Discuss the symbolism in  "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J. D. Salinger.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

J.D. Salinger is  most famous for his novel, A Catcher in the Rye. His development of the Glass family through his short stories intrigued readers. The public was introduced to Seymour Glass, the oldest of the children in the Glass family when in 1948, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" was published. Salinger writes about the other siblings in Nine Stories; however, this is the only story that Seymour actually appears in real time. 

Salinger's writing style demonstrates an economy of words. He uses dialogue to move the story forward with the barest minimum of facts and descriptions. The story is told in third person with the actual narration limited primarily to the conversations between characters.  The setting of the story is Florida in a hotel on the beach in 1948.  Through his materialistic wife Muriel's conversation with her mother,  most of the background of the story is conveyed. 

Seymour is the main character of the story.  Possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress ( a term unknown at the time), Seymour has been in a military hospital.  The couple has come to Florida for rest and for Muriel, a vacation. Muriel is so egocentric that she does not realize the seriousness of her husband's problem.  In contrast, her parents realize that something is terribly wrong with their son-in-law.  References are made to a car accident, to misbehavior with the grandmother, to his stay in the army hospital--all should have significantly impacted Muriel and her treatment of Seymour. 

Seymour is  on the beach.  A young girl, Sybil comes up to him repeating, "Did you see more glass?"  The two characters spend time in the water with Seymour telling Sybil about bananafish:

It is a perfect day for bananafish...they are very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in they behave like pigs.  Why I've known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas. Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again...they die.

Of course, soon Seymour will be dead as well.

Symbolism abounds in the story.  The names of the two characters that actually interact with each other represent more than just the words.  Seymour can see more than the other characters.  He is contemplative and complex, yet possessed of a delicate spirit.  In the end, Seymour shatters like a glass when he commits suicide.

Sybil's name alludes to the mythological sibyls who were blessed with the gift of prophecy and vision.  The child understands Seymour's name.  She is astute and angelic, indicated by the "delicate, winglike blades of her back." The world has somewhat damaged her innocence because she is untethered by the bananafish's deaths and more concerned about her own safety.   To Seymour,  it is just another self-absorbed woman.

Feet are also used as another symbol in the story. Muriel is clad in her mules away from her husband and unaware of his suffering. Sybil and Seymour are bare footed.  Their feet are unbound from the  world's trappings.  Then as now,  bare feet are acknowledged as inappropriatee.  Seymour is stripped of all his humanity and his manners.  One of his last acts in his paranoia is to yell at the woman in the elevator whom he believes is staring at his feet.

And,  the final symbol then becomes Seymour's suicide which shows the complete lack of any real communication.  His violent death is the only act that cannot be misunderstood or ignored.

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A Perfect Day for Bananafish

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