‘Hair’ by William Faulkner: Short Story Analysis
‘Hair’ is a modernist realistic short story penned in 1931 by the most celebrated American writer, William Faulkner. He was a novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, poet, and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In this short story titled ‘Hair’, Faulkner uses localities and the supporting character to narrate Hawkshaw’s the barber’s tale, who saw his lost love of old in a young girl. He waits for the little girl to grow older so he can marry her. This is a story about a much older man patiently waiting until a little five-year-old reaches marriageable age to claim her for his own. She represents everything of his deceased fiancé Sophie right from her body build, especially her hair. Her hair was neither blonde nor brunette, just like Sophie, the dead fiancé, and it is because of Hawkshaw’s fetish with this little girl’s hair he decides that when the time comes, Susan Reed would be his. William Faulkner, through excellent narration, creates suspense in an otherwise straightforward story. We find here the hidden passion of the barber Hawkshaw for the girl, the sexist lines about women ‘being bad’ right from birth, that Hawkshaw managed to get Susan into his clutches because she was a ‘fallen’ girl, a young painted doll, probably pregnant by him. It is the style one finds in most Southern American stories and novels of that period, which though unnerving for a twenty-first-century reader, is not surprising.
The story starts with Hawkshaw giving Susan Reed her first haircut when she was a child of five. He took to her immediately because of her hair. The hair keeps on being repeated in this short story as a central factor in Hawkshaw’s mind, who was ready to pamper Susan in every way he could see so that one day she would be his. He takes advantage of her later when she grows older and is unaware of safe sex. She probably gives birth to Hawkshaw’s child in a Memphis hospital. Before that, she tries to abort the child by drinking turpentine. This gives Susan a ‘tainted’ aspect in Faulkner’s Southern American village and small-town setting. Susan is also deemed to be tainted and bad from birth like most girls, which I think is rather crude on the part of Faulkner to say but which I will take with a pinch of salt. Faulkner is trying to portray through the language and social norms of the Southern American village and small-town what men, especially the uneducated men, thought about women and their inborn ‘badness’, which had to be kept in check by making the girl ‘conform to the system’. This reads like prejudiced male narrative writing. It makes me feel that society’s norms about women were backward and conservative in America as it was in India. If you want to read about the lives of women, especially young girls living in Mumbai’s slums, you can check out my novels Nirmala: The Mud Blossom and Amina: The Silent One on my blog’s products page.
Susan is dubbed a non-conformist by the men, especially the barbers in her town, and the narrator a traveling salesman who likes gossiping. The narrator learns about the real history of Hawkshaw, who lost his fiancé Sophie and her entire family in succession. The narrator brings to our mind how:
- Faithful Hawkshaw was right until up till the day he got married to Susan.
- How he cleaned his deceased fiancé Sophie’s house every April in a matter of two weeks.
- That he only took a vacation so that he could clean up the garden and house of Sophie.
- That he paid the interest on the mortgage of Sophie’s house and later the principal amount when he was sure he would marry Susan.
- How he was a wandering barber after Sophie’s death and kept on looking for her reflection in any girl so that he could wed that girl. He was a bachelor still looking for love.
We are told the rest of the stories of Hawkshaw and Susan through other characters like Matt, who was a barber working with Hawkshaw, Maxey, who was the owner of the barbershop where Hawkshaw worked before he disappeared with Susan after paying the mortgage on Sophie’s house, the narrator, and his lawyer friend Stevens. We learn the story or the silent saga of passionate love through these characters where we least expect it: in Hawkshaw for Susan though she was several years younger than him. The oddness of a grown man planning and dreaming about marrying a little girl while she sat in his barber’s stool for her haircut disgusts our sensibilities. But Faulkner intends to disgust us, thus making the short story titled ‘Hair’ enticing to read. Hawkshaw was not a man of words. He showed his love in very silent ways to the people he loved:
- Giving peppermints to children. However, he used to provide more peppermints to Susan because she was his special one.
- Cleaning Sophie’s yard, garden, and home as if he were a maidservant. The way Faulkner puts it sounds sexist but all the same, very evocative: he cleaned it like a woman!
- When he used to cut Susan’s hair, he would hold up the mirror for her to see, as if she were a film actress, that was detested by the others.
- When Susan was a little girl, Hawkshaw used to keep watch at the barber’s window to see her going to school and return from school.
When we as women read Hawkshaw’s devotion and hidden motives for Susan, it sounds infuriating, but the quality that strikes one while reading it is about patience. Hawkshaw had a lot of patience concerning Susan. Repeatedly in the short story ‘Hair’, we are told by various characters that he was too old to court another girl. However, those very same male chauvinist pigs mention things that would be offensive in specific ways to individual readers:
- That Susan did not mind whom she slept with or had an affair with – married men, older men, or young boys.
- That she was too forward and free, and never wore stockings.
- That her legs without stockings or correct length of her dress were, therefore, ‘naked’.
- She was a big flirt.
- She must have allowed Hawkshaw to pay for her haircuts because that was his payment for having sex with her.
- That it was Hawkshaw’s baby that got her into trouble, and she tried aborting it.
There is a whole litany of prejudice against the fairer sex that is amazing to read. What is even more amazing is how Faulkner colors Hawkshaw as a benevolent character who did no wrong, served everyone well and deserved to get Susan in the end as his reward. This does not go down well with me because obviously, being free and being forward and being liberal with one’s sexual partners does not at all mean that one is perverse. Faulkner’s aim in this story was to show a mirror to the then still very Puritan Southern section of the USA how hypocritical was their viewpoints about socially approved behavior. Notice there is a link in the story titled ‘Hair’ of a direct relationship between playing truant or even leaving a school education and sexually free behavior. There is a feeling towards the end of the story, especially through Stevens and the narrator’s dazed behavior, that Hawkshaw was the one who got the raw end of the deal in his new relationship than the other way around. Yet there is surprise and shock on the part of mostly the narrator regarding Hawkshaw marrying Susan.
The dialogues in this short story are hard hitting and will stay in your mind for a long time. Faulkner uses his Southern American drawl accent in the talks between the characters in this story, familiar in most of his works. Notice that Susan is a main protagonist in the story, but she does not speak even once during the telling of the tale, while the dying Sophie, who is painted like a cherubic figure, manages to say more than Susan does. I liked the very touching line where the narrator mentions that Matt would not have learned the real character of others, especially not his colleague Hawkshaw because Matt was a talker. The narrator felt that a talking man would not have the time to learn much about anything except words, just empty words. But that is not what Faulkner is trying to do here. Faulkner is trying to make us relive with Hawkshaw his long and sad exile into a land of darkness for no fault of his own and then his sudden light of sunshine in the person of Susan, who has many similarities to his previous fiancé.
- She has hair which, like Sophie’s, was neither blonde nor brunette.
- She was a frail young thing like the dying Sophie. Susan especially became very pale and frail after her pregnancy and abortion.
- Both their names begin with the alphabet or letter ‘S’.
- Both had their hair cut at least once by Hawkshaw. Where Susan was concerned, he cut her hair every other day. He also managed to cut Sophie’s hair making her bald during her fever, from which she died. He tried saving a lock of her hair in the frame of her photograph, but both got lost in transit. So, notice the fixation here about hair.
There is a mention in the story where Hawkshaw wanted to gift Susan a watch but had not done so for quite a while because he felt that it was not right of her to receive jewelry from strange men while she was still so young. This is the only part of the short story titled ‘Hair’ that made me suspect that Hawkshaw was not the father of the child Susan was pregnant with. He seemed to have followed the rules all these years. Could he have been so despicable as to ‘taint’ her for his purposes? That is left to conjecture. The story ends with Stevens telling the narrator of Susan and Hawkshaw’s marriage. Thus, we as readers are tricked into successfully being involved in a fair bit of saucy village or small-town gossip. Because if you look at the story, you notice that it is nothing more than plain gossip but narrated dramatically.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by American writer William Faulkner. I will review and analyze more American bookish fiction and non-fiction content till January 2021. So, if you are looking for more American bookish content, then this is the site you must keep watching. I hope to read and review more works by William Faulkner soon.
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