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.