24 pages 48 minutes read

Hernando Téllez

Lather and Nothing Else

Fiction | Short Story | YA | Published in 1950

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Lather and Nothing Else”

“Lather and Nothing Else” also translated as “Just Lather, That’s All,” is a 1950 short story by Colombian journalist Hernando Téllez. Titled “Espuma y nada más” in Spanish, the story explores themes of war, morality, consequences, knowledge, power, and conflict. This guide refers to “Lather and Nothing Else,” which was reprinted in Américas, a bimonthly magazine published in English and Spanish by the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States.

The story centers on two men: a barber and a captain. It is narrated from the barber’s first-person perspective. In the opening scene, a man walks into the barber’s shop. The barber starts shaking, immediately recognizing the man as Captain Torres, who is responsible for imposing military rule on their town and killing rebels who protest against the regime. Torres removes “his cartridge-studded belt with the pistol holster” and requests a shave (Paragraph 2).

As the barber slices soap to begin the man’s shave, it is quickly revealed that he is no ordinary barber, just as Torres is no ordinary customer. Instead, the barber is a secret revolutionary—one of the very same rebels whom Torres targets. Despite this, the scene continues through dialogue between the barber and Torres, interspersed with the barber’s internal monologue. As they talk, the barber prepares the lather, which rises.

The barber asks Torres about his past killings and when the next round of executions will be. Torres reports killing 14 men. There are others who still live, though he vows, “And not one will escape; not a single one” (Paragraph 8). The barber believes Torres has no idea he is a rebel. He thinks to himself, “[Torres] evidently took it for granted that I was on the side of the existing regime” (Paragraph 10).

Throughout this seemingly casual conversation, the barber quietly debates if he should kill Torres while he is shaving him: “[W]ith the enemy in [his] house [he] felt a certain responsibility” (Paragraph 23). Eyes closed despite the razor against his skin, Torres invites the barber to come by the school around six that evening. When the barber asks if it will be “like the other day,” referring to a massacre, Torres promises that “[it] may be even better” (Paragraphs 27-28).

As he continues working, carefully and precisely shaving his enemy’s beard, the barber ponders how he would explain having Torres’s throat under his razor yet letting the man walk free. He wars with himself:

I am a revolutionary but not a murderer. And it would be so easy to kill him. He deserves it. Or does he? No, damn it! No one deserves the sacrifice others make in becoming assassins. What is to be gained by it? Nothing (Paragraph 39).

Slitting Torres’s throat would make for a clean and easy death, which would stop the evening’s executions and avenge the deaths of previous rebels. Yet the barber shakes and dithers, gripped by internal conflict. He worries that slicing the throat of someone paying for a shave with their eyes closed is a cowardly way to commit murder, yet acknowledges that some would hail him as an avenger for doing so. Additionally, the barber thinks of his integrity and professional pride.

Ultimately, he decides that he is “only a barber” and finishes Torres’s shave without incident (Paragraph 44). As Torres gets coins out to pay the barber, he reveals he knew the barber was a rebel. He was testing the barber, curious to see if he would kill. Torres leaves with these parting words: “They told me you would kill me. I came to find out if it was true. But it’s not easy to kill. I know what I’m talking about” (Paragraph 47). In this final twist, Téllez suggests morality is not always simple.