James Purdy’s “Cutting Edge” and Hemingway’s iceberg (tip 74) 2

D.D. Johnston discusses James Purdy’s short story “Cutting Edge” as an example of how a seemingly insignificant conflict can make for high drama when it stands for something bigger. In “Cutting Edge” the question of a young man’s beard becomes the symbolic terrain on which an inter-generational battle is fought. The story is about moral values and the future of America, but all of this is left unsaid, lurking below the water – after all, when people argue they rarely refer explicitly to what they’re really arguing about. In this sense, Purdy’s short story can be said to demonstrate Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg principle.” You can read the full story here.

Video transcript follows below:

James Purdy’s “Cutting Edge” is a story about a guy’s beard. A young man visits his parents, wearing a beard. The mother doesn’t like the beard and urges him to shave it off. The son wants to keep the beard. This is the key conflict in the story. Eventually he shaves. That’s it. It’s several thousand words long, and nothing else happens. The whole story is about this guy’s beard.

I’ll show you the start:

Mrs. Zeller opposed her son’s beard. She was in her house in Florida when she saw him wearing it for the first time. It was as though her mind had come to a full stop. This large full-bearded man entered the room and she remembered always later how ugly he had looked and how frightened she felt seeing him in the house; then the realization it was someone she knew, and finally the terror of recognition.

He had kissed her, which he didn’t often do, and she recognised in this his attempt to make her discomfort the more painful. He held the beard to her face for a long time, then he released her as though she had suddenly disgusted him.

“Why did you do it?” she asked. She was, he saw, almost broken by the recognition.

“I didn’t dare tell you and come.”

“That’s of course true,” Mrs. Zeller said, “It would have been worse. You’ll have to shave it off, of course. Nobody must see you. Your father of course didn’t have the courage to warn me, but I knew something was wrong the minute he entered the house ahead of you. I suppose he’s upstairs laughing now. But it’s not a laughing matter.”

Mrs. Zeller’s anger turned against her absent husband as though all error began and ended with him. “I suppose he likes it.” Her dislike of Mr. Zeller struck her son as staggeringly great at that moment.

He looked at his mother and was surprised to see how young she was. She did not look much older than he did. Perhaps she looked younger now that he had his beard.

“I had no idea a son of mine would do such a thing,” she said. “But why a beard, for heaven’s sake,” she cried, as though he had chosen something permanent and irreparable which would destroy all that they were.

“Is it because you are an artist? No don’t answer me,” she commanded. “I can’t stand to hear any explanation from you….”

“I’ve always wanted to wear a beard,” her son said. “I remember wanting one as a child.”

“I don’t remember that at all,” Mrs. Zeller said.

“I remember it quite well. I was in the summer house near that old broken-down wall and I told Ellen Whitelaw I wanted to have a beard when I grew up.”

“Ellen Whitelaw, that big fat stupid thing. I haven’t thought of her in years.”

Mrs. Zeller was almost as much agitated by the memory of Ellen Whitelaw as by her son’s beard.

“You didn’t like Ellen Whitelaw,” her son told her, trying to remember how they had acted when they were together.

“She was a common and inefficient servant,” Mrs. Zeller said, more quietly now, masking her feelings from her son.

“I suppose he liked her,” the son pretended surprise, the cool cynical tone coming into his voice.

“Oh, your father,” Mrs. Zeller said.

“Did he then?” the son asked.

“Didn’t he like all of them?” she asked. The beard had changed this much already between them, she talked to him now about his father’s character, while the old man stayed up in the bedroom fearing a scene.

“Didn’t he always,” she repeated, as though appealing to this new hirsute man.

This is about one fifth of the story. And, seriously, nothing else happens. The guy has a beard, eventually he shaves. That’s it. There’s very little description of the setting or the characters’ appearance, it’s mostly dialogue, and it’s about a beard. Yet – seriously – ‘Cutting Edge’ is intense and dramatic, disturbing even, and all in all quite a bit more interesting that a story about a beard has any right to be. How come?

We can note that the story follows our classic structure. Purdy applies Chekhov’s Razor, and the story starts when it starts: when the son turns up wearing the beard. It doesn’t start with him getting on the train, or his mum tending the geraniums: it starts when it starts. And it’s totally focused: The opening line of the beard story is: “Mrs. Zeller opposed her son’s beard.” The conflict is introduced straight away and maintained throughout. The whole story is about the conflict between the parents and son, which is fought out on the symbolic terrain of the beard. And the tension develops up to a climax: the son shaves his beard, hacking roughly at his face and leaving scars. Then he shouts: “I hate and despise what both of you have done to yourselves, but the thought that you would be sitting here in your middle-class crap not even speaking to one another is too much even for me. That’s why I did it, I guess, and not out of any love. I don’t want you to think that.” And the story ends a few lines later.

But one other thing I want to mention is that whatever your story is about, has to really matter to the characters. The beard matters.

Suppose Mrs. Zeller suggests the son shaves off his beard because maybe he’d look better without it. And the son says, you’re probably right, I’ll do it before I go back to New York, and they have a bit of a laugh about it. That wouldn’t be that interesting. The story’s intensity comes from the fact that the characters really really care about this beard. The mother is actually disturbed ‘disgusted’ ‘terrified’ by the son’s beard, she would always remember how ugly he looked, and the son, seeing the pain the beard causes her, stubbornly refuses to shave it off. The father pleads with him to shave it, just to please his mother. “Don’t you see how it is?’ he says ‘She doesn’t speak to either of us now and if you’re still wearing the beard when you leave it’s me she will be punishing six months from now.” When the son finally relents, he hacks the beard off leaving scars and cuts on his face. So the beard matters; it really really matters to the characters.

Why?! It’s just a beard for goodness sake. Who cares, right? Evidently this beard isn’t just a beard. The son associates his beard with Ellen Whitelaw. The mother definitely didn’t like Ellen Whitelaw and, though nobody ever refers to it directly, we get the impression that the father might have had an affair with her or something like that. Possibly that he had affairs with quite a few of the servants. Whatever, it’s evident that there is no real affection between Mr and Mrs Zeller. Perhaps they have stuck together all this time for the sake of respectability and their son.

Now their son has gone off to New York and is living some bohemian life trying to be an artist. He’s pissing on their values and the sacrifice of twenty years of unhappy marriage with his lifestyle. Listen, they devoted themselves to that boy for twenty years. They tried to bring him up right, you know? And now he sunbathes naked. He sunbathes naked. He disgraces them in front of his neighbours, flaunting his lifestyle with that beard. And he’s not their little boy anymore. He’s like a stranger. They hardly recognise him in that beard.

Listen, he is the outcome of the last twenty years of their lives. The little boy who kept them together at the time of Ellen Whitelaw and they sacrificed so much and it was for nothing because he blames them for his unhappy childhood and he rejects their values. And not only does he reject their values, he rubs their faces in it. Literally, he rubs his mother’s face in his beard; when he kisses her he holds the beard to her face. The beard. That hateful hateful hateful beard.

Equally, for the son, the beard is his independence. It’s his adulthood. It’s a visible sign that he’s escaped that unhappy childhood home. That he’s escaped the bourgeois values that have left his parents so unhappy. He’s not going to end up living some dreadful loveless suburban life! He’s making his own way in the world, choosing his own path, and he’s damned if he’s shaving off that beard!

And this is a very important point for a writer: You know when people say, “We always seem to argue about nothing?” What they are really saying is that when they argue they do not refer explicitly to what they are arguing about. This is a hugely important point for a writer to remember. The real causes of our arguments usually remain unspoken, unthought. We fight our battles on symbolic terrain and afterwards we often can’t explain why these things mattered so much.

Ernest Hemingway spoke of the “iceberg principle”: the idea that most of a good story lies under the water, with only the top ten percent exposed on the surface. Many of the best stories focus on mundane incidents with an intensity which implies that a great mass of ice is hidden just out of view.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses an image by Michael Howard of NVM Illustration. It is covered by a Creative Commons License and you can find more of his work here: http://www.nvm-illustration.co.uk/


  1. To me this is another example of the gap between expression and meaning. I often think that words are not meaning, rather they are symptoms of meaning, the same way a cough can be a symptom of a disease/cold. More words help us narrow down the range of possible meanings, but it’s only ever a guess. In the conventions of a story being equal parts Milieu/setting, Idea, Characters, and Events/Plot, the MICE quotient, I think this post is really describing the idea aspect, the underlying meaning that is implied.


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