Just Lather, That's All

by Hernando Téllez

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What is the mood of the story "Just Lather, That's All"?

The mood of "Just Lather, That's All" is both tense and reflective, as the barber spends the story trying to decide what the right thing to do is and whether he should follow through with murdering the Captain.

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The story is an intense meditation on a moral dilemma: should the barber murder the murderer who has come to his shop for a shave? Told from the point of view of the barber, the tone of the story is one of anxiety and suspense: as the barber tries to decide what to do, the reader also wonders what the outcome will be.

This tone is heightened as the story progresses and the barber engages in a kind of internal monolog about his responsibilities as a rebel sympathizer and the ethical responsibilities of his profession. While it would be easy to kill the captain, he also knows that he would be hunted down and killed himself if he did so. He tries to justify his inaction by arguing that his role is to pass on information, not kill people. Finally, he reflects that, although the Captain is a cold-blooded killer who stages public executions and then mutilates the bodies, if he were to kill him he would become like the captain himself: another cold blooded killer.

The relief the barber feels once this decision is made is palpable. However, the end of the story provides a twist that changes both the meaning and tone. The captain knew all along that the barber might kill him, but he went for a shave anyway, trusting that the barber would not have the courage (or the ability to suppress his humanity) to do it. The anxious tone returns, then turns to one of shock. The barber knows that he has been found out as a rebel sympathizer. While there is some relief that the captain seems to have spared his life anyway, there is also a final sense of dread about what might happen to the barber in the future.

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Right throughout “Just Lather, That's All,” there's a palpable sense of tension in the air. At every stage of the story, we wonder exactly what the barber will do. Will he go about his business giving the corrupt and brutal Captain Torres a shave? Or will he take the opportunity to wield his blade in anger and put an end to this wicked man's life?

As it's not patently obvious as to which course of action the barber will take, the overall mood of the story is tense, to say the least. We sense that the barber is struggling with a profound moral dilemma and that he's turning over in his mind the various consequences that will follow from whichever decision he eventually makes.

On the one hand, the barber is a rebel informant, and so it would make perfect sense for him to finish off Captain Torres. But on the other hand, the barber will also know that the consequences of doing so will be very grave indeed—not just for himself, but for his friends and family.

When the barber finally makes the decision not to kill Captain Torres, the relief is palpable. And yet one senses that a similar...

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dilemma will soon present itself which may not be resolved in quite the same way.

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"Just Lather, That's All" begins with the barber sharpening his razor. He then recognizes the man who has entered his shop and begins to tremble. This immediately creates tension, which builds as the conflict is explained. Captain Torres, who is used to slaughtering his enemies without mercy, is suddenly in a uniquely vulnerable position, and the reader sees the thoughts running through the mind of his potential killer. The barber has means, motive, and opportunity to kill the Captain, and for most of the story, the reader believes that Torres is unaware of the risk he is running.

This tension, however, is only one element of the mood in the story. It is balanced by a reflective, thoughtful quality. The barber's reflections are not simply those of a potential killer who is weighing-up his chances of escaping punishment. Although he does consider such practical matters—wondering, for instance, where he would hide the body and whether he would have to flee—the barber's reflections are primarily philosophical. He decides that he is not a killer, whether or not killing would be heroic in these circumstances. The title of the story refers to his conclusion that he will not have blood on his hands. This gives the story the quality of existential drama, as the reader waits for the barber to decide on the essence of his character.

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The mood of "Just Lather, That's All" is suspenseful. A military man arrives in the barber shop of the unnamed narrator and asks for a shave. The man in the barber's chair is revealed to be Captain Torres, who has ordered rebels hanged naked and has commanded that target practice be aimed at their bodies. The narrator begins to shave the captain, and it is revealed that the narrator is in league with the rebels. The captain almost begins to taunt the narrator, as the captain goes on to describe in vague details the plan he has for killing the rebels he has just captured. The narrator's hand is poised on the captain's neck with a blade, and it is not clear whether he will kill him or not. The narrator feels anguished as he weighs his responsibility as a barber against his fealty to the rebels. Until the last moment, the reader does not know whether the narrator will kill the captain or not. He does not, and the captain reveals at the end that he came to test whether the narrator would kill him.

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In the opening paragraph of "Just Lather, That's All," the mood is fearful and tense. This is established, primarily, by the description of the trembling barber and the reference to the Captain's clothing. These items, particularly the "gun holster" and "bullet-studded belt" evoke images of war and murder and suggest that violence might occur at some point in the story.

This tense mood continues as the story progresses. The images of the hanging soldiers, the oppressive heat and the barber's internal dilemma over whether to kill the Captain all contribute to this atmosphere.

Relief comes in the final lines of the story when the writer employs an image of rebirth to describes the Captain's skin:

He rubbed his hands over his skin and felt it fresh, like new.

The barber decides not to kill the Captain, and his inner peace is emphasized through his physical description: his shirt is "soaked," for instance, but he is no longer actively sweating. His conflict has, therefore, come to an end.

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What was the author's general tone in the short story "Just Lather, That's All"?

The author Hernando Tellez tells this story in a very matter-of-fact manner that belies the seriousness of the situation. Tellez introduces the brutality of Captain Torres through simple conversation between the two men, and then slowly reveals the true relationship between the two rivals. The tension builds as the reader comes to realize that the barber can end the town's misery with one stroke of his blade, but the barber is a professional and must not mix politics with his avocation, and, unlike his customer, he must not spill a single drop of blood. Although the reader eventually comes to understand that Captain Torres is the barber's mortal enemy, the author does not disclose that Torres suspects the barber until the very end.

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