A Perfect Day for Bananafish

by J. D. Salinger

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“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” published first in The New Yorker and later in the collection Nine Stories, is one of Salinger’s best-known and most puzzling stories. Although a few generally accepted themes can be identified, critics are widely divided as to the significance of the title, symbolism, and climax of the story.

The story opens with Muriel Glass, the wife of Seymour, oldest of the Glass children, waiting for a telephone call to be put through to New York. When the phone rings, the party on the other end of the line is Muriel’s mother, who is extremely concerned about Seymour’s state of mind and Muriel’s safety. Muriel’s mother is afraid that Seymour will “lose control of himself”—evidently with good reason. Seymour has recently driven a car into a tree, among other alarming acts that Muriel’s mother relates: “That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away. What he did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda . . . what he tried to do with Granny’s chair.” During the course of the conversation the reader learns that Seymour was in Europe during the war and afterward was placed in an Army hospital, presumably as a psychiatric case. The Army apparently decided that Seymour was well enough for release, but his behavior remains erratic, at least by Muriel’s mother’s account. Muriel herself does not seem overly concerned, but she promises to call her mother “the instant he does, or says, anything at all funny,” as her mother puts it, before Muriel hangs up.

The scene then shifts to the beach outside the hotel, where Seymour is lying on his back in his bathrobe. Sybil Carpenter, a little girl Seymour has befriended, approaches him and says, “Are you going in the water, see more glass?” Sybil is fascinated with Seymour’s name, and she keeps repeating it like some kind of incantation: “Did you see more glass?” After some seemingly disconnected banter about the color of Sybil’s bathing suit and the lack of air in Seymour’s rubber float, Seymour takes Sybil down to the water. As they begin to wade in, Seymour tells Sybil, “You just keep your eyes open for any bananafish. This is a perfect day for bananafish.” Bananafish, explains Seymour,lead a very tragic life. . . . They swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re 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. Can’t fit through the door.

Sybil asks what happens to the bananafish after that. “Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die . . . they get banana fever. It’s a terrible disease.” Just then a wave passes, and Sybil says, “I just saw one.” “My God, no!” Seymour exclaims, “Did he have any bananas in his mouth?” Yes, says Sybil: “Six.” Delighted with Sybil’s answer, Seymour kisses her foot. He then returns her to the beach, goes back to his room where Muriel is sleeping, pulls “an Ortiges calibre 7.65 automatic” from his suitcase, and “fire[s] a bullet through his right temple.” There the story ends.

As previously mentioned, critics have suggested a wide range of interpretations of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Some of the most convincing look at the story in its relationship to Zen Buddhism. The epigraph to Nine Stories

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Nine Stories is the Zen koan, “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” There are numerous allusions in the story to the Buddhist concept of the “wheel of life,” the ceaseless round of daily existence from which it is the goal of Buddhism to escape. During Seymour’s conversation with Sybil, the girl asks him if he has read the story “Little Black Sambo,” in which six tigers chase one another around a tree until they melt into butter; Sybil also informs Seymour that she lives in “Whirly Wood, Connecticut,” another possible reference to the wheel of life. Sybil’s reading of Seymour’s name as “see more glass” may reflect the Zen emphasis on self-knowledge and insight. The bananafish themselves, whatever else they represent, seem to symbolize the danger of being trapped in the world of physical appetite, from which the only escape appears to be death.

Seymour’s death is the most puzzling element of the story, coming as it does immediately after what appears to be a moment of great joy. This paradox has caused some critics to see Seymour’s suicide as a moment of triumph, of having finally escaped from the wheel of life to some sort of nirvana. Others see it as an act of surrender, in which Seymour is destroyed by the oppressiveness of daily existence, a victim of “banana fever.” Salinger has left no definitive clues by which either interpretation can be proved or disproved—in this sense the entire story may be seen as a Zen koan, intended to aid the reader in approaching truth, rather than to present the truth itself. In Zen, truth cannot be imparted by one person to another; one must achieve enlightenment on one’s own. Whether or not Seymour achieved it Salinger leaves to the individual reader to decide.