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Shaving Story Summary

Summary of Shaving by Leslie Norris

Shaving by Leslie Norris is a coming-of-age narrative of a boy transitioning into an adult as a consequence of his father’s illness and looming death. Barry, the protagonist, does the final act of this transformation by shaving his father, which, according to the hints and symbols, might be the first and the last time. 

Shaving | Summary

The story begins with Barry coming home from a sports match, in which he apparently got injured through a tackle. On his way home, he meets his neighbour Jackie and a girl named Sue. Jackie talks about going for a “frivolous cup of coffee” with Barry and Sue, but Barry refuses since he needs to go tend to his ill father. Jackie is visibly uncomfortable and lets him go. 

Barry reaches home and he’s struck by how weak his father is, and when he starts talking about the game, he realises that the game seems to be of such insignificance in front of his father’s illness. Barry’s strength humbles itself in front of his father. 

“But watching his father’s weakness he felt humble and ashamed, as if the morning’s game, its urgency and effort, was not worth talking about.” 

Barry’s mother tells him that his father needs to be shaved but the man has not come for 3 days. Barry takes it on himself to do the shaving and his mother asks if he’s up to the task, and Barry affirms his willingness to shave his father. 

“Do you think you can?” she asked. “He’d like it if you can.” “I can do it,” Barry said.

Barry prepares to shave his father and the entire process is described in meticulous detail, with each action accompanied by a seriousness seen in a doctor about to perform a surgery. Barry then places the towel around his father’s shoulders and then proceeds with the shaving. The act is intimate and important. The father asks Barry his age and if he’s old enough for this. Barry replies that he is old enough. During the time Barry shaves his father’s face and neck, the father asks Barry different things about his life, probably to gauge if Barry is ready. Barry is struck with a sense of strangeness while he is shaving his father, and the air is filled with tension until the moment his father lets go of “all the authority.” The father finally lets go and gives over the authority to Barry. Finally, after he washes all the tools and keeps them safe, he looks at the setting sun, basking in its “golden warmth for a whole minute.”

Shaving | Analysis

The story is a tale of a seventeen-year-old transitioning from youth to adulthood, represented through a single act of shaving his father. The main focus of the story is the father-son relationship, as well as the succession of leadership and change in authority. The transition to adulthood is always a painful and uncomfortable experience, especially if it entails taking over a position of authority, more importantly in a patriarchal world. The son sets out to take over the father’s role in the family as the responsible adult. 

The act of shaving is not simply it but represents this transition and the epitome of this relationship. The process of shaving is described in meticulous detail, as the author himself says in the story. The tools are washed thoroughly, the soap prepared, the razor replaced and the towel readied. All this detail points out how important this act is to Barry as well as his father, along with the fact that this is the first time he’ll be shaving his father. Barry’s attention to detail also shows his respect and concern for this father. Barry recalls his father shaving and he has always admired his father for this act, based on how careful and fastidious he was in the past. The mug in which he kept water is older than Barry’s, and the razor is stained with rust. The brush is also described as old. This state represents the father in his current state, struck with illness and looming death. Barry cleaning all the rust and changing the razor as well as the mug is him readying himself to replace his father as the head of the family. 

Barry is shown a little reluctant in the story to take over his father’s position in the household, through him recalling his childhood, and how he was invisible, not much of a presence on him. But now he is an adult, big for his size and doesn’t need anyone. He walked solidly now, and often alone. He was tall, strongly made, his hands and feet were adult and heavy, the rooms in which all his life he’d moved had grown too small for him. There is a heavy awareness in Barry that his father is dying and that he’ll have to supplant his father. This is also shown in his interaction with the still-outgoing and free Jackie, who has all the time in the world to be young and carefree enough to dally with girls and go have “frivolous” cups of coffee. Barry, however, does not have the freedom to do so, as he has responsibilities now. This settles on him like a big blanket, making his steps heavy.

This act of shaving is accompanied by several questions from the father to Barry, about his age, whether he’s old enough for this, and comments about his strength. “You’ve got good hands,” his father said. “You can trust those hands, they won’t let you down.” As the shaving proceeds, the father is familiarising himself with this version of his son, all ready to grow up, as Barry is familiarising himself too with his father being old and close to death. The span of this act is the epitome of their lives as they’re both familiar with each other as well as strange. At the end of this act, the father, now satisfied that his son will do good, relinquishes all authority and leans onto his son, symbolising that he has given up the position and left it to Barry, instead of the other narrative of a son wrestling away his father’s authority. The picture in this story presents a more wholesome and warm side of the relationship and that it does not have to be a fight to change the authorial role.  

He leaned his head tiredly against the boy’s shoulder. He was without strength, his face was cold and smooth. He had let go all his authority, handed it over. He lay back on his pillow, knowing his weakness and his mortality, and looked at his son with wonder, with a curious humble pride. “I won’t worry then,” he said. “About anything.”

Barry then carefully puts back all the tools and packs them away, as they have done their final and ultimate job. The act of shaving is not merely shaving, but a ritual, a rite of passage, where a boy is finally an adult and is ready to tackle the world. Barry has finally matured and the setting sun shines its warmth onto Barry for one last minute. The setting sun symbolises the father figure and the warmth that is about to leave Barry forever. But it also symbolises that a new day will dawn and Barry will be made afresh and anew. However, in a terminal act, he looks down at his hands, the same hands that had played a game in the morning and shaved his father, and Barry reminisces about how “these had been small bare hands, not very long ago.” 

The act of shaving is Barry’s goodbye to his father, a final parting act. The season of Spring is apt for this act of departure, as it heralds a new future, and brings in fresh life. Although Barry struggles with this newfound maturity, he is shown ready for it by the end of the story. The act of shaving gave him closure and brought peace to the father. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leslie Norris, primarily a poet, has said that he writes “slowly and with great pain, about six poems a year”. He went to school in Coventry, England, and to the University of Southampton, and later served in the Royal Air Force from 1940-1942. He has written a number of books, including collections of poetry and short stories, and plays for the BBC.

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