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Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

In the beginning of the story, an invitation to a wedding in England has prompted a soldier in the American Army to contemplate, briefly, a return visit overseas. Though he decides not to go, he also determines to jot down some "revealing notes on the bride as [he] knew her...

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In the beginning of the story, an invitation to a wedding in England has prompted a soldier in the American Army to contemplate, briefly, a return visit overseas. Though he decides not to go, he also determines to jot down some "revealing notes on the bride as [he] knew her almost six years ago."

This story was published in The New Yorker in April of 1950, and the narrator specifically says that he is recollecting his time in England in April of 1944, when he was taking a training course in Devon, directed by British Intelligence. In London, just prior to receiving his assignment, the narrator finds himself in front of a church, and he learns that a children's choir is practicing. He goes in and listens to the choir, noting one girl, especially, whose voice stands out among the rest.

Afterward, the narrator goes to a tea shop, and the girl from the choir, her brother, and their governess enter a few minutes later. The girl, quite poised, walks over to the narrator's table and accepts his invitation to join him. He notices that she's wearing a large man's wristwatch, and she tells him that her father died in North Africa some years ago and that her mother passed away more recently. She tells him that she's going to be a jazz singer, and she ignores the governess's attempts to compel her to return to their table. She is quite precocious, and though only thirteen years old, she acts, or tries to act, as though she is much older.

The girl, whose name is Esmé, asks the narrator a number of personal questions and is thrilled to learn that he is a writer; she asks him to write a story just for her, and she (rather enigmatically) informs him that she loves stories about squalor. She promises to write to the narrator soon and looks forward to receiving her story. Esmé also tells him that she hopes he returns from the war "with all [his] faculties intact."

Now, the narrator says, comes the "squalid, or moving, part of the story, and the scene changes." He is now in Bavaria, Germany, and V-E Day has taken place—though he writes about himself in the third person as Staff Sergeant X. He has had a nervous breakdown and has developed a significant palsy in his hands and his face is affected by muscular tics. He keeps to himself now, traumatized by his experiences in the war, and does not seem to take much interest in anything, even in his former friends. One friend invites him to come and listen to a radio program with some others, but Sergeant X declines.

Once he's alone again, he spots a package on his desk and opens it. Within, he finds a letter from Esmé in which she apologizes for having taken so long—thirty-eight days—to write to him, and she congratulates him on the Allied victory at D-Day. She expresses concern for his well-being and sends her warm regards to his wife. Most notably, though, Esmé includes her wristwatch, offering it up as a "lucky talisman" to help the narrator. Its face has been broken in transit, but he is so touched by her gift that he finds himself suddenly feeling sleepy—feeling able to sleep—and this provides hope that he might "again becom[e] a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact."

From this information, the readers can then infer that Esmé is the bride-to-be from the beginning of the story, and the narration is the story that she asked for six years prior.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653

“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 “squalid, or moving, part of the story” takes place in Bavaria, where the narrator, now named Sergeant X, is quartered with other American soldiers. It is just after V-E Day, and readers find that Sergeant X has been traumatized by his wartime experiences and is suffering a breakdown. He is unable to concentrate, hostile, and depressed. The violence that he has encountered—encapsulated in an anecdote about a cat that one of his fellow soldiers senselessly kills—has rendered him unable to perform the simplest tasks or to conduct the tamest of social interactions.

Sergeant X tries to write a letter, but he cannot complete it and turns his attention to the letters and packages that have piled up on his desk. One stands out in particular—a small package in green paper, readdressed several times over. He opens the package without looking at the return address and inside finds a letter from Esmé. She has written to him fondly and has enclosed her father’s wristwatch as a lucky talisman, saying that it is “extremely water-proof and shock-proof.” Sergeant X finds that the watch’s crystal has been broken en route. He holds it, and the letter, in his hands for a long time and finally feels himself grow sleepy—a sign of returning normalcy. As he states, “You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”

Drawing, as he has, on the experience of war and subsequent trauma, Salinger explores the destructive force of violence. The isolation felt by the soldier throughout the piece—and isolation felt even in the presence of his brothers-in-arms—is typical of Salinger’s other works in which loneliness and depression are characteristics of the protagonist. The hopefulness of the scene with Esmé, and the redemptive, optimistic closing moment of the story, speak to the hunger for human connection. Esmé’s loss of her parents speaks to Sergeant X’s experience of loss through violence; her diminished, yet still resilient innocence, and that of her brother Charles (who includes an affectionate addendum in the letter) provide healing for him, demonstrating the redemptive power of love and caring.

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