Just Lather, That's All

by Hernando Téllez

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

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The theme of the short story "Just Lather, That's All" is a man's choice of his own moral identity. The barber decides over the length of the story what his values are and what type of man he is.

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The overriding theme of "Just Lather, That's All" is that man is ultimately responsible for his own actions. Although we might often think that we're nothing more than the plaything of irresistible forces beyond our control, in actual fact, we are very much the authors of our own destiny, exercising moral choices at every stage of our lives.

This point is perfectly illustrated by the character of the barber in the story. He may have found himself in a difficult situation, yet he still has the ability to determine his own future. He can cut Captain Torres's throat, which, though it would remove an evil, violent man from the world, would constitute a clear act of murder. Or, he can refrain from killing Torres, a decision he might come to regret in due course.

Either way, the choice is the barber's, and no one else's. Like everyone else in the world, he has to make his own moral choices; no one else can make them for him. When it comes to making such choices, we are effectively all alone in the world. And whatever choices we eventually make, we ultimately have to live with the consequences, as is the case with the barber.

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"Just Lather, That's All" presents an existentialist drama of the type explored at length in the plays of Henrik Ibsen compressed into a few pages. The barber has the chance to become a revolutionary hero by killing Captain Torres. He wrestles with his conscience over this opportunity, then decides not to take it. The Captain's final remark, though it provides a neat twist with which to end the story, does not alter any essential aspect of the barber's decision, though it does throw into sharp relief the two very different types of men with whom the story deals.

Captain Torres is a hero and a villain. The barber recognizes that to be a hero to one side is to be a villain to the other. He knows that if he slits Torres's throat while shaving him, he will be denounced as a coward by some, while others would praise him as "The avenger of us all. A name to remember."

In the end, he decides that he will not be a hero or a villain, but a simple barber, who did his work honestly when a man came to him for a shave. The theme of the story is the barber's struggle with his own identity and his final choice of the type of man he wants to be. Though he is not a hero of the revolution, the reader may find some heroism in the simple, honest values by which the barber chooses to define himself.

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One of the themes explored throughout Hernando Téllez's short story "Just Lather, That's All" concerns destiny. As the barber is shaving the captain's beard, he wrestles with the decision to slice his throat or continue shaving. The barber begins to think about his future if he were to kill Captain Torres and contemplates how he would have to flee to somewhere far away. The barber knows that he would be chased and viewed as a coward by his opponents. However, the revolutionaries would view him as a hero and avenger. His fate rests on his decision, and he comments,

"My destiny depends on the edge of this blade" (Téllez 3).

Captain Torres also puts his destiny in the hands of the barber. He risks his life by allowing a revolutionary the opportunity to kill him. However, the barber decides to spare the captain's life and risks being called a coward by his fellow revolutionaries. The barber chose to maintain his integrity and resist temptation. By controlling his emotions, he was able to make a decision which did not drastically change his life in the way that murdering Torres would have. 

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I would go for Humanity vs. Inhumanity because, at that precise moment where both men are together at the barber shop and the Captain is telling the barber, who is an informant, all about what is going on in the guerillas, the two men are at level with each other in terms of deciding morally what is the fate of another human being under the circumstances.

So, that precise second where the barber contemplates slicing this inhuman monster, his own humanity was put to the test and so the two oppositional forces of the characters bring out the theme of the story, which is that the battle of humanity vs. inhumanity of war is the causative factor of the entire conflict.

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In my opinion, the theme here (in the way you are describing theme) is the meaning of bravery.  I think the story is about what it means to be brave as opposed to what it means to be sensible.  I think the story encourages you to think about which is better.  I think this qualifies as something that makes sense even outside this particular story.

In the story, the barber has to decide whether it is better to be brave (kill the guy he is shaving) or to be sensible.  It is not really clear whether he makes the right choice -- it's up to us to decide.

I hope that is the sort of thing you're thinking of...

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What are some topics of "Just Lather, That's All"?

In one short story, Hernando Téllez neatly encapsulates the dilemmas that people routinely face when living in a repressive political system. Because the captain and the barber are on opposite sides politically, the importance of political beliefs is a primary topic in the story. Either man must be prepared to die for his beliefs. The author raises the key question of whether killing for one’s beliefs is also justifiable. The relevant topic there is what separates war-time and peace-time behaviors: when does killing become murder? By extension, the author encourages us to ask what separates a hero from a villain.

The larger topic concerns power, as contained within institutions and as acted upon by individuals. The barber could kill the captain, so it seems that the man holding the razor has power over the man in the chair. However, the captain cannot be dismissed as an individual; because he represents the dominant power structure, killing him would constitute revenge but it would not further aid the revolutionary cause. The captain has the power because he knows that the barber will not dare to kill him. The author implies that morality and pragmatism are not easily separated. While the barber does not want it on his conscience that he executed someone, he is also motivated by fear of reprisal. The author provides one example showing the difficulty of ending a cycle of violence.

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What are some topics of "Just Lather, That's All"?

In "Just Lather, That’s All," the author covers a wide range of topics. Here are a few examples:

  • History of Colombia: The story is set in a violent period of Colombia's history which is, in fact, known as "La Violencia." This provides the story's historical, political and cultural context and the basis for the two main characters (See the reference link provided).
  • Impact of Civil War: the author shows how civil war can scar a community with violence. We see this through his descriptions of the captain's missions to hunt down the rebels, like the hanging of four rebels on the patio of a school.
  • Moral Implications of Murder: the author explores this idea through the barber's dilemma as he decides whether or not to murder the captain.
  • Appearance Can Be Deceptive: this is shown through the character of the barber, who has a secret identity as a rebel informant.
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What are the themes of "Just Lather, That's All"?

One theme of this brief story is that just because an action may feel justified does not mean it is easy to complete. The barber admits that when he heard the story of his rebel compatriots killed by Captain Torres, he "was upset." He describes the "mutilated bodies" of several others who were hanged and then used for "target practice." He knows that he is shaving the face of a killer, and he wonders, "How many of us had he ordered shot? How many of us had he ordered mutilated?" He also knows that he would be counted a hero among the rebels, with whom he is allied and who he supports, if he simply let the razor sink into the captain's neck; it could all be done so quickly that the captain would not even suffer. However, the barber cannot, will not, do it; he cannot end the conflict, save his brethren, and make himself a murderer. He doesn't want blood on his hands, "just lather." He thinks, "No one deserves to have someone else make the sacrifice of becoming a murderer." He cannot dishonor himself by committing such a murder, and no one, he thinks, can rightly expect it of him. He would have to sacrifice everything he knows to be true about himself, personally and professionally. This idea, then, presents another theme. He could end this monster's life, but the barber would make himself a monster in the process.

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What are the themes of "Just Lather, That's All"?

The conflict of this story is the barber's conflict with himself.  He has to decide whether or not he should take the chance to kill his customer, the captain of the military police force who has captured the barber's friends - a group of revolutionaries.  The theme here is one of morality.  Should he avenge his brothers, even if it means committing murder?  He would be considered a hero by many, but he would think of himself as a coward and as a cold-blooded murderer.  He even fears that this murder will corrupt his soul, even if for a good cause:

“Others come along and still others,” the rebel in barber's gown thinks to himself, “and the first ones kill the second ones, and they the next ones and it goes on like this until everything is a sea of blood.”

He decides to rise above the captain, to be morally better:

“You are an executioner and I am only a barber.”

It is the right choice, as the captain was prepared for an attack.  H e tells the barber as he leaves that he [the captain] was told of the barber's affiliations.  In the captain's words, the theme of morality is emphasized:

"But killing isn’t easy. You can take my word for it.”

Despite the captain's careless story about hunting down the rebels, he makes it clear that these deaths haunt him.

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