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Haircut


Updated 19 January 2006

Publishing History | Summary | Characters |Criticism

 

                 

 

 

"As I say, his wife could have divorced him, only she couldn't."

"But Jim was like the majority of men, and women, too, I guess. He wanted what he couldn't get."

". . . personally I don't mind much shavin' a dead person. They lay a whole lot stiller than live customers. The only thing is that you don't feel like talkin' to them and you get kind of lonesome."

 

 

 

 

 

Publishing History Liberty I (28 March 1925).

The Love Nest and Other Stories, 1926.

Round Up: The Stories of Ring Lardner, 1929.

Portable Lardner, 1946

Best Short Stories, 1959

Haircut and Other Stories, 1961

Ring Lardner Reader, 1963

 

 
Summary Setting: A fictitious town in Michigan. Benton is a neighboring small town. Carterville seems to be the nearest "big" town.

Time: Early 1920s.

Story: Whitey, the barber, is giving a haircut and talking to an out-of-towner. He tells the following story:

Jim and Hod Meyers are the town's jokesters. From Whitey's stories it seems most of their "jokes" are either focused on their targets' physical features (like a big adam's apple) or are what many would consider "practical jokes." Whitey says that Jim is a little rough but he has a "good heart." He concedes that Jim is not a good husband or father (he has affairs and doesn't support his family). Still, Whitey characterizes Jim as a "card." His "jokes" include sending Whitey out to shave a dead man who isn't really dead on the coldest night of the winter, sending anonymous notes to strangers to bring suspicion into their marriages, promising to meet his family at the circus with no intention of showing up, and humiliating Julie Gregg by sending her to Doc Stair's house when he is out of town.

Julie Gregg is infatuated with the new doctor, Doc Stair. According to Whitey, Stair doesn't share any romantic feelings for Julie. Jim publicly declares that he lusts after Julie and tries to force himself on her--literally. Julie escapes his advances by locking herself in a room and calling the marshall. Jim flees and is later warned by the marshall to cut it out. The incident becomes public knowledge and Hod Meyers jokes about it at the barbershop. Jim vows to get revenge on Julie.

For his revenge, Jim disguises his voice as Doc Stair and phones Julie Gregg, summoning her to the doctor's office. Jim knows that the doctor is out of town and that the office will look occupied because of a night light. Jim rounds up a bunch of drunk rowdies from the pool hall and brings them to the doctor's office. There they all witness Julie ringing the doorbell and calling for "Ralph." The mob mimics her and pursues her as she flees. Julie is so embarrassed that she stays away from people for a while. Everyone knows about the story except Doc Stair.

Paul Dickson suffers from some form of brain damage. He is called "cuckoo" by Jim and "silly" by Whitey, but Doc Stair and Julie respect him. Paul seems to have a crush on Julie and follows her around on her errands. Doc Stair and Julie are his only companions. Paul overhears the story about Jim's humiliation of Julie and reports what he knows to Doc Stair.

Doc finds himself in a difficult position. He wants to make Jim pay, but if he beats him up, Julie will find out. If Julie knows that Doc Stair knows, that would further her embarrassment. Doc Stair decides to do some thinking on the matter. He initially reacts, though, to Paul by telling him that "anybody that would do a thing like that ought not to be let live."

Jim comes to the barbershop looking for Hod Meyers so the two can go duck hunting. Hod is out of town. Paul volunteers to go with him instead. He tells Jim that he has never shot before, but that he would like to go anyway. Jim agrees to take him and says he may let him shoot a couple rounds. Whitey theorizes that Jim agreed to take him because he could play jokes on him.

Jim and Paul go duck hunting. Jim gives him the gun and Paul shoots him. Whitey attributes the accident to Paul's nervousness over never handling a gun before. Doc Stair, acting as the coroner, declares it an accidental shooting. Whitey says Jim should have never "leave a new beginner have his gun" and that it "probably served Him right." Still Whitey misses him.

Immediately after telling the story, Whitey asks the person in the barber's chair "Comb it wet of dry?"

 

 

 






Characters Whitey (Dick): The barber/narrator.

Jim (James H.) Kendall: The town "card."

Jim's wife: financially unable to divorce Jim, and barely financially able to stay married to him, she depends on the kindness of storekeepers to keep her family fed. She tries her hand at dressmaking, but there isn't much money in that.

Julie Gregg: her mother is an invalid and her father drank away most of the family's lumber business money. She has traveled and been to school. talmost 30. She is attracted to Doc Stair.

Doc Stair (Ralph): He came to town about a year and a half before the story is related. He is "a mighty handsome young fella and his clothes always look like he has them made to order." He is dedicated to his general practice and doesn't collect all of his debts.

Paul Dickson: He fell out of a tree at ten years of age and suffered some sort of brain damage. Whitey describes him as harmless and "silly"; Jim teases him for being "cuckoo" and sends him on prank errands. He associates only with his mother, Doc Stair, and Julie Gregg. Doc says that at times he is "as bright and sensible as anybody else."

Hod Meyers: Jim's friend and fellow town jokester. He is able to make jokes at Jim's expense without arousing his anger.

Joe Barnes: the town marshall and friend of Julie's late father. He is summoned to Julie's house when Jim forces his way in. Later he warns Jim not to try such things.

John Scott: Jim pretends to be Mrs. John Scott and reports to Whitey that John has died and needs a shave. It is the coldest day of the year and John's house is seven miles out in the country, but Whitey goes to their house, only to find John at the door. It is at his farm that the shooting takes place. He calls Doc Stair to report the accident.

Milt Sheppard: an object of jokes from Jim and Hod because of his large adam's apple. The jokes revolve around the similarity in appearance of his adam's apple to a mushmellon.

Charley (Charles M.) Vail: the druggist, mentioned only because his shaving mug is next to Jim's, which Whitey keeps displayed out of respect.

George Purdy: a debtor.

Frank Abbott: He drives Whitey to John Scott's and later drives Doc Stair to the same location after the shooting.

Ken Beaty: the former coroner who died, leaving the job open for Doc Stair.

Doc Gamble and Doc Foote: other doctors in town.

 

   
Criticism Donald Elder writes:
(Elder, Donald. Ring Lardner. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.)

". . . a classic example of Ring's first-person dialect stories, and it shows all of his indignation at cruelty, stupidity, and callousness." (237)

"The practical joker, traditionally a beloved small-town figure, turns out to be miserable, brainless, and cruel; and the barber who admires him is just as bad. Ring was exposing the witlessness of a whole vein of the American comic tradition--the small-town wag who is a degenerate descendant of the frontier hell-raiser, and is degraded and perverse; but there are still innumerable jackasses to laugh at him. Not even what commonly passes as a 'sense of humor' has much saving grace in it, offers any release or any leavening of the soridness of the small, meager, impoverished world that Ring evokes so skillfully in the barber's monologue.
Practical jokes are the basis of much of the humor in Ring's baseball stories; Jack Keefe is almost always the dupe of them. But these are harmless, they are even sometimes funny, and in any case Jack Keefe is too thick-skinned to be hurt by them. This kind of humor is fairly shallow at best, as Ring knew; but in 'Haircut' it is not funny any more. Humor itself has become corrupt. It is a bitter and appalling story." (238)

 

Jonathan Yardley writes:
(Yardley, Jonathan. Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner. New York: Random House, 1977.)

"The use of the village idiot to take revenge on Jim Kendall is indeed a cliché, and the story as a whole is just a little bit too pat; it has been anthologized because of its quality and craftsmanship but also because, as is often the case with material that is anthologized, it is smooth enough to suit almost any taste. It may have seemed to readers of a popular magazine to have been a brutal portrait of small-town hypocrisy and callousness, but those readers probably were unfamiliar with Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, published six years earlier and far superior." (288-289)

 

Walton Patrick writes:
(Patrick, Walton R. Ring Lardner. New York: Twayne, 1963.)

"The barber-narrator of 'Haircut,' for example, greatly admires Jim Kendall--'he certainly was a card!'--and remains totally unconscious of the fact that the story he tells throws an entirely opposite light on Kendall. " (114)

 

James DeMuth writes:
(DeMuth, James. Small Town Chicago: The Comic Perspective of Finley Peter Dunne, George Ade, and Ring Lardner. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1980.)

"'Haircut," generally considered Lardner's masterpiece, is a bitter indictment of the sleazy morality which small towners could accommodate. In the story, a vicious, jealous practical joker, Jim Kendall, is tolerated and envied by his more cautious confederates in the town's barber shop. The moral standards of decency and responsibility, which small towns had embodied in Lardner's earlier fiction are in 'Haircut' only enforced when the town half-wit murders Kendall for exposing the gentle and virtuous Julie Gregg to public ridicule." (85-86)

 

Maxwell Perkins of Scribner's writes in a letter to Ring:
(Caruthers, Clifford M. ed. Ring Around Max: The Correspondence of Ring Lardner & Max Perkins. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois U.P., 1973.)

March 16, 1925

"I read 'Hair Cut' on Friday and I can't shake it out of my mind;--in fact the impression it made has deepened with time. There's not a man alive who could have done better, that's certain.
Everyone will tell you this, or something like it I guess, so there's little use in my doing it.--But it is a most biting and revealing story and I'd like to say so." (57)

Lardner's reply of March 17th is added to Letters of Ring Lardner (Washington: Orchises, 1995, page 174). The response in total is as follows: "Thanks."

 

Maxwell Geismar writes:
(Geismar, Maxwell. Ring Lardner and the Portrait of Folly. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972.)

"And what Lardner is really saying is that the half-wit has more sense and more courage than the rest of the townspeople who applauded the cruel jokes of Jim Kendall." (78)

 

Hal Blythe (and Charlie Sweet):
(Blythe, Hal. "Lardner's 'Haircut.'" Explicator 44.3 (Spring 1986): 48-49.)

The article analyzes cinematic allusions, especially those to the movie Wages of Death found in the story "Haircut" and asserts that the plot of that movie is the hidden plot of this story. In this article, unlike the next, Blythe still supports the view that the narrator of "Haircut" is innocent and unaware of the real circumstances surrounding Jim's death.

From Blythe, Hal and Charlie Sweet. "The Barber of Civility: The Chief Conspirator of 'Haircut.'" Studies in Short Fiction 23.4 (Fall 1986): 450-453.

Blythe and Sweet posit that Whitey, the narrator, is not only aware of what is going on in the story and that he condones the killing of Jim, but that he is "the chief instigator of the town's deadly conspiracy" (451). They methodically prove their thesis, using many examples from the story to establish motive, means, opportunity, and indirect admissions of guilt. Such a reading requires that one considers the barber's comments about Jim (like his being a "card") ironic. The "motive to kill" may also be overstated. Whitey has a motive for revenge or a motive to dislike Jim, but the motive to kill is difficult to prove.

From Blythe, Hal and Charlie Sweet.  "Lardner's Haircut."  The Explicator  55 (Summer 1997):  219-221.

Continuing their earlier argument that the barber/narrator is the chief conspirator of Jim's death, Blythe and Sweet now explore the barber's motivation in telling his self-incriminating story.  Their earlier suggestion that "hubris" is the motive is dismissed; "guilt" causes the barber to "confess" his story.  

After reiterating their reasons for believing that Whitey, the barber/narrator, is "the chief instigator of the town's deadly conspiracy," Blythe and Sweet admit their earlier explanation for the barber telling his story is inadequate.  They posit that Whitey tells his story out of guilt.  Central to their argument is their interpretation of a scene in which the barber explains how things used to be in the barbershop.  When Jim was still living, he sat at his reserved chair like a priest, and thus, they argue, the barbershop was a secular church.  "Haircut" is a "confession."  Only two are in the "church," and the barber is confessing his sin. 

 

Nathan Cervo:

(Cervo, Nathan. "Lardner's 'Haircut.'" Explicator 47.2 (Winter 1989): 47-48.)

Cervo posits that Lardner uses proper nouns as thematic puns "to reflect important themes in the narrative" of "Haircut;" and that by studying these, the reader can determine that Jim was a conspirator in his own murder (suicide). This theory is interesting but is not proven in this article.

 

Margaret Kasten:

(Kasten, Margaret C. "The Satire of Ring Lardner." English Journal XXXVI (April 1947): 194-95.)

She argues against Fadiman's "Triangle of Hate" theory and the opinion that Lardner is "just a comic" and compares Lardner favorably to Sinclair Lewis, giving examples of college Freshmen's opinions of "Haircut." It is interesting to see that as early as1947 people had already begun to miss the satire in Lardner's stories.

 

Charles May:

(May, Charles. "Lardner's HAIRCUT." Explicator 31.9 (May 1973). )

Suggests that the object of the satire in "Haircut" is not just Jim or the small town in which he lives, but it is the reader who so quickly condones such extreme punishment.

Brooks and Warren:

(Brooks, Cleanth and Robert P. Warren. The Scope of Fiction. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1960.)

Advances a moralist interpretation of "Haircut" wherein Jim is a joker who finally gets his due; takes narrator at face value, saying that he really does admire Jim; says purpose of narrator is to create irony, a device used to invoke
reader participation.

 

James Phelan:

(Phelan, James. "Narrative Discourse, Literary Character, and Ideology." Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology. Ed. James Phelan. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1989. 132-146.)

 

Gordon Bordewyk:
(Bordewyk, Gordon. "Comic Alienation: Ring Lardner's Style." Markham Review 11 (Spring 1982): 51-57. )

"Behind the apparent simplicity of the narrative, however, is a resounding indictment of the moral turpitude of the small town.  "   . . Endorsing Jim Kendall's mischief when he is alive, the villagers pragmatically regard his death as accidental, despite evidence that Paul's action is premeditated.  Refusing to acknowledge the implicit guilt of Paul (or the doctor) for Kendall's death, the townsfolk become accessories after the fact.  But they still miss Kendall and his misdirected talent for cruel comedy."  56  (56-57) agrees with Charles May that the reader, by thinking Jim's murder is justified is also indicted.  (57).   I do wonder about the estrangement of Jim Kendall.  at least it is hard to determine if through speech, "The most significant cause and the most obvious symptom of their estrangement is their inability to communicate effectively through language.

 

   


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