With his almost nonchalant suicide at the story's end, Seymour has become one of American literature's most enigmatic characters. ‘‘Why did he do it?'' is a difficult question with which many readers and writers struggle; an overview of the story, however, suggests a few possible routes of inquiry about Seymour's past and present problems.
The reader learns (from Muriel's conversation with her mother) that Seymour served in the United States Army and spent an undisclosed amount of time in a veteran's hospital, presumably for psychiatric evaluation or recovery. Since the story was first published in 1948, the reader can assume that Seymour (like his creator) saw action in World War II that affected him in terrible and unspoken ways. The reader also learns that Seymour tried to crash his father-in-law's car into a tree, attempted some "business" with a window (also presumably self-destructive), said ‘‘horrible things’’ to Muriel's grandmother about ‘‘her plans for passing away,’’ tried to do ‘‘something with Granny's chair’’ and harmed ‘‘all those lovely pictures from Bermuda.’’ Obviously, Seymour is preoccupied with death, a preoccupation that becomes a reality in the final paragraph.
Seymour's war experiences have left him so badly shaken that he searches for some form of purity in what he sees as a dangerous and corrupt world. Thus, his only two friends at the hotel are Sybil and Sharon: two little girls...
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As her first name suggests, Sybil is a seer or prophet-like character, who is able to "see" the bananafish that Seymour describes to her during their swim. Her opening words (‘‘See more glass’’) also suggest her ability to perceive the deeper meaning of experience, a quality that many of Salinger's child characters possess—and one that many of his adult characters lack. (Her mother's reaction to her precocious insight is to tell Sybil things like ‘‘stop saying that'' and then leaving her for a martini.) Her innocence acts as a tonic for the troubled Seymour and her "sighting" of the imaginary bananafish confirms, for Seymour, the degree to which the adults around him are unable to ''see more'' of the world's innocence (her last name may, in part, suggest her "constructive" role in Seymour's enlightenment). Seymour's kissing of Sybil's foot is a gesture of obeisance and a recognition of those qualities in Sybil not found in characters like Muriel, Muriel's mother, and the woman he meets in the elevator.
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Muriel Glass, Seymour's wife, is a shallow young woman who faces pressure from her parents to leave her husband in Florida and return to New York by herself. In the story's opening paragraph, the narrator pokes fun at Muriel's annoyance at the long-distance lines being "monopolized" by the advertising men staying in her hotel. Her activities while she waits for her mother to call (tweezing a mole, removing a spot from a suit, moving a button on her Saks blouse, polishing her nails) suggest her preoccupation with her own appearance. Her answering the telephone only on the ‘‘fifth or sixth ring’’ again accents her vanity.
Muriel's "defense" of Seymour while talking to her mother also suggests much about how she views her husband. Her telling her mother that she let Seymour drive suggests a faith in her husband and a willingness to put his past indiscretions (or worse) behind her. When she speaks of the psychiatrist she met in the hotel, however, she reveals what seems to be a lackadaisical attitude toward Seymour's problems: she does not recall the doctor's name (‘‘Rieser or something’’) and says that she did not really discuss Seymour's troubles with him because the bar was too noisy. The ease with which she then shifts into a conversation about this year's fashions and her hotel room (which is ‘‘just all right’’) suggests a lack of empathy with her husband's plight.
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When Seymour leaves the beach, he takes an elevator to his room. During the elevator ride, he sees a woman whom he accuses of gawking at his feet. After his accusation, the woman says she ''happened to be looking at the floor'' and gets off at the next floor. Presumably, this woman is treated so roughly by Seymour because (unlike Sybil) she hides her emotions and thoughts behind a silly excuse.
Despite the fact that he married her, there is nothing in the story to suggest that Seymour can make any kind of real contact with his new wife: Salinger never puts them in the same scene until the very end, when Seymour (significantly) does not wake her up before killing himself. The characters with whom Seymour does connect, however, are Sybil and Sharon. Sybil's mother reminds the reader of Muriel, for she, too, is more concerned with herself than in protecting her daughter. Seymour can only speak to Sybil because of her innocence and freedom from what he sees as the corruption and phoniness of the world. (This is why Seymour resents the woman in the elevator lying about looking at his feet: a child would simply look at someone's feet without any unease or desire to hide the fact.) After his conversation with Sybil (from which she runs ‘‘without regret,’’ leaving the scene without any compunction or need to engage in the kind of false manners that marks the conversation of Muriel and her mother), Seymour quite possibly realizes that such innocence and...
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Sybil's mother appears briefly: after applying suntan lotion to her daughter's back, she tells her to ''run and play'' on the beach while she goes back to the hotel for a martini. Like Muriel, Mrs. Carpenter is more interested in her own pleasures than in truly making contact with the innocent person whom she has been placed in charge.
Like her daughter, Muriel's mother is a woman concerned with Seymour and his problems, but aloof at the same time. On one hand, she voices concern over Seymour's problems and her daughter's safety; on the other, her proposed solutions to these problems involve Muriel abandoning her husband and taking a ‘‘lovely cruise’’ by herself. (Her adding that Muriel's father is ''more than willing to pay for it,’’ suggests she feels that solutions to psychological problems can be bought.)
Dr. Sivetski is Muriel's family physician. Muriel learns that her father spoke to him about Seymour's mental illness and that Dr. Sivetski warned that Seymour may ‘‘completely lose control of himself.’’
(The entire section is 174 words.)