For Esmé—with Love and Squalor

by J. D. Salinger

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Listening, I scanned all the children's faces but watched one in particular, that of the child nearest me, on the end seat in the first row. She was about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house.

The quote above introduces readers to Esmé, though we don't know at the time who she is. The amount of space the speaker devotes to her in the passage, however, indicates that she will come up again later in the story. She is described as an innocent child of thirteen, singing in a church choir. She has a beautiful voice. Her description alludes to the fact that she is on the cusp of adulthood, and her "blasé eyes" and knowing quality—the speaker thinks she might have coolly assessed and tallied the number of people in the audience—shows her to be perceptive.

The description, which infers that she is pretty—especially her "exquisite forehead"—raises the reader's curiosity about her. It is Salinger's eye for such details and his narrator's willingness to dwell on them (at least early in the tale) that makes the story come alive.

Squalor. I'm extremely interested in squalor.

Esmé converses with the narrator in a teashop in Devon—another place, like the church, that represents the innocence of a peaceful English village that, despite being touched by war, has not been scarred by it. In the course of their conversation, Esmé—whose actions and words articulate her endearing fluctuation between innocence and sophistication—asks the narrator to write a story with her in it. She tells him that she likes "squalor."

At this point, neither of them know anything real about squalor—it is simply a term that the girl has picked up from the world around her. Yet it becomes, ironically, a bridge statement: spoken in innocence in a quiet teashop, it later constitutes a reality that characterizes the narrator's life in a war zone in Germany. Talking about squalor and experiencing it are two different things. Esmé throws out a word—squalor—as an innocent gesture, but this evocation then transforms into a sinister, destructive reality when it later materializes in the soldier's wartime experiences.

He was rather like a Christmas tree whose lights, wired in series, must all go out if even one bulb is defective.

This is a striking simile. The narrator, now detached and alienated from himself, refers to himself as "Staff Sergeant X." He moves from the first-person voice, used in the first part of the story, to speaking of himself in the third person in this retrospective, as if this other self, defined and contorted by his role in the war, is a part of himself that he'd like to be distanced from.

This symbolizes the fact that he hardly knows who he has become after his traumatic war experiences. Nevertheless, he knows he is like a string of Christmas tree lights: once bright and joyful, but after one part of him was damaged, the whole of him no longer functions as it once did. It is because of this one fracture that all his light has been extinguished.

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