The main characters of J. D. Salinger, neurotic and sensitive people, search unsuccessfully for love in a metropolitan setting. They see the phoniness, egotism, and hypocrisy around them. There is a failure of communication between people: between husbands and wives, between soldiers in wartime, between roommates in schools. A sense of loss, especially the loss of a sibling, recurs frequently. Many of his stories have wartime settings and involve characters who have served in World War II. Some of these characters cannot adjust to the military, some have unhappy marital relationships, and others are unsuccessful in both areas. The love for children occurs frequently in his stories—for example, the love for Esmé, Phoebe, and Sybil. Like William Wordsworth, Salinger appreciates childhood innocence. Children have a wisdom and a spontaneity that is lost in the distractions and temptations of adult life.
Salinger’s early stories contain elements foreshadowing his later work. Many of these stories are concerned with adolescents. In “The Young Folks,” however, the adolescents resemble the insensitive schoolmates of Holden Caulfield more than they resemble Holden himself. Salinger demonstrates his admirable ear for teenage dialogue in these stories.
The reader sees how often members of the Glass family are present in the stories or novelettes. Looking back at Salinger’s early works, one sees how these selections can be related to events in the actual life of Salinger as well as how they contain characters who are part of the Glass family saga.
“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”
An early example is the character of Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” from the collection Nine Stories. The time and setting of this story tie it into the experiences of Salinger abroad during World War II. At the same time, Sergeant X is Seymour Glass. The reader is shown the egotism of the wife and mother-in-law of Sergeant X, who write selfish civilian letters to the American soldier about to be landed in France, requesting German knitting wool and complaining about the service at Shrafft’s restaurant in Manhattan.
This behavior is the same as that of the insensitive wife of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and that of the wife and mother-in-law of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” The only person who offers love to Sergeant X is the brave British orphan Esmé, who sings with a voice like a bird and offers him the wristwatch of her deceased father. Esmé is too proper a British noblewoman to kiss Sergeant X, but she drags her five-year-old brother, Charles, back into the tearoom to kiss the soldier good-bye and even invites him to her wedding, five years later. Esmé’s love restores Sergeant X from the breakdown that he suffered from the war. The gestures of love from Esmé lead to Sergeant X finally being able to go to sleep, a sign of recovery in the Glass family.
The love of Esmé is contrasted to the squalor of the other people around Seymour. His wife, “a breathtakingly levelheaded girl,” discourages Sergeant X from attending the wedding of Esmé because his mother-in-law will be visiting at the same time (another selfish reason). The “squalor” that is contrasted to the pure, noble love of Esmé is also exemplified in the letter of the older brother of Sergeant X, who requests “a couple of bayonets or swastikas” as souvenirs for his children. Sergeant X tears up his brother’s letter and throws the pieces into a wastebasket into which he later vomits. He cannot so easily escape the squalor of the “photogenic” Corporal Z, from whom readers learn that Sergeant X had been released from a hospital after a nervous breakdown. Corporal Clay, the jeep-mate of Sergeant X, personifies even more the squalor that Sergeant X is “getting better acquainted with,” in one form or another. Clay has been “brutal,” “cruel,” and “dirty” by unnecessarily shooting a cat and constantly dwelling upon the incident.
Clay has a name that represents earth and dirt. He is obtuse and insensitive. He is contrasted to the spirituality, sensitivity, and love expressed by Esmé. Clay brings news of the officious character Bulling, who forces underlings to travel at inconvenient hours to impress them with his authority, and of Clay’s girlfriend Loretta, a psychology major who blames the breakdown of Sergeant X not on wartime experiences but on lifelong instability, yet excuses Clay’s sadistic killing of the cat as “temporary insanity.” The killing of the cat is similar to Hemingway’s killing a chicken in the presence of Salinger when the two men met overseas. The love of Esmé redeems and rejuvenates Sergeant X from his private hell in this well-written and moving story.
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”
References to other members of the Glass family tie other stories to the saga of the Glass children. Eloise, the Connecticut housewife in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” had been in love with a soldier named “Walt.” Walt was one of the twin brothers in the Glass family. He had been killed during the war not in battle but in a senseless accident. The central characters in the story are Eloise, a frustrated housewife, living trapped in a wealthy Connecticut home with a man she does not love and her memories of the soldier Walt whom she had loved dearly; and Ramona, her young daughter. Salinger himself was living in Connecticut at the time when he wrote this story.
Ramona may lack the nobility and capacity to show affection that Esmé had, yet she is an imaginative child, with abilities that her mother does not understand or appreciate. Ramona compensates for her loneliness by creating imaginary friends, such as “Jimmy Jimmereeno.” This imaginative spontaneity in Ramona is in danger of being stifled by Eloise. Once when drunk, Eloise frightens her daughter by waking her up during the night after seeing her sleeping on one side of the bed to leave space for her new playmate, “Mickey Mickeranno.” Eloise herself was comforted by memories of her old beloved Walt but did not permit Ramona also to have an imaginary companion. The suburban mother suddenly realizes what has happened to her and begins to cry, as does her frightened daughter. All Eloise has left is the small comfort of her memories of Walt. She now realizes that she had been trying to force Ramona to give up her fantasies about imaginary boyfriends too. In this Salinger story, again there is a contrast between the “nice” world of love that Eloise remembers she once had and the rude, “squalid” Connecticut world in which she is currently living.
The Glass Family Cycle
The The Glass Family Cycle writings of Salinger can be best discussed by dividing them into three sections: his early writings, his great classic works, and the Glass family cycle. The later works of Salinger are more concerned with religion than the earlier ones. Most of these later works deal with members of the Glass family, characters who have elements in common with Salinger himself. They are sensitive and introspective, they hate phoniness, and they have great verbal skill. They are also interested in mystical religion. “Glass” is an appropriate name for the family. Glass is a clear substance through which a person can see to acquire further knowledge and enlightenment, yet glass is also extremely fragile and breakable and therefore could apply to the nervous breakdowns or near breakdowns of members of the family. The Glass family also attempts to reach enlightenment through the methods of Zen Buddhism. Professor Daisetz Suzuki of Columbia University, whose work is said to have influenced Salinger, commented that “the basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do this in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external or superadded. Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion.”
What Seymour, Zooey, and Franny Glass want to do is to come in touch with the inner workings of their being in order to achieve nonintellectual enlightenment. With all religions at their fingertips, the Glass siblings utilize anything Zen-like, and it is their comparative success or failure in this enterprise that forms the basic conflict in their stories. In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” the point made is that Seymour, who has achieved the satori, or Zen enlightenment, is considered abnormal by the world and loved and...
(The entire section is 3490 words.)