“Shaving the Tale”: Barbers and the Narration of Racial Relations in Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and Chesnutt’s “The Doll”

  • Marta Puxan Oliva Universitat de Barcelona


This essay argues that Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855) and Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Doll” (1912) elaborate narrative form from the racial US trope of the shaving scene. The stories present innovative uses of narrative frameworks, simultaneous silenced and spoken narratives, and misperception and delusion in order to produce a narrative ambivalence that contains the conflict of African American barbering as a trade. The essay traces the historical controversy about barbering within African American political debates and the development of the trade from the eighteenth century up to the twentieth so as to disclose the ambivalent position of African American barbers serving white costumers. Black barbers saw themselves as businessmen helping to build an African American middle class, but were eventually accused of servilism and compliance with established racial hierarchies. This essay demonstrates that by deploying the shaving scene and the razor as the epitome of this ambivalence, these stories offer a narrative form that singularly expresses this particular conflictive labor and racial situation.Keywords: African American literature; narrative theory; labor history; barbers; race relations

Author Biography

Marta Puxan Oliva, Universitat de Barcelona
Marta Puxan-Oliva (PhD, 2010) is a Postdoctoral Marie Curie Fellow. She worked in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University (2012-2015) and is currently in the Departament de Filologia Romànica at the Universitat de Barcelona. She specializes in narrative theory and racial studies. She has published in Mississippi Quarterly, Amerikastudien, Els Marges, L’Époque Conradienne, and Journal of Narrative Theory. She is finishing a book manuscript entitled Narrative Reliability, Racial Conflicts, and Ideology in the Modern Novel.


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