Ring Lardners “Haircut” Analysis Essay, Research Paper
Creative Writing Analysis
Of Ring Lardners
Stephan M. Arleaux
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligence greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
–H.G. WELLS, The War of the Worlds
Analysis is a delicate task, for if we agree that the whole is likely to be greater than the sum of its parts and that we cannot always know the dancer from the dance, we will want to avoid any mechanical “taking apart” of a work for fear of murdering to dissect.
Our class discussion of the literary world has suggested that we want to focus attention first on the story, and that we are interested primarily in how the manifold parts contribute to the total meaning.
This is not, however, to say that the total meaning is merely a summing-up of components, or that even the simplest lyric is a blandly homogeneous object: the various parts of a work are not absorbed into the whole.
One of the most pervasive ideas in contemporary criticism is that a literary piece of any value is a complex unity, that it includes within itself various tensions-contrasts, oppositions, and even apparent contradictions. It may exhibit, for example, tension between strict artifice of form and naturalness of language, or as in Haircut, between a cool, detached manner of writing and a subject matter that includes violence and passion. The contrasts within Lardners story “Haircut,” between wise innocence and the grimly comic an sardonic tragedy, are further instances of tension. The elements strain against each other, but in doing so they help to hold the story together.
The author is the ultimate source of being of every person, place, thing, and event in the work. Lardner knew all there was to know about these creatures of the imagination. He had to decide whether it was desirable to exploit this special knowledge in short, on the point of view most appropriate to the story being told. Did he make the right choice? You decide.
POSSIBLE POINTS OF VIEW
First person or third person?
The Author seems to have chosen both. The story is told from the inside. When we speak of a story told from the inside, we mean this story is told by one of the characters in the story. Stories told from the inside are generally spoken of as examples of first-person narration, since the narrator uses the first-person pronoun “I” in references to himself.
(” I got another barber that come over from Carterville and helps me out Saturdays.”) You the reader become an interested, listener character (”You’re a newcomer, ain’t you? I thought I hadn’t seen -you round before.” ” I hope you like it good enough to stay.” *** “Did you see Gloria in Wages of Virtue? You missed somethin’!” *** “Comb it wet or dry?”)
Lardner stretches the envelope and has the narrator lapse from First to Third person at will. Usually stories are told from the outside by a nameless narrator who may be more or less closely identified with the author are usually spoken of as examples of third person narration. The term (rather an awkward one perhaps) is derived from the fact that the narrator refers to all of the characters in the story in the third person: “he,” “she,” “they,” “Him and Hod” proper name (”Missus. Bennet), or descriptive phrase or title (”the Doc,” “the Coroner”).
Omniscient or limited?
Again, the author seems to have chosen both. The distinction between first-person and third-person narration is often made and has its uses. Nevertheless, a distinction based merely on grammatical form is likely to be superficial. (We shall see, however, that this apparently superficial distinction will have significant implications.) A still more basic distinction is that exploited by Lardner between omniscient and limited narration.
The omniscient narrator:
The Author has chosen to throw convention to the wind and endow his godlike knowledge of the fictional universe he has created and co-employed an omniscient narrator. Within the framework of this fictional text, the omniscient character narrator simply knows everything. This narrator can at will enter the mind of any character and tell the reader (a character) directly what the character is thinking. The omniscient narrator is, as a rule, also omnipresent.
That is, our character narrator will at one moment, be in the heart of the city-or even another city, at the next, in a remote lake spot in the country.
(”Of course, he never knew what really come of none of these jokes, but he could picture what probably happened and that was enough”)
This narrator moves with a similar freedom through time, taking us from the present in one sentence to the past in the next. And the only motive required for the omniscient narrator’s moves from mind to mind, from place to place, from time to time is the predilection to tell the story as well as he can.
(”I suppose he was plottin’ to get Paul out in the boat and play some joke on him, like pushin’ him in the water.” “Doc examined the body and said they might as well fetch it back to town. They was no use leavin’ it there or callin’ a jury, as it was a plain case of accidental shootin’.”)
Lardner carries this technique very far indeed (too far perhaps for the tastes of some readers), for his character narrator not only knows everything about the people and events in the story.
(”She’d of divorced him only they wasn’t no chance to get alimony and she didn’t have no way to take care of herself and the kids. She couldn’t never understand Jim. He was kind of rough, but a good fella at heart.”)
He knows as well a good deal about the town in general and frequently interrupts the narrative proper for the purpose of introducing-sometimes seriously, sometimes ironically-bits of moral or philosophical allegory.
You know, in most towns of any size, when a man is dead and needs a shave, why the barber that shaves him soaks him five dollars for the job; that is, he don’t soak him, but whoever ordered the shave. I just charge three dollars because 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.”)
Such interruptions, we may point out, are not necessary part of the technique of omniscient narration and are generally avoided by twentieth-century authors who employ omniscient narration. For the mark of the omniscient narrator is not philosophizing but the faculty of knowing all.
The omniscient technique is essentially a third-person technique. Even when, as in Haircut, the narrator is a participant in the action and refers to himself in the first person, the actual participants in the action remain in the third person.
In addition, this omniscient narrator is highly flexible. As we have suggested, in omniscient narration there was virtually no limit to what the narrator was able tell us. This narrator gave us what the story demanded, and more.
(”Well, Julie come up to Doc’s door and rung the bell and they.was nothin’ doin’. She rung it again and rung it seven or eight times. Then she tried the door and found it locked. Then Jim made some kind of a noise, she heard it and waited a -minute, and then she says, “Is that you, Ralph?” Ralph is Doc’s first name.” *** “Years ago, Jim used to travel for a canned goods concern over in Carterville.”*** “When Doc first come to town, Paul seemed to feel like here was a real friend and he hung around Doc’s office most of the while. The only time he wasn’t there was when he’d go home to eat or sleep or when he seen Julie Gregg doin’ her shoppin’.)
Although omniscient narration is in one sense a particularly natural technique; but in this sense an essentially unnatural one. After all, in life there are no omniscient people.
First-person narration, on the other hand, exploits a rather different possibility. We often take the first-person narrator to be completely reliable, or at least we don’t consciously question that reliability. In Haircut, when “Whitey, the narrator, makes judgmental statements we don’t question his judgment. There is no evidence to cast “Whitey” as an unreliable narrator. In part, this is because the judgment seems born out by the facts the narrator has given us; that is, our acceptance of the judgment is based on our prior acceptance of Whitey the narrator’s reliability as to the facts.
In addition, we understand the narrator’s vantagepoint as contributing to his reliability: an older, mature, more experienced “Whitey” is passing judgment on his younger, immature, contemporaries “Jim and Hod.” Beyond this, we might say that everything in the text implies that this is the right way to see the narrator.
SYMBOLISM AND ALLEGORY
Several of the settings mentioned by way of example–Hardy’s Egdon Heath, Forster’s Howard’s End, Joyce’s snow, and Dickens’ fog might be referred to as symbolic.
Indeed, the subject of setting in fiction, like that of imagery in verse, is very likely to lead into the more difficult problem of literary symbolism, a problem which we have now to consider.
Because the term is applied in various ways, there is probably no single neat definition for it that is quite satisfactory. A symbol may be any object that suggests a larger meaning than itself, such as:
(”And Jim’s is the cup next to Charley’s. ” James R. Kendall.” Jim won’t need no shavin’ mug no more, but I’ll leave it there just the same for old time’s sake.”)
All literary works in this sense are symbolic and so is every word. Lardner uses a less precise approach, to objects that has been given conventional significance by a history of general usage, like the cross, a symbol of Christianity.
He applies the abstract idea of Christianity: having Docs office up stairs placing the Doctor and his office, his work on a higher ground both morally and spiritually, closer to God as it were. He also uses the childlike innocence of the character of Paul Dickson.
(” But I was goin’ to tell you about a poor boy we got here in town. No harm in him, but just silly. Jim Kendall used to call him cuckoo; *** When he looked out Doc’s window and seen her, he’d run downstairs and join her and tag along with her to the different stores. *** The poor boy was crazy about, Julie and she always treated him mighty nice and made him feel like lie was welcome, though of course it wasn’t nothin’ but pity on her side. *** Doc done all he could to improve Paul’s mind”).
Haircut contains distinct allegorical elements, for example, In the traditional allegory, every major character is likely to be a personification of at least one quality or idea, and, very often, the settings are typical rather than particular.
Doc Stair represents the Christian soul and does not have to be taken literally as a human being in order to make sense. Another way of putting it is to describe Doc Stair as a simple allegory, or the extension of a metaphor. Instead of saying that the Christian soul is like a wanderer in this world, beset by temptations and trials, Lardner tells a story of this wanderer and shows him being attacked by personified temptations or frustrated by projections of his own weakness and folly.
(” Doc Stair come here about a year and a half ago. He’s a mighty handsome young fella and his clothes always look like he has them made to order. He goes to Detroit two or three times a year and while he’s there he must have a tailor take his measure and then makein’ him a suit to order. They cost pretty near twice as much, but they fit a whole lot better than if you just bought them in a store.
For a while everybody was wonderin’ why a young doctor like Doc Stair should come to a town like this where we already got old Doc Gamble and Doc Foote that’s both been here for years, and all the practice in town was always divided between the two of them.
Then they was a story got round that Doc Stair’s gal had throwed him over, a gal up in the Northern Peninsula some wheres, and the reason he come here was to hide himself away and forget it. He said himself that he thought they wasn’t nothin’ like general practice in a place like ours to fit a man to be a good all round doctor. And that’s why he’d came.”).
It was difficult for this writer of allegory to maintain an exact parallel, so that, for instance, everything Doc Stair, does in Haircut can be said to represent something that the virtue of chastity “does.” In fact, because the story is so complicated, this so-called one-to-one relationship of the personification to the idea is not perfectly consistent.
Nevertheless, appears to be radically inconsistent-when a character is sometimes strictly and merely allegorical.
(”Well, it seems, while they was cryin’, Doc Stair came along and he asked what was the matter, but Mrs. Kendall was stubborn and wouldn’t tell him, but the kids told him and he insisted on takin’ them and their mother in the show. Jim found this out afterwards and it was one reason why he had it in for Doc Stair.”), and sometimes not (”He said Paul had asked him what he thought of the joke and the Doc had told him that anybody that would do a thing like that ought not to be let live.”)
In this most complex allegory, there is something more than a one-to-one relationship, because the story operates on several levels. Doc as the Coroner represents authority in one aspect as well as the abstraction Chastity. Julie provides a one-to-three relationship of image and idea in certain passages.
(” She’s been away to school and Chicago and New York and different places and they ain’t no subject she can’t talk on. *** I guess it was what they call love at first sight. But it wasn’t fifty-fifty. This young fella was the slickest lookin’ fella she’d ever seen in this town and she went wild over him. *** Poor Julie She didn’t show up on Main street for a long, long time afterward”.)
This indicates that Lardner has drawn from a medieval tradition of interpreting events upon three levels at once-the literal, the moral, and the anagogical.
In Haircut, the form of a Doctor and Coroner can literally represent the human spirits, but also signify politically the legitimate imperial power, morally the virtue of justice, and mystically the healer, and sometimes the heavenly state of souls which are unified in their beatitude.
The allegory becomes so complicated in this instance that it is very close to what is commonly called symbolism. Moreover, in fact many allegorical works, like Haircut, include elements that must be considered symbolic according to even the most rigorous definition.
There are several ways Lardner has defined symbolism so as to distinguish it from allegory. In his allegory, the meanings of the tale are meant to be clear, almost “Karmic” whereas his symbolism provides overtones (Docs office upstairs, totally unrealistic for a Doctor) and suggests a meaning rather than keys; the characters in this allegory are cardboard-flat, albeit “Stock, the Butcher, the Baker, the candlestick maker but in this symbolic work Lardner allows us to look behind the stock-cardboard characters, who in their own right seem to be complicated people.
More specifically, Metaphor, in this narrow sense; as Sophocles tells us that “Emotion is like the waves of the sea,” that is a simile, a figure that explicitly compares two terms instead of equating them.
Ordinarily a simile uses the word “as” or the word “like.”
(”You’d of thought it was a reserved seat like they have sometimes in a theayter”. *** “So I’d say, “No, Jim, but you look like you’d been drinkin’ somethin’ of that kind or somethin’ worse.”).
There are other tropes as well.
(” Well, he’s got an Adam’s apple that looks more like a mushmelon.”)
Lardner speaks to us in buried or submerged metaphors of space, about moving ahead, or looking backward, Jim’s loss of his job, falling into debt and rising above difficulties but he never rises above his debt or fall below his troubles.
Lardner uses an equally familiar form called a “Metonymy”, making a name or thing represent another thing or person: (” Jim was a Card”) another more sophisticate example might be: the critic who writes that Lardner was influenced by Spenser, means that Lardner was influenced by his reading of Spenser’s poetry, not directly by the man himself.
Themes are not apparent from a casual reading. Thus, although it is perfectly obvious that Lardner uses the metaphor of clothing as a unifying device, expanding on the metaphor to include certain real clothes which he regards as symbolic, it is not so obvious what the recurrent dramatic images of clothing in Haircut reveal: that the allegoric symbol of Christianity is falsely robed in his ill-fitting garments therefore they must be tailored to gain the respect of his flock, or that he cannot at last successfully disguise or symbolically alter his naked humanity.
Lardner flirts with dangers in the method that focuses attention upon imagery, especially the imagery of metaphor.
The greatest of these is that one will distort the meaning, of this short story by failing to observe how the implications of metaphorical language are contained and controlled by the plot, and by the characterization. Is it Doc, who uses the images of animal lust-and by all the elements of the whole structure?
(”Doc had told him that anybody that would do a thing like that ought not to be let live.” (((Protecting his “Pride/Harem”))))
(” He finally seen he wasn’t gettin’ no wheres with his usual line so he decided to try the tough stuff. He went right up to her house one evenin’ and when she opened the door lie forced his way in and grabbed her.”)
Here we are touching on a larger subject, one that involves all the elements of style, including diction, imagery, syntax, sound, and rhythm. This is the subject of tone.
Although the word is now and then used loosely as if it were a synonym for atmosphere or mood, the usual and more precise sense of literary tone is the expression of attitude, the equivalent in written language of a tone of voice. If we ask in what voice, with what intonation, a lyric or a scene or a passage from a story should be read aloud to communicate the speaker’s or the character’s or the narrator’s attitude, then we are asking, about the tone.
I have a tendency on commenting on this term to want to limit it, so as to imply only a speaker’s attitude toward his auditor. But when we read this unique narrative prose, the storyteller must be considered to speak to us as auditors; and in the language of many narrators, at least, there seems to be no definite feeling toward the reader, the “listener.” To be sure, older novelists, like Lardner, address the reader, and assume the level of the “Listener” without cajoling, condescending, sympathizing, or otherwise showing an attitude toward us. It may be more useful then, to broaden the definition, and to think of literary tone as the expression of attitude toward objects specified or implied. One of the objects attended to indeed, in this narrative work, is another character whom the speaker addresses (The reader in the chair).
The tone here is neither defiant nor despairing, but a calmly serious one, serious and yet not solemn, friendly but not too familiar. Whitey’s tone is established by diction.
Lardners literary tone, like a tone of voice, is easy, or modest,
(”You’re a newcomer, ain’t you? *** I thought I hadn’t seen -you round before. *** I hope you like it good enough to stay. As I say, we ain’t no New York City or Chicago, but we have pretty good times.”)
detached of sentiment, straightforward, and ironic.
(” Not as good, though, since Jim Kendall got killed”).
There are even varieties of tones within the work, as the scenes and speakers change. But the different tones are not well distinguished between the shifting tones of characters’ speeches and the over-all or controlling tone, which is “Whiteys” easy-going, small town gossipy nature. At times the narrator’s tone in Haircut shifts too far or too often, however, the result can easily be a little confusing, even incoherence. Haircut suffers from this failure, because at certain points the main characters and the main actions of the story are treated lightly, with almost a comic effect, and again at other times these people and their actions are described in highly serious language.
(”… him and Hod Meyers used to keep this town in an uproar. I bet they was more laughing’ done here than any town its size in America.
Jim was comical, and Hod,’ was pretty near a match for him. Since Jim’s gone, Hod tries to hold his end up just the same as ever, but it’s tough goin’ when you ain’t got nobody to kind of work with. *****
They used to be plenty fun in here Saturdays. This place is jam-packed Saturdays, from four o’clock on. Jim and Hod would show up right after their supper, round six o’clock. Jim would set himself down in that big chair nearest the blue spittoon. Whoever had been settin’ in that chair, why they’d get up when Jim come in and give it to him. ***
You’d of thought it was a reserved seat like they have sometimes in a theayter.” ***** “For instance, they’d be a sign, “Henry Smith, Dry Goods” well, Jim would write down the name and the name of the town and when he got to wherever he was goin’ he’d mail back a postal card to Henry Smith at Benton and not sign no name to it, but he’d write on the card, well, somethin”, like “Ask your wife about that book agent that spent the afternoon last week,” or “Ask your missus who kept her from gettin’ lonesome the last time you was in Carterville.” And he’d sign the card, “A Friend.”
Of course, he never knew what really come of none of these jokes, but he could picture what probably happened and that was enough.
**** “I suppose he was plottin’ to get Paul out in the boat and play some joke on him, like pushin’ him in the water. Anyways, he said Paul could go.”)
Probably the most difficult tone Lardner deals with is the ironic.
Irony of tone, or verbal irony
Lardner is careful not to confuse the reader with irony of event, or dramatic irony, although both means of sharply contrasting appearance with actuality are used.
Dramatic irony occurred when his characters on the page acted upon assumptions so far opposite to the truth that there is a striking discrepancy between what they believed and what the reader or the audience recognizes to be the fact.
(”I said it bad been a kind of a raw thing, but Jim just couldn’t resist no kind of a joke, no matter how raw. I said I thought he was all right at heart, but just bubblin’ over with mischief. Doc turned and walked out.
At noon, he got a phone call from old John Scott. The lake where Jim and Paul had went shootin’ is on john’s place. Paul had come runnin’ up to the house a few minutes before and said they’d been an accident. Jim had shot a few ducks and then give the gun to Paul and told him to try his luck. Paul hadn’t never handled a gun and he was nervous. He was shakin’ so hard that he couldn’t control the gun. He let fire and Jim sunk back in the boat, dead.
Doc Stair, bein’ the coroner, jumped in Frank Abbott’s Flivver and rushed out to Scott’s farm. Paul and old John was down on the shore of the lake. Paul had rowed the boat to shore, but they’d left the body in it, waitin’ for Doc to come.
Doc examined the body and said they might as well fetch it back to town. They was no use leavin’ it there or callin’ a jury, as it was a plain case of accidental shootin’.
Personally I wouldn’t never leave a person shoot a gun in the same boat I was in unless I was sure they knew somethin’ about guns. Jim was a sucker to leave a new beginner have his gun, let alone a half-wit. It probably served Jim right, what he got. But still we miss him round here. He certainly was a card.
Comb it wet or dry?”)
The term irony has come more recently to take on rather larger meanings than any yet mentioned. A philosophical sense of so-called Cosmic irony pervades the work.
Nevertheless, perhaps this is not strictly a matter of tone so much as one of belief. This sense of irony, which is really an extension of the romantic irony in Haircut, does not oppose what is apparent to what is real, but a partial reality to another partial reality; the ironic tone, according to Lardners usage, is a refusal of complete commitment to any single view of things as too simple.
We return once again to the theme of choice. This work of fiction as a complex but coherent form determined by a series of choices, unconventional choices (especially in point of view vs. omnicense) made by Lardner in the process of composition.
In truth, the author is always omniscient. Nevertheless, Lardner has chosen to tell the story through a narrator who is not omniscient, but thinks he is. In addition, this choice, as much as any other made by Lardner, has formal, moral, and philosophical significance. It is not “merely a matter of technique” (whatever that might mean) but part of the meaning of fiction.