What is the theme of "The Laughing Man"?

The theme of coming-of-age dominates "The Laughing Man." Within this theme, Salinger explores disillusionment and the loss of innocence.

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In this story-within-a-story narrative, we are taken back to 1928, when the narrator was nine years old and a member of the Comanche Club. This club for young boys was headed by John Gedsudski, a young man of twenty-two or twenty-three.

Gedsudski was a law school student at NYU who went by the moniker of "The Chief" when presiding over Comanche Club activities. It's clear at the beginning of the story that the narrator idolized the Chief during his time as a member of the club. He describes Gedsudski as an Eagle Scout and an "almost" all-American tackle.

Accordingly, the Chief had also been invited to try out for the New York Giants baseball team. In all, the Chief was the classic authority figure and role model for the impressionable boys under his charge.

As for his physical appearance, Gedsudski was a disappointing five foot three or four. He had an uncharacteristically large, bulbous nose, and although he possessed powerful shoulders, he failed to command attention.

Yet the narrator hastily assures us that the Chief possessed all the most photogenic features of the era's movie stars. One thing that really held the narrator and his young peers in thrall, however, was Gedsudski's story-telling abilities. The Chief's Laughing Man tales always evoke admiration in the narrator and his peers.

The narrator and his friends live vicariously through the Laughing Man character. They imagine themselves as invincible as the Laughing Man, who transcends a less than auspicious beginning to outwit those who sought his marginalization and ultimate destruction. In their hearts, they are the "legitimate living descendants" of The Laughing Man.

Unbeknownst to the narrator at the time, the Chief also lives through his Laughing Man character. As his alter-ego, the Chief transforms himself into a fearsome, powerful figure. Four confederates with various disabilities served the Laughing Man faithfully. They were Black Wing (a timber wolf), Omba (a dwarf), Hong (a giant Mongolian), and a gorgeous Eurasian girl.

Interestingly, the Eurasian girl remains nameless and suffers from an unrequited love for the Laughing Man. Just as interestingly, the Chief initially refuses to divulge the place Mary Hudson holds in his heart. When the two break up at the end of the story, we finally understand the reason for the Chief's reticence.

The Chief's final installment of the Laughing Man story is thought-provoking, revealing a man who prevails over his enemies, even in death. Correspondingly, although the Chief suffers a "mortal blow" when his relationship with Mary Hudson ends, his spirit remains unbowed by the experience. In pulling off his "mask" before his death, the Laughing Man quite literally has the last laugh. He dies a proud man, having vanquished his enemies while keeping his identity intact.

Thus, although the loss of innocence may have led to disillusionment, maturity leads to greater clarity and self-acceptance.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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