Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
"Lather and Nothing Else", also known as "Just Lather, That's All", by Hernando Tellez is a popular short story commonly read by students. It's an interesting story—there's tension throughout, it has a twist ending and it's very short.
This article takes a closer look at it, including themes, irony, its ending, and a summary.
Summary of "Lather and Nothing Else"
The town barber recognizes the man who walks into his shop. He gets nervous but tries to hide it. The man removes his coat and pistol and asks for a shave. It's Captain Torres who has just returned from a four day search for a group of rebels. The barber is a part of this group.
He prepares the lather and covers his customer with a sheet. Torres says they captured fourteen men who will pay. He alludes to an incident from a few days before where four dead rebels were hung up on display. There's a punishment planned this evening for the captives.
The barber feels an obligation to his fellow revolutionaries, but knows he must shave Torres skillfully like he would any other customer. He begins, taking his usual care.
Torres invites the barber to observe the rebel's punishment that evening.
The barber thinks about all the men Torres has killed or mutilated. He knows that letting Torres go unharmed will be difficult to explain to his fellow revolutionaries. He nears the end of the shave, pleased with his work.
His thinks about killing Torres, but knows he's not a murderer. He knows that if he killed Torres he would be condemned by some and celebrated by others.
The barber finishes the shave, having done his work honorably. He doesn't view himself as a killer, like this man.
Torres thanks the barber, retrieves his coat and pistol, and pays. While leaving, he stops in the doorway and says he was told the barber would kill him and he wanted to see if that was true. He knows it's not easy to kill.
The barber has a strong sense of duty. He's nervous upon recognizing Captain Torres, but he doesn't refuse him service.
He prepares for the shave as he would for anyone else. The thought of killing Torres occurs to him briefly but, strangely, the thought of kicking him out of his establishment doesn't. Even though he's a revolutionary and views Torres as murderous and brutal, he's “a conscientious barber, and proud of the preciseness of [his] profession”.
As the barber works, Torres talks about executing and otherwise punishing the captives. While this is extremely troubling to the barber, it doesn't move him to take a stand by refusing service. He finishes his job, viewing it as his role: “You came to me for a shave. And I perform my work honorably.”
Although no violent act occurs in the story's present action, violence permeates the entire narrative explicitly and implicitly.
We get a hint of violence right as the story starts. The barber is holding a razor and his unidentified customer has a pistol.
As soon as Torres sits down, he says “We brought back some dead...pretty soon they'll all be dead.”
He then references a recent event where the townspeople where made to look at four mutilated rebels. We know immediately that Torres is a violent man.
In the middle of this, we realize the barber might also pose the threat of violence: “He probably thought I was in sympathy with his party.”
Torres goes on to talk about the slow execution he has planned for the captives later that evening.
The barber thinks about all the men Torres has killed and mutilated.
When the barber envisions cutting Torres's throat, he imagines the blood flowing from Torres to the floor and even through the closed door out to the street “like a little scarlet stream.” This exaggerated picture of the result of murdering Torres shows us how heinous an act it would be to the barber.
The barber thinks of killing Torres one last time: “I can turn my hand a bit more, press a little harder on the razor, and sink it in.” However, we know at this point that the barber isn't going to do anything.
The possibility of Torres doing something violent is present right up until his final statement.
1. How are the barber and Captain Torres alike?
They both do their jobs conscientiously and with a sense of honor.
The barber shaves Torres expertly as he does all his customers. Torres has four days beard growth because he's been doing his duty: “We got the main ones. We brought back some dead...We had to go pretty deep into the woods to find them.” Torres's job was difficult and dangerous, but he did it thoroughly.
The barber rejects the thought of murdering Torres because his sense of professional honor makes him feel superior to Torres, whom he views as an executioner. But Torres is also acting within the bounds of his own professional honor. While he is willing to kill and punish the revolutionaries who are, presumably, opposing the government with violence, he doesn't take the barber into custody. Despite the fact that the barber has passed along information that could have endangered Torres or his men, he's not so brutal as to kill the barber, saying: “But killing isn't easy. You can take my word for it.”
2. What are some examples of irony?
- The barber says the “show” of the dead rebels on display was “very good”, but we know he was appalled by it.
- The barber doesn't want to draw a drop of blood from Torres who has spilled much blood.
- The barber thinks, “I'm a revolutionary and not a murderer.” He has aligned himself with a group that has murdered; his intel may have also led to the murder of some.
3. Is the twist ending "fair"?
No. It comes off more as a trick crafted for a young reader rather than a true twist. Remember, the narrator, the barber, is recounting this story after the fact. He makes two false statements while retelling the story.
The barber says, “He probably thought I was in sympathy with his party.” (He knows Torres didn't think this.)
Later during the shave he says, “Torres did not know that I was his enemy.” (The barber knows Torres was aware of this.)
To achieve a twist ending with a first-person narrator, certain things will necessarily be left unsaid. That effect could have been achieved in this story with very slight changes in the wording. It's possible that reading the story in its original Spanish would fix this flaw.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Brian Cooper on June 03, 2020:
This story was part of a book of short stories that I had in school about 1970. Today is the first time I have read it since then, but I remember it well.
In re-reading the story, I was surprised that my original perception of it is little changed. It is not the barber, but Captain Torres that I find most fascinating. He knows even before he enters the barber's shop that the man is a rebel, and has been told that he will be killed by him.
The Captain's action, while courageous, is not one of foolhardy false bravado. He knows about people. He has a sense of what they can and will do, and realizes instinctively that the barber will not murder him.
We feel for the barber, a simple man who struggles morally over the problems of unending violence and killing. He sees himself as a man of honor that does his job honorably, but views Torres as a brutal, sadistic thug. Yet at the end, we are treated to the unexpected insight that this is not wholly true. Yes, the Captain tortures and kills rebels, but he does this within the framework of his own perceptions of honor and duty. Indeed, he is shown to be a man of unexpected compassion.
"It's not easy to kill. I know what I'm talking about." In this statement, Torres is revealed as personally despairing over the endless cycle of violence the same as the barber.