(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” was first published in The New Yorker, to critical acclaim. The story opens with a man receiving an invitation to a wedding that he would like to attend but cannot. He then proceeds to reminisce about being a soldier in England in 1944, taking a training course in Devon, England. Out walking at the end of the course, before shipping out to battle, he wanders the town and stumbles upon a children’s choir rehearsal. He is enchanted by the singing in general and in particular by a thirteen-year-old girl in the choir. He leaves the rehearsal and retreats to a tea shop. As he sits, the girl from the choir practice enters, accompanied by her younger brother, Charles, and their governess. The girl, the Esmé of the story, notices the narrator and comes over to sit with him.

They have a conversation that has a profound effect on the narrator. Esmé confides to him that both parents are dead—their father was slain in Northern Africa, and their mother has recently died. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout this section of the story, notices a watch on Esmé’s wrist that is much too large for her; she confides that it was her father’s, given to her before his death. On discovering that the soldier is a writer, Esmé requests that he write a story for her, saying, “I prefer stories about squalor.” The soldier agrees to write her a story and pens his address for her. Esmé wishes him a safe journey and hopes that he comes back from the war “with all your faculties intact.”

The next section of the story, the...

(The entire section is 653 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story opens in 1950, immediately after the narrator has received an invitation to Esmé’s wedding. He and his “breathtakingly levelheaded” wife have decided that he cannot go, so, instead, he writes these “few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago.”

The story proper (still in the first person) begins in April of 1944. The narrator is one of sixty enlisted men stationed in rural England, undergoing pre-Invasion Intelligence training. On the afternoon of his last day in Devon, he walks through the rain to the small town and wanders into choir rehearsal in a church. There he notices a girl with “the sweetest-sounding” voice, “an exquisite forehead, and blase eyes.” Later the girl, her five-year-old brother, Charles, and their governess come into the tearoom, where the narrator has gone to escape the rain. The girl gives him an “oddly radiant” smile and then comes over to talk with him because he looks “extremely lonely.” Esmé is precious and precocious, her conversation peppered with large words and delightful misinformation about the United States (“I thought Americans despised tea”).

The narrator learns that Esmé is titled, that both her parents are dead (she wears her father’s oversized military wristwatch), and that she is being reared by an aunt. When Esmé finds out that the narrator is a writer, she asks if he would write a story for her and suggests that he “make it extremely squalid and moving.” When she leaves, Esmé asks if he would like her to write...

(The entire section is 633 words.)