Under the Lion's Paw

by Hamlin Garland

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How does Butler's character and the names of his cronies in "Under the Lion's Paw" reflect his nature?

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The character Jim Butler in Hamlin Garland’s short story "Under the Lion's Paw" is a dishonest, greedy, unscrupulous, and cowardly landowner. The names of his cronies, Doc Grimes, Ben Ashley, and Cal Cheatham, allude to these qualities. Butler is dirty or grimy in business, commits crimes (Grimes), loves cash (Ashley), cheats poor people (Cheatham), and hides a craven or ashen nature (Ashley).

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In Hamlin Garland’s short story “Under the Lion’s Paw,” the character Jim Butler is a landowner who cheats Haskins, a hardworking tenant farmer on one of Butler’s plots. Originally a humble small grocer, Butler becomes transformed by greed when he realizes that he can profit from selling land for many times the price he paid for it: “he believed in land speculation as the surest way of getting rich.” After buying twenty plots of farmland, he sells off his store, lives off rent from his tenant farmers, and spends his days fishing, hunting, smoking, and “gassin' with the boys,” his cronies named Doc Grimes, Ben Ashley, and Cal Cheatham. Their monikers aptly describe various characteristics of Butler.

Butler is dishonest. Despite his wealth, he wants to appear impoverished and thus leverage more money out of people and perhaps cheat on his taxes.

In spite of all these signs of easy life Butler persisted in saying he "hadn't enough money to pay taxes on his land," and was careful to convey the impression that he was poor in spite of his twenty farms.

The name Doc Grimes subtly invokes both dirt (i.e., grime) and deception (i.e., crime which rhymes with Grimes). Butler plays dirty—as the reader learns when near the end of the story, he overcharges Haskins and does not adhere to his word but cannot be persecuted. He tells Haskins,

Never trust anybody, my friend. Besides, I didn't promise not to do this thing.… Don't take me for a thief. It's the law. The reg'lar thing. Everybody does it.

Butler is greedy; he cares only about money and personal profit, not people. The crony Ben Ashley has an appropriate name. Described by Mr. Council as “the hardest-working man in Cedar County,” Ashley represents what Butler used to be: a hardworking store owner. Instead, however, Butler is now interested in cold hard cash, which rhymes with ash in Ashley.

Butler is unscrupulous. When Haskins first rented Butler’s land, Butler offered Haskins “the privilege of re-renting or buying [it] at the end of the term.” For three years, Haskins and his family work tirelessly to raise bountiful wheat crops as well as invest their own money and sweat into major structural improvements. When Butler greedily eyes the now-prosperous and neat farm’s renovations—while “picking his teeth with a straw” and “evidently thinking of something else” as Haskins speaks to him—he decides to greedily exploit his position over the poor farmer. Butler tells Haskins that he will raise the rent or sell him the farm for $5,500, twice the amount it was worth before Haskins took over and improved the farm with his own money. Smugly aware that he is cheating Haskins, Butler walks around, fingering the grain he knows is legally his and humming with the air of a man who knows he has won. The crony Cal Cheatham appropriately underlines this Butler’s actions toward Haskins: he literally is cheating him.

Nonetheless, Butler’s “cool, mocking, insinuating voice” and maddening smile spur Haskins to accept his raw end of the deal and threaten Butler with violence. Shocked by the farmer’s enraged response, however, Butler reveals himself to be a coward. He

shrank and quivered, expecting the blow; stood, held hypnotized by the eyes of the man he had a moment before despised a man transformed into an avenging demon.

Garland does not describe Butler’s physical appearance, but the reader can only imagine that Butler’s face goes ash with fear. The name Ben Ashley hints at Butler’s truly craven, spineless nature.

Garland illustrates Butler’s cowardice through the man's actions:

Butler backed away from the man in wild haste, and climbing into his buggy with trembling limbs drove off down the road.

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