Themes and Meanings
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.