Can You Prove That? An Analysis of The Barber by Flannery O’Connor

My family tells me I argue far too much. I ask them to prove it.

Well, sort of. I know they’re right, but I do find it difficult to hold back when there’s an argument taking place, or one begging to happen. As such, I seriously connected to the main character, Rayber, in Flannery O’Connor’s second published story entitled “The Barber.” Once more, I highly suggest you go read the story here before continuing on with this post. (Apologies for the low quality, I couldn’t find the story anywhere else.) Otherwise this post almost certainly isn’t going to make sense.

Interestingly enough, I find The Barber to have a similar overall theme to The Geranium. Where The Geranium seemed to deal with the control side of pride, this story seems to deal with an obsession with agreement. Well, an obsessive impulse for everyone to agree with you.

The Barber, like The Geranium, is a trite story, with an obvious theme.
The Barber, like The Geranium, is a trite story, with an obvious theme.

The main character is named Rayber, and the story takes place almost solely during three different visits to a barbershop. What develops is a not-so-subtle, but yet biting story of pride and its inevitable downfall. The story begins by introducing us to two candidates–Hawkson and Darmon. It’s significant to note Hawkson’s name, and we’ll see why in just a second. Rayber engages in an argument with the barber, and, because of his timid personality and easily flustered mind he completely loses.

The interesting thing is that he doesn’t recognize he’s like that. He views himself as perfectly capable of winning the argument with the Barber, and continually gets frustrated with himself when he gets flustered, instead of expecting it. I’ll go out on a limb for a second here–even though I couldn’t point you to too many lines, the way Rayber’s internal monologue is written gives the impression that he’s shocked anyone would even disagree with him to begin with. He seems to look down on the Barber and all who disagree with him. This appears to contribute to his inability to think on his feet. He can’t imagine that anyone would disagree with him, and thus doesn’t know what to say when they do.

Again, this goes back to the whole idea of control, to an extent. Both Rayber and Old Dudley, the main character of The Geranium, can’t imagine that people do anything else except what they want them to do. They think reality fits into little boxes they set up.

What ends up happening is that Rayber agrees to prepare an argument and come back to combat the Barber. He obsesses over this, formulating each word, and finally goes to his friend Jacobs, who never engages in arguments. There, this fascinating exchange occurs.

“I never argue,” Jacobs said.

“That’s because you don’t know this kind of ignorance,” Rayber explained. “You’ve never experienced it.”

Jacob snorted. “Oh yes I have,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I never argue.”

“But you know you’re right,” Rayber persisted.

“I never argue.”

It strikes Rayber as odd that someone wouldn’t defend their position and ensure that they were always shown to be in the right. He ignores the complacency of Jacobs, and firmly ventures on to the barbershop, certain that he will persuade everyone there. Even in this, he ignores the fact that he can’t think on his feet, and that he can never persuade anyone.

The crux of the story actually occurs, I believe, on his way to the barbershop. He sees in the window of the store an advertisement for a product said to help “Timid Persons…Kill Their Own Fowl.” Remember how I said Hawkson’s name is important? This is where it is.

Metaphorically speaking, Rayber is trying to “kill” Hawkson. Hawkson, hawk-son. See where I’m going with this? The advertisement tells us the truth about Rayber, but Rayber can’t see it. Rayber is a timid person, trying to kill the fowl, in this case, a hawk. He can’t see that though, and as a result the discussion goes horribly. He ends up making a fool of himself and storms out of the shop, humiliated. And all of this happens because he is a timid person trying to kill a fowl, and he can’t do it. He’s not strong enough, but he won’t recognize that.

In spite of his personality, Rayber is obsessed with being right, even though he can never prove his side. It’s, once more, a bit of a trite story. But it still tells us something valuable about accepting the truth about ourselves–and sometimes that truth isn’t comfortable. The bigger theme, though, is that of Rayber’s obsession with being recognized as right. And, needless to say, the result of this obsession isn’t good.

Which tells me, at least, that maybe I should stop arguing so much.