In George Saunders’ short story, The Barber’s Unhappiness, he shows us that individuals can value relationships over superficial appetites. Saunders demonstrates this by allowing us to enter the mind of the main character, Mickey, early in the story. As Mickey is observing women walking past his barbershop he mentally points out what he believes to be their aesthetic flaws. While in the middle of criticizing a particular woman, Miss Hacienda, Mickey pictures a scenario where she has all of his preferred traits, but also has a sexual desire for him. This is the first time the author makes the reader aware of the barber’s deeply flawed internal logic.
One of the main settings in the story takes place at a Driving School that Mickey has been obligated to attend. As one can guess, he is quick to characterize those within his class. The barber describes a guy by the name of Larry Jenks, as “The Happy Guy”. This is due to his enthusiastic personality and willingness to befriend everyone in the class. Mickey then concentrates his attention to an attractive girl in his class, who he describes as a pretty girl. He takes us through a whirlwind of fantasies where she praises his lifestyle and is accepting of his physical inadequacies. Subsequently, as with Miss Hacienda he points out the pretty girls’ imperfections, claiming she was “well, not a fatty, exactly, her body was okay, it seemed solid enough, it was just too big for her head.”
After building the confidence to approach her, they make a brief contact and Mickey avoids her. The narrator makes this apparent by saying, “he went outside and sat in his car, and when she came out with two Cokes pretended to be cleaning the ashtrays until she went away.” (Saunders 148).A month later the barber attends his younger brother’s wedding reception, where is slated by his Uncle Edgar for not being married yet. Uncle Edgar suggests to Mickey that he should “pork some young babe, and if you like it, if you like the way she porks, what the hell, put down roots! What do you care? Love you can learn! But you gotta start somewhere!”
This passage reveals that those around Mickey are cognizant of his inability to seek companionship due to his unrealistic expectations. Following this discussion with his uncle, Mickey comes to the realization that he may be getting old. This situation fuels Mickey to reconsider waiting on his dream girl and embrace the real women in his life. Weeks after his brother’s wedding, Mickey receives an invitation from Jenks to attend an event a bar tomorrow night. The event is a farewell party for one his classmates from his Driving School. His mother, Ma, quickly makes it known that he won’t be attending the event as she will be having her girls, The Altar and Rosary Society, over the house tomorrow night. The barber profusely expresses his intentions of going, but his mother guilt’s him to staying home. He goes to bed undecided on whether he’ll attend the event tomorrow and spends the night fantasizing about the attractive woman in his class. In his dream, she was slim and satisfied all of his sexual demands. After he wakes up, he feels he is truly in love with her. In the morning, he decides to accept the invitation to go to the bar, despite his mother’s wishes.
At the bar, Mickey continues to be entranced by this young woman, he states, “Facially she was very possibly the prettiest girl here.” But while he finds her face attractive, he still feels somewhat repulsed by her body. Mickey spends the rest of the night observing her fondly from across the table, waiting for her to catch him viewing her fondly, so that “he could quickly avert his eyes, so she’d know he was still possibly interested.”
Unconventionally, the barber also turns the attention to himself and begins pointing out some his own flaws. He begins to wonder whether his old age, bad knees, missing toes, and the fact that he still lives with his mother would make her repulsed by him. In doing this, Mickey comes to the realization that she isn’t perfect, but neither is he. I believe this is the climax of the story as Mickey sees himself clearly for the first time. He neglects his self-defeating behavior and begins to plot a way to ask the attractive woman, Gabby, out on a date. In short, his plan entails following her to the lady’s room to catch her alone as she exits. His plan works and they begin a dialogue revolving around Gabby’s hair. Mickey hands her a One Free Cut and Coffee card and suggest they go on a date tomorrow, she agrees.
The conversation ends there, but as they are leaving the bar, Jenks announces his intentions of taking polaroid shots of the entire group so that everyone could have a copy. The barber arrives home from his magical night to old lady cars parked on his driveway. As he walks through the door, his absence becomes the topic of discussion by his mother and her girls. Mickey is berated with triggering questions by the women in the room. As this is going on, his mother grabs his shirt to give him a kiss and his copy of the group photo slips into a bowl of dip. His mother clears the polaroid and begins to question the unfamiliar faces she sees in the photo. She also notices Mickey’s hands are over Gabby’s shoulders in the picture. His mother asks Mickey “Are these the people you went to meet? Who is this you are embracing? This big one.”
Mickey refutes his mother’s comment by saying, “Actually I don’t consider her big.” (Saunders 164). Ma suggests he’s been drinking and continues to converse with her girls. The barber snatches the photo and rushes upstairs to his room and suggests his mother and her super lonely friends didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. In the morning, the barber begins to questions Gabby’s size after he takes a closer look at the group photo. As Mickey cross-examines the photo, he compares the size of her shoulders to another woman in the photo. He quickly reverts his internal dialogue to reflect on her more desirable features. The barber is interrupted by his mother who is relaying a message from a woman that just called to let him know she’ll be running late to their date. Ma asks Mickey if this is the same “fat girl” he was embracing in the picture. She then says, “Call it off. She’s too big for you. You’ll never stick with her. You never stick with anyone.”
This passage reveals that the barber’s mother plays an integral role in his search for companionship. It can be said, that her negative perception of women is what reinforces Mickey to uphold his unrealistic standards. Despite his mother’s comments, Mickey decides to go forward with the date and they meet at his barbershop. On his way to the barber shop, Mickey comes to the realization that his unrealistic expectations for women can be overlooked for someone he truly has a connection with. Mickey makes this apparent by claiming he would sit Gabby down and say, “Look, you have an incredibly beautiful face, intelligent face, but from the neck down, sweetie, wow, we’ve got some serious work to do.”
This passage reveals that although Gabby doesn’t fit the description of his ideal woman, he optimistically is open tackling her physical flaws. The story ends with Mickey opening the door to his barber shop which can symbolize hope or a new beginning. One thing is for certain, the barber hopes beyond hope that the relationship will work out.