For Esme—with Love and Squalor (Magill Book Reviews)
The story is one of the best in Salinger’s NINE STORIES, a remarkable collection depicting varying responses to the meaningless hell that modern life has become for many people. It offers, with subdued sentimentality, a positive response to this hell.
In the first half of the story, the narrator, Sergeant X, meets Esme and her young brother Charles in a Devonshire tearoom just before embarking for the D-Day invasion. The children are orphans, their father having died in the war. Esme has great sympathy for the pain that the loss has caused Charles but shows no self-pity. She says she is training herself to be more compassionate. When she learns that X is a writer, she asks him to write a story for her about squalor.
In the second half, the war has ended, and X, stationed in Bavaria after five campaigns, is having a nervous breakdown. Esme has hoped that he would return from the war with all his faculties intact, but he has not. Borrowing from Fyodor Dostoevski, he defines that hell he is going through as the inability to love.
Then he receives a package from Esme mailed a few weeks after their meeting. She has sent him her most prized possession, her father’s wristwatch. She also includes an affectionate message from Charles, whom she is teaching to read and write.
Esme’s compassion, her ability to reconcile herself to the horrors of the real world, and her gift of love and time move a man who has felt out of touch with any emotions other than despair. If such compassion can exist, Sergeant X can find peace; he can write Esme a story not only with squalor but also with love.
Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Salinger’s style in this story (as in much of his work) is marked by humor, irony, and romantic lyricism. The humor is partly one of situation, particularly in the early scene in the English tearoom. There, the narrator is confronted by Esmé’s little brother, the ingenuous Charles (who asks questions such as, “Why do people in films kiss sideways?”), and by Esmé, whose poise and vocabulary are in sharp contrast to her innocence and ignorance (“when I’m thirty, I shall retire and live on a ranch in Ohio”). Even the scene with Clay, in which X is barely holding himself together in the face of his companion’s crude insensitivity, holds moments of kidding.
A subtler kind of humor derives from Salinger’s tone; the pervasive irony of the story (aided by irony’s companion, understatement) helps to deflect its implicit sentimentality. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?” Esmé asks about the story that the narrator has promised to write for her. “I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time”—which is an ironic and understated way to talk about the “squalor” of war that the protagonist experiences.
Finally, Salinger’s style is characterized by romantic lyricism. This is, after all, a story of orphans in wartime, a sensitive hero surrounded by vulgarity, a man on the edge saved by a child. It is also a love story, even a story of thwarted love (because it opens with the announcement of Esmé’s marriage to another). While with one hand Salinger muffles the romantic dimension with irony and understatement, with the other he pulls out stops on the stylistic organ, especially in the voice of Esmé. His shift from first person to third in the last half of the story is undoubtedly an attempt to gain distance from the melodramatic action, but even here Esmé’s language, in her letter to Sergeant X, breaks through:Charles and I are both quite concerned about you; we hope you were not among those who made the first assault upon the Cotentin Peninsula. Were you? Please write as speedily as possible.
Esmé has been known to make grown readers cry.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Alexander, Paul. Salinger: A Biography. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999.
Alsen, Eberhard. A Reader’s Guide to J. D. Salinger. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Belcher, William F., and James W. Lee, eds. J. D. Salinger and the Critics. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1962.
French, Warren T. J. D. Salinger. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J. D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988.
Kotzen, Kip, and Thomas Beller, eds. With Love and Squalor: Fourteen Writers Respond to the Work of J. D. Salinger. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.
Lundquist, James. J. D. Salinger. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.
Steinle, Pamela Hunt. In Cold Fear: “The Catcher in the Rye” Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000.
Sublette, Jack R. J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981. New York: Garland, 1984.