Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594
Hernando Téllez explores morality in “Just Lather, That’s All.” The barber, a revolutionary, has the opportunity to kill the brutal captain who has been hunting down and viciously murdering the rebels. However, the barber decides not to kill the man, as he will not stoop to murder.
When Captain Torres comes into the barber shop, he brags of having hunted down several revolutionaries. He tells the barber,
Not one of them comes out of this alive.
Unwilling to give away his identity, the barber tries to act calmly as he begins to shave his enemy, all the while thinking how evil the captain really is. The irony of the commander’s statement is realized further on in the story. The barber has the perfect opportunity to exact revenge and stop the killings at the source. The leader is in his chair, reclined, eyes closed—all the barber has to do is slip, and the knife he holds will kill the man.
Tension mounts as the reader wonders if the captain will come out alive. He has tortured many people and forced the townspeople to witness his brutality, and now he is the one who is vulnerable. His gun is far away, and his eyes are closed. Tellez skillfully employs dramatic irony here, as the reader is aware that this shave could be the man’s last, but Captain Torres appears to be unaware of his peril. He closes his eyes and says,
Without any effort, I could go straight to sleep.
Here, the barber considers his chance. Ironically, the captain could go “straight to sleep”—a permanent sleep brought on by the barber’s razor. At this point in the story, readers have been led to believe that Captain Torres does not know who the barber is and that he is merely speaking of his exhaustion. But the end of the story reveals that he knows exactly who the barber is, and he is testing him. So, the commander’s words about sleep take on a new meaning. Captain Torres has intentionally put his fate in another man’s hands—without his gun and with his eyes closed, he makes himself as defenseless as any of the people he has viciously killed. And he does come out alive.
The barber is unable to kill the man because it’s morally wrong. He struggles with his conscience while he works, entertaining the thought of being “murderer or hero?” Ultimately, he decides he is a revolutionary who is fighting for right. He hates the murders that are taking place, and he does not want to lower himself to that same degrading level:
No one deserves to have someone else make the sacrifice of becoming a murderer.
He will not ruin his own life by destroying another’s; that would only make him as evil as the man he kills.
In addition to the moral aspect of his conflict, the barber will not commit murder because of his pride in his work. He enjoys the challenge of his work, and he sees honor in doing his job well. He cannot do anything except what he is expected to do. The man comes to him to have four days’ worth of beard shaved off, and the barber is obligated to do so, saying,
I perform my work honorably.
He recognizes that he cannot be anything but a barber in this moment. Although he conjures up vivid images of spilling the captain’s blood, ultimately the barber decides not to do so, out of morality and pride.