Under the Lion's Paw

by Hamlin Garland

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Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Injustice and Unfairness

One of the most prominent themes in "Under the Lion's Paw" revolves around justice (or its lack thereof). When Butler pretends to be generous towards Mr. Haskins, he is symbolically placing Haskins under his paw, hence the title. What is particularly unjust is that the law would back Butler up, or so he claims. Haskins took Butler at his word; Butler changed his word. Since the two did not make a formal, signed agreement, Butler’s sleazy behavior must be tolerated. Describing Butler as a lion that holds Haskins under his paw points out an interesting dynamic in the world we live in: in nature, there are exploitative predators just as there is helpless prey. This is how it has always been in the natural world. It is unsettling to note that, though Butler’s behavior is more than distasteful and unfair, this kind of event happens with regularity. People treat others unfairly: predators toy with their prey in the cruelest of ways. Such unfairness can even reduce the most hardworking people to animalistic tendencies. Haskins himself threatens to kill Butler after he revealed the adjusted price of the property. He, of course, thinks better of this and spares his life. This instance just goes to show that injustice can push people to their limits. 

The Industriousness of the American Rural Working Class 

Haskins, despite being a poor farmer, was able to regenerate the derelict farmland of the Higley place. He and Nettie developed a garden, fixed up the pig pen and barnyard, dug a new well, fixed up the kitchen, and installed new fencing. It is clear the Haskinses put their time and money into their farm without rest. It was this work ethic that led to Butler's justification for doubling the market value of the estate. Because of the Haskins family's hard work, they made the farm more valuable, and Butler exploited this. An overarching theme or moral of the story is that hard work pays off, and unethical practices are eventually punished. Clearly, the Haskinses turned their lives around with intense, exhausting labor on a daily basis. They even involved their eldest son. As the story reads, Mr. Haskins would have done anything to have his son avoid the kind of farm work he had to do—it is very tough on a child. They saw no other way, unfortunately: everyone had to work hard to get the place up and running.

The Kindness of Strangers

The Councils act as a beacon of hope for the travel- and life-weary Haskins family. Their kindness from the very beginning directly contrasts with the deceptive behavior of Butler. Before encountering the Councils, both Mr. and Mrs. Haskins seemed to be feeling pessimistic about the world. After Mrs. Council insisted that Nettie not lift a finger on their first night, the narration seems to reflect her thoughts on the gesture: “The world was not so desolate and cold and hopeless, after all.” Haskins had even told his wife that the Councils are “good enough to be angels.” The older couple’s kindness extends into the town. Since they have invested so much of their own time and resources into the family, others began to do the same by selling them tools. Their generosity helped the Haskins establish themselves and inspired others to help, too.

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