Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Reading Flannery O'Connor's "The Barber"

After leading off my tour through Flannery O’Connor with my favorite O’Connor story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and following up with “The Geranium,” I will enter into my third installment, “The Barber.” The second story in The Complete Stories, this piece is early O’Connor, another product of her time at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and a piece that never saw print in her lifetime. While not as complete and telling as some of her later work, it still holds substance.

“The Barber” rings of repetition as Rayber confronts the political divisions of a local election. At the heart of the election comes a central issue of both the south and O’Connor’s writing: racism. Just as Dudley struggled to deal with racial integration in his new surroundings in “The Geranium,” the characters in the piece confront the election as a racial decision, having to pick sides to take part. Unlike the America of today, where we are polarized along lines of liberal and conservative dogma, the time O’Connor focuses on perceives race as a central issue of the political debate. Vote Jim Crow or move on. The candidates are both white, but they offer differing views on integration. Picking a candidate forces one to select a racial mandate, picking a race means picking a side, nominating yourself as a progressive in a mostly regressive time, or sticking up for the ghosts of the past.

Rayber, the story’s protagonist stands as an academic looking to make his mark. He wants to stand out, to persuade others, and to do so in the educated, progressive way. He is a man who doesn’t want to pick sides: “‘I am neither a Negro- nor a white-lover’” (O’Connor 15). Yet Rayber focuses on being politically correct, on how he is perceived, and makes such an effort to say and do the acceptable thing, that he falls flat, coming off as weak and needy, and thus is victimized and categorized by the man he deems ignorant: The Barber.  The Barber corners him, calling on social conventions, asking him where he stands, and Rayber, so ready to prove himself, takes the bait: “‘How’d you like a couple of black faces looking at you from the back of your classroom?’… ‘Willing to teach any person willing to learn—black or white’” (19). Thus Rayber is fully identified, he is for change, the betterment of society, and while backed into a corner, he attempts to argue the issue.

Unlike most, he schedules the argument, goes home, plans it out, and even discusses the issue with his mentor, a fellow professor who only scoffs and states, “‘I never argue’” (22). Jacobs doesn’t argue, because he doesn’t need to impose his view, he refrains from battling over ideals, because ideals are sacred, and thus are staunchly defended by those who possess them. Thus, as Jacobs slyly notes, Rayber is destined to fail, which he does. He ends the piece, less sure, basking in his inadequacy, demonstrating his overall failure. Just like Shiftlet will fail to find solace in his actions in O’Connor’s more refined work, Rayber fails to find himself, fails to assert himself at any level as being anything close to respectable, and fails to convince the Barber’s negro employee that the man who supports the rights of the disenfranchised deserves support.

Other posts on the The Complete Stories include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “The Wildcat,” “The Crop,” “The Turkey,” “The Train,” “The Peeler,”“The Heart of the Park,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “Enoch and the Gorilla,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “The River,” “A Circle in the Fire,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find. If the book interests you, please use the link in the first paragraph or click the picture to support my efforts when you purchase the text.

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