“The Moustache” by Robert Cormier: Summary, Analysis & Themes of Short Story

Robert Cormier’s story “The Moustache” is about a young man who goes to visit his deteriorating grandmother in a nursing home. It’s a popular short story for students.

Summary of “The Moustache”

Mike’s mother inspects him before he goes to visit his grandmother at Lawnrest Nursing Home. He passes although she takes issue with his hair and moustache. She thinks a seventeen-year-old doesn’t need a moustache. He grew it to prove he could, and now he also likes it. It makes him look older.

His grandmother is seventy-three, and her body and mind are failing. She often can’t recognize people anymore. Mike’s mother visits almost every day, but he hasn’t been there yet so he’s going to go. He’ll have to take the highway, so he looks forward to getting the car up to seventy-five.

As he approaches Lawnrest, he feels guilty about not really wanting to be there, among other things. The building doesn’t smell like a hospital; it smells like nothing. He gets directions at reception and then looks for his grandmother’s room. He’s nearly hit by an old man in a wheelchair. Seeing the residents in their rooms depresses him.

His grandmother lights up when he enters her room, and she greets him by name, which relieves Mike. She’s very frail. She’s been watching birds at the feeder outside her window. Mike looks out, but there’s nothing there. She comments on his love of clothes because he’s wearing a nearly new raincoat.

Mike feels uncomfortable with her emotional welcome and look of intensity. She remembers when he bought a lovely black coat, but Mike doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

An attendant enters the room with an assortment of juices, but the grandmother doesn’t want anything. She talks to Mike like the older woman isn’t there, then leaves some cranberry juice and exits.

His grandmother remembers when he bought a baby grand piano during the depression, and the enjoyment they had from it as a family. Mike realizes his grandmother thinks he’s his grandfather—her husband, who was also named Michael. He died in an accident at thirty-five, nearly forty years ago, and he had a moustache.

She often thinks of him, and how they didn’t have enough years together. Her voice is sad. She also thinks of that terrible night they had, and wonders if he forgave her. She’s been waiting for this moment, and asks Mike to forgive her. She had made accusations about another woman, which Mike denied. She didn’t believe him, but found out later he was innocent. Things were never the same between them after that. She was too proud to ask for forgiveness.

Mike realizes his grandmother is a real person, not just as he knows her, but an individual with her own life. She begs for forgiveness, and he gives it.

He understands real love for the first time. He kisses her cheek. He stays a while, but they don’t talk anymore and she doesn’t seem to recognize him now. He leaves without saying anything.

On the way home he drives fast and plays the radio loud. At home, his mother asks about the visit. He says his grandmother was fine, looked good and seemed happy. He wants to know if his mother and father really love each other, that there isn’t anything that needs forgiving. He doesn’t ask.

Mike goes up upstairs, takes out his electric razor, and shaves off his moustache.

Theme: Guilt

Guilt is one of the most obvious themes in the story. Mike tells us directly, “I’m loaded with guilt complexes.”

He feels guilty about driving fast when he told his father he wouldn’t. He feels guilty over not wanting to visit his grandmother. He also feels guilty about letting his grandmother believe he’s someone else. Mike’s guilt, though, merely sets up the extreme guilt felt by his grandmother.

She’s felt guilty most of her life, ever since the night she made an unfounded accusation against her husband. Now that her mind is deteriorating, she’s been waiting for an opportunity to see him again, to ask for forgiveness. This has become an obsessive thought for her, suggesting its great importance as her biggest regret. The incident created a rift in their relationship that never went away.

Once she gets Mike to extend his forgiveness, she relaxes and it seems to snap her out of her delusion. Her mind can now rest from this obsession, and she’s freed of her guilt before she dies.

Theme: Aging

The effects of aging are seen in Mike’s grandmother. She used to do things, have interests and preferences, but now her individuality has been stripped away.

She can’t remember people or even recognize family on her “bad” days. Her world has shrunk as she’s now confined to a nursing home.

The other residents Mike sees look frozen in their postures, almost like they’re dead.

Mike’s grandmother doesn’t recognize him when he visits, mistaking him for her long-deceased husband. She also believes she’s looking at birds outside her window when there are none.

We see how the elderly are viewed when the attendant comes in. She talks about the grandmother like she isn’t there, and winks at Mike as if they’re in on some joke. She ignores the grandmother’s refusal of the juice, leaving some anyway.

Prior to the unsettling incident with his grandmother, Mike had a dismissive view of the elderly as well. He realizes after that she’s a person with a life outside of her relationship to him.

Theme: Coming of Age

Mike is on the verge of adulthood, but he’s not quite there yet.

Mike is maturing but he’s still viewed as a kid by most people. His mother treats him this way when he has to undergo an “inspection” before going out. He likes that his sister’s boyfriend, Harry, treats him “like a regular person”, implying that other people don’t.

Mike is still driving his father’s car, and his girlfriend is impatient that he doesn’t have his own.

Mike grows the moustache to prove to people he can, that is, to prove he’s mature enough. His first experience with looking more mature doesn’t go well, foreshadowing further difficulties later. He has to pay full price at the movies, which he can’t afford, and his girlfriend doesn’t really care for the moustache, either.

Mike’s immaturity is also seen in his ambition “to see the speedometer hit seventy-five.” The experience with his grandmother reinforces this immaturity, and he does eighty on the way home.

The culminating incident with his grandmother is a coming of age moment for Mike. When she’s been forgiven, he sees real love for the first time. Although this doesn’t make him a grown up immediately, it will change how he sees the world and people.

Why does Mike shave off his moustache?

Before he visits his grandmother, Mike tells us he wasn’t thinking about shaving it. This tells us something about the experience with her changed his mind.

It becomes clear if we look at why he grew it in the first place. It was to prove he could, that is, to look like an adult and he likes the effect. But this is only an outward sign of maturity.

His visit with his grandmother throws some “adult” issues at him that he’s not ready for yet—the effects of aging, guilt and regret, most notably. This was brought on by his moustache. The thing that made him feel grown up ended up making him realize he wasn’t grown up yet. Shaving it off can be interpreted as a sign that he realizes he still has some maturing to do.