Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Salinger has a strong sense of the dramatic, and he often constructs his stories as though they were plays. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” one finds the elements of a three-act play, the third act of which has two scenes. Salinger appears to have an inherent understanding of dramatic technique, and he is able to integrate this into his writing of short stories.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” demonstrates how well Salinger uses specific detail in his work. The first section of the story is particularly strong in its use of such detail. Salinger turns Muriel’s polishing of her fingernails into a carefully detailed and telling act that reveals her personality extremely well. The reader immediately sees in Muriel a woman in control. When the telephone rings, she does not have the immediate response that is common to most people in twentieth century society. She lets it ring until she has done what she has to do; then, with complete mastery of the situation, she answers the phone.
Muriel also controls quite convincingly the telephone conversation with her mother, who certainly is a woman of strong convictions and definite personality. Salinger is particularly deft in not allowing readers to see Muriel and Seymour in any sort of interaction. The only time they are together in the story, Muriel is asleep. By handling his materials in this way, Salinger leaves it to the reader to suppose what their times together must have been like....
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A Perfect Day for Bananafish (Magill Book Reviews)
J. D. Salinger’s America is a loveless place that provides little opportunity for romantic or spiritual achievement. Seymour Glass is a poetic saint caught in a stifling marriage to Muriel, whom he has dubbed “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948.” Their honeymoon only emphasizes their separateness and the impossibility of real intimacy between them: While an unfeeling Muriel concerns herself with drying her nails and gabbing on the phone with her mother about her new husband’s questionable sanity, Seymour roams the beach. There he meets and courts the affection of a little girl, Sybil Carpenter, whose innocence and natural sympathy for his loneliness both please him (he plants a kiss on her ankle) and force him to weigh a child’s warmth against the bleakness of the adult responsibilities that face him.
The story’s title refers to a tale which Seymour relates to Sybil about mythical fish that presumably swim into holes deep in the ocean floor where bananas are hidden; once there, the bananafish gorge themselves until they are too fat to escape the holes, thereby sealing their doom. Likewise, Seymour is a victim of gluttony: He is so vulnerable to sensation, so overwhelmed by the mysteries of his universe, that he cannot return to society again--especially not as that society is defined by the small-minded concerns of his wife and his mother-in-law.
The shocking end to the story exemplifies what dedicated readers of Salinger have come to...
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The Birth of American Postmodernism
Literary movements rarely begin on clear and set dates; the postmodernist movement was no exception. Loosely defined, postmodernism is an artistic movement that experiments with (and often destroys) traditional modes and methods of characterization and narrative. Postmodernists characteristically believe, for example, that what we see and hear is nothing but an artificial structure that does not represent the world accurately. ''A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’’ published in 1948, is an early example of a postmodernist story in which the key element of the plot (the motive for Seymour's suicide) is conspicuously missing—it challenges the very idea that a writer can enter the mind of a character and make the workings of such a mind understood by a reader.
American Literature and World War II
On September 2, 1945, Japan's formal surrender to the United States ended World War II, a conflict to which authors and filmmakers continue turning today. Norman Mailer's powerful debut The Naked and the Dead (1948), published the same year as ‘‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’’ made its author a celebrity and sparked a new era in which writers attempted to illustrate the devastating effects of the war on those who served in it. Other works, such as Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948), John Hawkes' The Cannibal and James Jones' From Here to Eternity (1951) explore...
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Every symbol (in life and in literature) is composed of two parts: the symbol (the actual picture, such as a skull and crossbones) and a referent (the thing for which the symbol stands, such as poison). Writers use symbols as a matter of course: things like the river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Hester's ''A'' in The Scarlet Letter allow readers to better grasp the meanings of each work as a whole.
However, part of what makes ''A Perfect Day for Bananafish’’ so intriguing is Salinger's use of symbols where the referents are highly ambiguous. The most notable example of this is the story of the bananafish itself. Seymour says that these imaginary fish lead ‘‘very tragic’’ lives, since they are ‘‘very ordinary-looking fish’’ until they swim into the banana hole, where they eat so many bananas that they get banana fever (a ''terrible disease'') and then die. This symbolic story of Seymour's is grounds for confusion about the nature of its referents. The bananafish may be symbolic of all people, who (in their fallen state) gorge themselves so much with sensory delights that their souls (or capacity to understand the innocence of someone like Sybil, for example) are figuratively killed by ''banana fever.'' (The sexual symbolism of the story adds weight to this interpretation.) The bananafish may also be symbolic of Seymour himself, who (like many young men) was lured into the ‘‘banana...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: Magazine fiction is a hot commodity: a nation of readers seeks entertainment in the pages of periodicals like the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire.
Today: Although the New Yorker still stands as the premiere source for cutting-edge short fiction, more and more short story writers find their work first published in specialized literary journals.
1940s: The psychological toll of war on a person's mind is called "shellshock" or ‘‘battle fatigue;’’ some of those suffering from it are labeled cowards by their superiors or the public.
Today: What is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder is widely recognized by psychologists and other doctors as a terrible, but treatable, mental illness.
1940s: J. D. Salinger is known by readers of the New Yorker and other magazines as an up-and-coming talent.
Today: Approximately forty years since Salinger stopped publishing his work and withdrew into private life in Cornish, New Hampshire, his name has become a household word and The Catcher in the Rye still sells more than 250,000 copies every year.
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Topics for Further Study
Research Sigmund Freud's ideas of the id, the ego and the superego. To what degree do Seymour's actions reflect these different parts of the mind asserting themselves?
Locate a contemporary casebook that details some of the more commonly diagnosed reasons for suicide and apply some of these reasons to Seymour. Can you explain his suicide in clinical terms?
There is some debate among Salinger scholars concerning the degree to which the Seymour of ''Bananafish'' resembles the Seymour of Salinger's later Glass family fiction. Read some of the other Glass stories and decide if the Seymour that appears in those pages acts and talks like the Seymour in Salinger's original story.
Despite Salinger's desire to live as a recluse, a number of biographers have offered theories as to why Salinger, at the height of his popularity, decided to stop publishing his work. Research and compare some of these theories. Do any of them seem psychologically credible, or are they merely sensational conjecture?
Compose a story that begins the moment after Seymour pulls the trigger. What runs through Muriel's mind when she awakens? What happens to her later in life? How might Seymour's suicide affect her values and assumptions?
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What Do I Read Next?
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is Salinger's most famous work. The novel follows Holden Caulfield, a disaffected prep-school dropout, as he meanders in New York City for three days. Like Seymour, Holden feels alienated from those around him and toys with thoughts of suicide.
Salinger's two novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963) are both narrated by Buddy Glass, Seymour's younger brother. Carpenters tells the story of Seymour and Muriel's wedding, while the Introduction is Buddy's attempt to make the reader appreciate his brother's more elusive qualities.
Franny and Zooey (1961) is another of Salinger's extended examinations of the Glass family. While these two novellas do not directly concern Seymour, they do add to the overall literary universe of which Seymour is undoubtedly the center.
T. S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land" (1922) is quoted by Seymour; as Salinger's story explores the destruction of a single soul, Eliot's poem explores the destruction in an era and civilization.
The British poet John Keats's ‘‘Ode on Melancholy’’ (1813) explores the ‘‘wakeful anguish of the soul,’’ an anguish that Seymour surely feels.
Shakespeare's Hamlet (1601) contains some of the playwright's most moving and introspective soliloquies; Hamlet's famous ‘‘To be or not to be'' soliloquy can certainly be read as an argument...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Babbitt, Irving, Rousseau and Romanticism, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919, pp. 215, 308, 319.
Bloom, Harold, ed., J. D. Salinger, Bloom's Bio-Critiques series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002, pp. 50—51.
French, Warren, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 66-67.
Goldstein, Bernice, and Sanford Goldstein, ''Zen and Nine Stories," in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, p. 86.
Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, ‘‘One Hand Clapping,’’ in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, Harper & Row, 1962, p. 110.
Hamilton, Ian, In Search of J. D. Salinger, Random House, 1988, p. 105.
Hamilton, Kenneth, J. D. Salinger: A Critical Essay, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1967, p. 30.
Kazin, Alfred, ‘‘J. D. Salinger: 'Everybody's Favorite,'’’ in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Bloom's Bio-Critiques series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002, pp. 68—73.
Lundquist, James, J. D. Salinger, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 78-79.
Mills, Clifford, ''A Critical Perspective on the Writings of J. D. Salinger,’’ in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Bloom's Bio-Critiques series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002, pp. 50-51.
Salinger, J. D.,...
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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.
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