It is my best. But I don't want to be a murderer, no sir.

The razor is thus a very complicated and important symbol to the barber whose importance determines the ending of the story and the decision that the barber eventually makes regarding his responsibility and what he should do.

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