Themes

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

The Cycle of Violence

The barber knows that if he kills Captain Torres, some good might come from it. The captain is a bad person who has been cruel and brutal to the rebels that the barber works with; when he exposes his neck to the barber, he is offering his life to him. He knows the barber might kill him and still gives him the opportunity. However, the barber recognizes that violence is a cycle. The brutality of the regime the rebels are fighting won't stop because Captain Torres dies. He's merely a symptom of a larger problem of oppression and violence. He'll just be replaced by a different man who will murder the rebels and work to suppress their cause.

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Inaction Versus Violence

The narrator has to make a personal decision about whether or not he should kill Captain Torres. He doesn't believe the man knows that he works with the rebels; he thinks that it's a coincidence that the captain has entered his shop. As he shaves the man, he thinks about the horrors Captain Torres has perpetuated and about his own skill and pride in his barbering. He thinks that he isn't a person who wants blood on his hands—only lather. The barber struggles with himself but ultimately chooses nonviolence, even though violence might be appealing in light of the captain's cruelty.

The Difficulty of Inflicting Violence

Captain Torres speaks of what he does to the rebels as if it is normal and simple for him. The barber thinks of him as brutal. However, just before he leaves, the captain gives the barber a piece of advice. He says,

They told me that you'd kill me. I came to find out. But killing isn't easy. You can take my word for it.

It seems that the captain has understood the barber's difficulty and indecision. However, his words also reveal that perhaps committing atrocities against the rebels isn't as easy on him as the barber thinks. He's a cruel and brutal man, but clearly his actions take some toll on him. The killing he carries out isn't easy—and that revelation gives more depth to his character than there would be without his final warning.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on September 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

Several aspects of Hernando Téllez’s personal background peer through his story’s narrative. Christian morality, crime suspense, and political circumstance are key elements in this story. Téllez was educated by clerics at the Christian Brothers school in Bogotá and worked at a newspaper as a crime reporter. As a journalist, he later covered politics. His liberal political activity led to various government appointments abroad, which gave him a vantage point for his journalistic essays on social, political, and literary issues.

Political upheaval is the most apparent theme in Téllez’s story. Given the author’s political partisanship, its historical context points to the period of civil unrest known as “La Violencia” in Colombia. The Liberals had been in power for sixteen years when the Conservatives won elections in 1946. The assassination of Liberal party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 unleashed an equally brutal feud between Liberals and Conservatives that lasted more than a decade. Torres and the barber personify these feuding parties in Colombian politics.

Christian morality influences the barber’s decision not to kill Torres despite the numerous deaths the man has orchestrated. As if his values were being tested, the barber is put in a situation where a man’s life is literally in his hands. The emphasis on his hands is notable because, given their expertise with a razor, they can be lethal, but they also know exactly how much pressure to exert in order to attain a smooth shave without the tiniest nick. The barber reiterates in various ways that he is, above all, excellent at his trade. Tempted to play God, he ultimately rejects the opportunity to kill his enemy: “You are an executioner and I am only a barber.”

Along with Christian morality, the cult of virility or “machismo” is prevalent in the socialization of boys in Latin America. Demonstrating courage and settling conflict by fighting is part of the macho culture. Both Torres and the barber show signs of internalized machismo. Torres epitomizes the macho who gambles his life by allowing a rebel to put a razor to his throat. The barber’s thought process suggests an inner struggle between religious and cultural indoctrination.

A characteristic of crime fiction is that a criminal is apprehended and brought to justice for the good of law-abiding citizens. Such an accomplishment means the resolution of the conflict. As history has shown repeatedly in Latin America, in situations in which the criminal is a government official with power over the community, citizens may be forced to procure justice themselves. Regardless of the political ideology, the story portrays the disregard for human rights, including persecution, incarceration, torture, and death, perpetrated against civilians by an oppressive regime.

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