Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is one of J. D. Salinger’s most romantic and popular stories. In fact, when Salinger’s first collection of short stories, Nine Stories (1953), was published in England, it was retitled For Esmé—with Love and Squalor (1953). Like so many works in the limited Salinger library, this is a story of redemption by love, and, as in most of these works—from The Catcher in the Rye (1951) through “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (also in Nine Stories) to Franny and Zooey (1961)—the saving gesture is made by a child. Children are special in Salinger’s work, for they alone are capable of making the sacrifice of love.

The contrast in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is clear, for all the other characters want something from the narrator; only Esmé gives. The uncommunicative soldiers with whom he is first stationed in Devon talk to one another only when they want to borrow something; the letter from his mother-in-law that he reads in the tearoom asks him “to please send her some cashmere yarn.” Clay wants X to make his letters to his girlfriend more interesting; a letter from X’s brother asks him to send “the kids a couple of bayonets or swastikas,” now that the war is over. The protagonist at the end of the story has just gone through five campaigns, he is barely holding himself together—and people are still making selfish demands on him. Only Esmé...

(The entire section is 503 words.)