Study Guide to
Ring Lardner's "Haircut"

In your initial reading, you want to be pushing the standard opening agenda of curiosity:

  1. What's the narrative point of view the author has chosen for this story, and what issues does our noticing this choice put on the table?  What facts that we encounter as the story unfolds are relevant for arriving at a sound resolution of those issues?

  2. Since this is a short story, the plot is going to be functioning as a window on the characterization of at least the protagonist and (if we have marginal participant narration) of the narrator as well.

    • This means we want to be alert the key actions of the protagonist, as well as the various conflicts he (in this case) finds himself in, or instigates, as the case may be.

      • But we're not interested in these actions and conflicts for their own sake.  We want to get curious about the full motivation behind them.

      • And (if we have to do with participant narration) we want to be alert to the evaluation of these actions by the narrator.  (Eventually, our job will be to evaluate these evaluations.)

    • Functional elements of plot -- climax, for instance -- we want to take stock of as throwing emphasis on something that we need to take special note of from this perspective of characterization.

  3. We're interested in whether the main characters presented for our inspection (protagonist; narrator) turn out to be round or flat, static or dynamic not because these judgments are important for their own sake but because arriving at them prompts us to take stock of facts that are presumably important for a deeper understanding of what makes these characters "tick," and for pointing ourselves in useful directions for appreciating what might be the story's overall reason for being -- i.e., for getting clearer about the thematic implications of what we're invited to witness.

Postpone reading further in this study guide until you have read the story at least once with the above questions in mind.

If you've thought some about the issues pointed to above, you'll appreciate that a crowning achievement in engaging with this story would be a deep grasp of the character Whitey exhibits as he tells his customer about the escapades of his friend Jim.  (We have here, in other words, a dramatic monologue:  even though the narrator is not the protagonist, the deepest dimension of Lardner's humor in this story -- and of course of the ethical wisdom it is grounded in -- has to do with taking stock of the inadequacies of vision of the very person who provides us the information whose true significance he fails to see. 

One thing it would be important to understand (and, if you're discussing this story, to be able to demonstrate) is that the reader (in this case you) is able to arrive at insights into Jim’s character that Whitey never does, because if he did his reaction to Jim’s behavior would be quite different from what it is.  A key subject to explore, then, would be what we are to understand as the deeper factors that motivate Jim’s pranks, jokes, gags.  What is it that makes them so satisfying to Jim — and to his admirers?  Here’s an agenda of curiosity we might work through.

We might first try to get clear on what the basic nature of Jim’s pranks is.  It turns out that there are at least two basic sorts of gags he pulls that are significantly different.

1.   There is a whole series of pranks whose fun, for Jim (and vicariously for his buddies in the pool hall and, even more numerous, on Saturdays at the barber shop) is inseparable from the pain they impose on their victims.

2.   The gags he pulls on Paul, on the other hand, don’t depend on this for their humor.  That is, Jim and his fans work from the premise — grossly wrong, to be sure — that Paul is so dense, so dim-witted, as not to take stock of the fun they are having at his expense.  That means that the kind of pleasure they take in fooling him is not dependent on their savoring any injury they do to him.  These jokes are (in their minds at least) genuinely “harmless.”

The next step would be to explore what might be the different sources of pleasure afforded (to those who do take pleasure in them) by these different kinds of pranks.

1.   As for the intentionally cruel pranks, let’s look first into why they are so “fun” for Jim.  Then we can ask why they are so enjoyable for his audience.

a.   Since Jim is the inventor of these jokes, it might useful to see if we can notice anything about the particular sorts of people he tends to pick as their victim.  Do they have anything in common? 

·    Note that Whitey is aware — because Jim makes no attempt to hide it, and in fact is proud of the fact — that in several instances “revenge,” “paying back,” “getting even with” is in the foreground of the motivation of Jim’s ingenuity.

·    This is interesting in part because it means that Jim evidently see his pranks as a kind of defense — a defense, in fact, of his integrity — a matter, that is, of maintaining his self-respect.

·    This could be an important clue, because it might lead us to ask:

o  What might be the real sources of a feeling on Jim’s part of low self-respect? 

(Meanwhile, we wouldn’t want to forget that it’s clear that he would vehemently deny he’s subject to any such feelings.  How does the way he reports his firing to the barbershop make it clear that he wants people to understand he feels no shame about it?  Should we take this at face value?  Why, do you figure, Whitey is inclined to do so?  [Might there be more than one factor?])

o    What might this humiliating of other people (or otherwise causing pain and distress to them) — and more specifically to the particular ones he does this to — actually be “doing for” Jim?  Possibility to conjure with:  it momentarily puts these people “below” him on the spectrum of power; and this correlatively raises him “above” them as a “victor” over them.

Ø   What might this help to disguise about himself, to himself, in a way that might provide a kind of at least temporarily solace and relief?

§   In each of the cases where he explicitly undertakes to “get back at” something, what’s he really revenging himself for?

§    What’s a flagrantly mean trick that Jim pulls where there doesn’t seem to be any “revenge” at work in his account of the prank?  Well, the business with the postcards.  But, on reflection, what might be, unconsciously (or consciously but not acknowledged to his audience), the basis for seeing a “retaliation” at work here, too?  Hint:  compare the characteristics of the people who are the victim of this trick — a married couple that owns a store — and the correlative traits of the perpetrator of the “joke” — a traveling salesman who is on the verge of being fired and whose wife is continually complaining (justly) about his drinking up his meager pay, leaving his family in shabbiness and hunger. 

Ø  What might it help compensate for in his life (again, only temporarily)?

o   What is it that strikes us as “twisted” and “skewed” in Jim’s chronic sense of having been “offended” (humiliated, made to feel bad) by certain people, such that he is entitled to, even “forced” to redress this “injury” — this insult to his dignity suffered “at their hands”?

Ø  Note that this stands out for us by virtue of is striking us as a bizarre irony:  in effect, Jim is chronically “driven” to redress injustices that are not in any rational perspective injustices (and of course this makes him a chronic perpetrator of injustices).  Since it so stands out, it’s reasonable to suppose that this emphasis isn’t accidental.

Ø  Moreover, this (to us) striking fact is one of the facts that his admirers seem most willing to be blind to, or at least to leave out of account.  (How is this evident?)

Ø  What would constitute a genuine and fundamental way for Jim’s dealing with the mess he’s made of his life?

What factors would you figure are probably at work to make it unlikely that he’ll ever deal with his feelings this way?

b.   Since our ultimate topic is Whitey’s character, we should not neglect to ask what such pranks do for Jim’s admirers, who share in “fun” of these mean jokes, and whose appreciation reinforces him in his invention of them.

·    What (psychological) condition must we then imagine them to be in such that they would be “in need of” this gratification?  Well, our hypothesis might be that there’s some form of humiliation they are subject to in their lives that inclines them to welcome the temporary relief afforded by seeing others humiliated. 

o  One was we might feel entitled to increase our confidence in such a hypothesis would be to see if we can locate anything that Whitey mentions in passing that invites being considered as pointing to a possible cause or condition in their life for a dose of humiliation.

Ø  We might first ask whether there is anything that stands out about Jim’s fans as a group.  Consider ¶s 2 and 4 of the story.

§   One thing is we note is that, in Whitey’s account, Jim’s admirers are numerous. 

§   Another is that they are all men.  It’s striking that Whitely never considers the opinions concerning Jim of the women of the town, no doubt because he’s a bachelor and probably because it never occurs to him (for good reason, we imagine) to chuckle about Jim’s exploits with his mother.  It’s also striking that the only man in town Whitey mentions as having a low view of Jim is Doc Stair.

Ø   We might also note what Whitey says as part of the background information he works into his introduction of Doc Stair into his story.  In fact this is something that stands out somewhat as an apparent irrelevancy that Whitey couldn’t help falling into bringing in.  (See ¶31 of the story; ¶5 on p. 13 of our edition:  chronic debt seems to be a fact of the social life of Whitey’s town.)

Ø   Now consider that one thing that most of the men are probably married, and as such (in the time of the story) pretty much saddled with the responsibility of being the breadwinners for their households. 

Ø   We might then bring to mind that a tenacious premise about social status in American society — however much lip service tends to be paid to its denial — tends to be that you can tell how much a man’s worth by what he’s worth.  Put more bluntly:  if a man is economically prosperous, he’s successful in life; and if he’s successful, it’s a testimony to his personal merits.  After all, a familiar tenet of “the American Dream” is that “everybody has the opportunity to ‘make something of’ himself.  This often easily elides into the “corollary” that if a man’s not prosperous, it’s pretty much testimony to some mediocrity  — some lack of initiative, or of cleverness — on his part.  Collapsed further, this comes out:  if a man’s chronically in debt, he’s a failure in life.

o  What might be a way more creditable to our nature for dealing with the humiliation we might feel if we — along with a lot of our fellow citizens — have fallen upon economic hard times?

2.      As for the jokes Jim plays on Paul:  what might we imagine is the pleasure afforded to Jim and his friends by the jokes that repeatedly demonstrate how stupid Paul (supposedly) is?

a.   We might rephrase that question this way:  what do such pranks “do for” those who find them “innocent fun”?

·  What gratification might I get from imaginatively participating in some “witty” manipulation of a person who can’t help his mental deficiency into exhibiting it for me?

b.  What strikes us a pitiful about letting ourselves be gratified by such a spectacle?

·  What are we led to postulate as the unconscious estimation of his own mental powers of someone who takes pleasure in such a demonstration?

o  Where would a person derive such an estimation of his own powers?  No doubt there are many possibilities, considering the circumstances.  Here, though, we should ask whether there are any clues as to where Jim’s fans might come by such impressions.   And lo and behold the story affords us a couple of suggestive examples, which we might take as typical of what anyone in Jim’s entourage might imagine for himself, in his own case, just for having participated in the ridicule of others as “ingeniously” contrived by the two town wits, Jim Kendall and Hod Meyers:

Ø  There’s the case of Milt Sheppard:  ¶s 10-12 of the story (p. 10, ¶s6-8 in our edition).

Ø  And there’s the case of Whitey himself:  ¶s 58-67 of the story (p. 17, ¶7 through p. 18, ¶6 in our edition).

o  Let’s put ourselves into the position of Jim and Hod’s appreciative audience:  the price of our paying homage to the superior wit of Jim and Hod in contriving our entertainments is the registering, in some recess of our being, that we ourselves are rather ordinary in our own powers of creative wit, and in fact imminently capable of being duped by such as they in our own right.  This is humbling, to say the least, and ironically it can set up in us an appetite for demonstrations that we’re after all way above some others we could point to — those misfortunate enough to be retarded, by nature or accident.  This is hardly very complementary to us, if we think about it.  But then, we can always contrive not to think about it.  This is even less complimentary to us, but has the advantage of our never having to take conscious stock of it.

How is our sense of the ironic humor of this story enhanced if we trace out the ways in which both Paul and Doc Stairs function as foils to Jim -- and to Whitey?

Where are the most hilarious moments of comic dramatic irony in this text?

By now you should be able to appreciate how this "light" story is anything but superficial

What kinds of valuable insights into human nature does it invite us to come to terms with?  Without reducing this story to some simple practical "moral," can you come up with some formulation of general insights that this spectacle affords us?