A Perfect Day for Bananafish

by J. D. Salinger

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309

Salinger has a strong sense of the dramatic, and he often constructs his stories as though they were plays. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” one finds the elements of a three-act play, the third act of which has two scenes. Salinger appears to have an inherent understanding of dramatic technique, and he is able to integrate this into his writing of short stories.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” demonstrates how well Salinger uses specific detail in his work. The first section of the story is particularly strong in its use of such detail. Salinger turns Muriel’s polishing of her fingernails into a carefully detailed and telling act that reveals her personality extremely well. The reader immediately sees in Muriel a woman in control. When the telephone rings, she does not have the immediate response that is common to most people in twentieth century society. She lets it ring until she has done what she has to do; then, with complete mastery of the situation, she answers the phone.

Muriel also controls quite convincingly the telephone conversation with her mother, who certainly is a woman of strong convictions and definite personality. Salinger is particularly deft in not allowing readers to see Muriel and Seymour in any sort of interaction. The only time they are together in the story, Muriel is asleep. By handling his materials in this way, Salinger leaves it to the reader to suppose what their times together must have been like.

Salinger’s wit helps to build his readers’ impressions of Muriel. He tells them that she does not drop everything to answer a telephone, that “she looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.” Perhaps Salinger’s greatest triumph in terms of technique is that he always evinces a respect for the intellectual capacity of his readers.

A Perfect Day for Bananafish

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J. D. Salinger’s America is a loveless place that provides little opportunity for romantic or spiritual achievement. Seymour Glass is a poetic saint caught in a stifling marriage to Muriel, whom he has dubbed “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948.” Their honeymoon only emphasizes their separateness and the impossibility of real intimacy between them: While an unfeeling Muriel concerns herself with drying her nails and gabbing on the phone with her mother about her new husband’s questionable sanity, Seymour roams the beach. There he meets and courts the affection of a little girl, Sybil Carpenter, whose innocence and natural sympathy for his loneliness both please him (he plants a kiss on her ankle) and force him to weigh a child’s warmth against the bleakness of the adult responsibilities that face him.

The story’s title refers to a tale which Seymour relates to Sybil about mythical fish that presumably swim into holes deep in the ocean floor where bananas are hidden; once there, the bananafish gorge themselves until they are too fat to escape the holes, thereby sealing their doom. Likewise, Seymour is a victim of gluttony: He is so vulnerable to sensation, so overwhelmed by the mysteries of his universe, that he cannot return to society again--especially not as that society is defined by the small-minded concerns of his wife and his mother-in-law.

The shocking end to the story exemplifies what dedicated readers of Salinger have come to appreciate as the intricate relationship between humor and misfortune. On one page, we are laughing at Seymour’s caustic encounter with a woman in the hotel elevator, and on the next we are confronted with his calmly methodical suicide, Seymour’s “banana fever.” Seymour is but one of Salinger’s perceptive, feeling heroes surrounded by people who limit themselves to artificial gestures and shallow desires. It is a perfect day to purge himself of participation in such company.

Historical Context

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The Birth of American Postmodernism
Literary movements rarely begin on clear and set dates; the postmodernist movement was no exception. Loosely defined, postmodernism is an artistic movement that experiments with (and often destroys) traditional modes and methods of characterization and narrative. Postmodernists characteristically believe, for example, that what we see and hear is nothing but an artificial structure that does not represent the world accurately. ''A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’’ published in 1948, is an early example of a postmodernist story in which the key element of the plot (the motive for Seymour's suicide) is conspicuously missing—it challenges the very idea that a writer can enter the mind of a character and make the workings of such a mind understood by a reader.

American Literature and World War II
On September 2, 1945, Japan's formal surrender to the United States ended World War II, a conflict to which authors and filmmakers continue turning today. Norman Mailer's powerful debut The Naked and the Dead (1948), published the same year as ‘‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’’ made its author a celebrity and sparked a new era in which writers attempted to illustrate the devastating effects of the war on those who served in it. Other works, such as Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948), John Hawkes' The Cannibal and James Jones' From Here to Eternity (1951) explore similar themes. Like Salinger's story, they often depict the veteran as a man scarred by what he has seen and, in some cases, unable to reintegrate himself into civilian life.

The American Short Story and Magazines
The 1940s saw a number of magazines become more prominent as a result of their satisfying readers' desires for short stories. Magazines such as Collier's, the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's and Good Housekeeping offered their readers countless stories by both ''hacks'' and masters of the craft: writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O' Hara, and Ernest Hemingway all appeared in popular magazines during their careers.

Two magazines esteemed for their fiction were Esquire and (although it had a smaller readership) Story. A writer whose work appeared in one of these publications could feel proud of his or her achievement, so impressive were these magazines' reputations. Salinger's first story, ‘‘The Young Folks’’ was published in Story's March-April 1940 issue: a small triumph, considering Salinger's age (twenty-one) and the degree to which the magazine's editor, Columbia University's Whit Burnett, was esteemed. Salinger's next magazine appearance was in the July 12, 1941 issue of Collier's: his story, ‘‘The Hang of It’’ confirmed Salinger as an author to watch. More magazine success followed: ‘‘The Heart of a Broken Story’’ in the September 1941 issue of Esquire, ''The Long Debut of Lois Taggett'' in the September-October issue of Story, and ''Last Day of the Last Furlough’’ in the July 15, 1944 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Many other stories appeared in these and other, lesser-known magazines.

While Salinger had conquered the ''slicks'' (as some writers and editors derisively called mass-market magazines), his work had yet to appear in what fiction writers regarded as the Holy Grail of magazines: the New Yorker. The magazine had accepted his story about Holden Caulfield, ‘‘A Slight Rebellion Off Madison,’’ in 1941 but had not suggested to him when (if ever) the story would appear. However, Salinger did break into the pages of the New Yorker in the December 21, 1946 issue with his (by then) five-year-old story. Its publication marked the beginning of Salinger's long relationship with the magazine: ‘‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’’ appeared in the January 31, 1948 issue, followed by ''Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut'' the following March, and ‘‘Just Before the War with the Eskimos'' in June. For the remainder of his publishing career, Salinger's work (including his novellas) appeared in the New Yorker until his last published work, ‘‘Hapworth 16, 1924’’ appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue.

Literary Style

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Every symbol (in life and in literature) is composed of two parts: the symbol (the actual picture, such as a skull and crossbones) and a referent (the thing for which the symbol stands, such as poison). Writers use symbols as a matter of course: things like the river in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Hester's ''A'' in The Scarlet Letter allow readers to better grasp the meanings of each work as a whole.

However, part of what makes ''A Perfect Day for Bananafish’’ so intriguing is Salinger's use of symbols where the referents are highly ambiguous. The most notable example of this is the story of the bananafish itself. Seymour says that these imaginary fish lead ‘‘very tragic’’ lives, since they are ‘‘very ordinary-looking fish’’ until they swim into the banana hole, where they eat so many bananas that they get banana fever (a ''terrible disease'') and then die. This symbolic story of Seymour's is grounds for confusion about the nature of its referents. The bananafish may be symbolic of all people, who (in their fallen state) gorge themselves so much with sensory delights that their souls (or capacity to understand the innocence of someone like Sybil, for example) are figuratively killed by ''banana fever.'' (The sexual symbolism of the story adds weight to this interpretation.) The bananafish may also be symbolic of Seymour himself, who (like many young men) was lured into the ‘‘banana hole’’ of war and figuratively consumed so many of the war's horrors that he is now unable to come out of the hole and reintegrate himself into the world of non-combatants. Either way (or even along other routes), Salinger deliberately leaves the referent of Seymour's symbols open for debate.

Other symbolism occurs in Salinger's use of the color blue. Like the bananafish, however, the symbolic importance of these colors is often ambiguous. Blue is a color often associated with innocence and spirituality (hence, for example, the blue material in which the Virgin Mary is often depicted in religious paintings). Here, Seymour wears a blue bathing suit (and tells Sybil that ‘‘if there's one thing’’ he likes, it's a blue bathing suit) and swims with Sybil in the blue waters of the Atlantic (where, presumably, he is moved by the spiritual purity of his young companion). The fact that Sybil's bathing suit is yellow, however, does not faze Seymour, who tells her, ''That's a fine bathing suit you have on,’’ and feigns stupidity when Sybil corrects him about the color; to him, Sybil's bathing suit may as well be blue, in light of the innocence she embodies.

Another symbol is found in the story's frequent mention of sunburn. Muriel is burned so badly that she ''can hardly move,'' Sybil's mother is first seen putting suntan lotion on her daughter's back, Seymour keeps his robe closed tightly while he lies on the beach, and the woman Seymour accosts in the elevator has zinc salve covering her nose. All of these examples symbolically suggest that as humans attempt to shield themselves from the dangerous rays of the sun, they likewise have varying degrees of success when they attempt to shield themselves from corruption and superficiality, two aspects of the modern world that are as common as sunlight. Thus, Muriel is the most sunburned because she is the most vain and superficial; the innocent Sybil never burns; the elevator woman's nose is protected, but not her whole self (as seen in her lying to Seymour); and Seymour keeps his robe clenched tightly—Salinger's suggestion that Seymour subconsciously fears the corrupting influences of the world as he fears the damaging rays of the sun.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: Magazine fiction is a hot commodity: a nation of readers seeks entertainment in the pages of periodicals like the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire.

Today: Although the New Yorker still stands as the premiere source for cutting-edge short fiction, more and more short story writers find their work first published in specialized literary journals.

1940s: The psychological toll of war on a person's mind is called "shellshock" or ‘‘battle fatigue;’’ some of those suffering from it are labeled cowards by their superiors or the public.

Today: What is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder is widely recognized by psychologists and other doctors as a terrible, but treatable, mental illness.

1940s: J. D. Salinger is known by readers of the New Yorker and other magazines as an up-and-coming talent.

Today: Approximately forty years since Salinger stopped publishing his work and withdrew into private life in Cornish, New Hampshire, his name has become a household word and The Catcher in the Rye still sells more than 250,000 copies every year.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Babbitt, Irving, Rousseau and Romanticism, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919, pp. 215, 308, 319.

Bloom, Harold, ed., J. D. Salinger, Bloom's Bio-Critiques series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002, pp. 50—51.

French, Warren, J. D. Salinger, Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 66-67.

Goldstein, Bernice, and Sanford Goldstein, ''Zen and Nine Stories," in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, p. 86.

Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, ‘‘One Hand Clapping,’’ in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, Harper & Row, 1962, p. 110.

Hamilton, Ian, In Search of J. D. Salinger, Random House, 1988, p. 105.

Hamilton, Kenneth, J. D. Salinger: A Critical Essay, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1967, p. 30.

Kazin, Alfred, ‘‘J. D. Salinger: 'Everybody's Favorite,'’’ in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Bloom's Bio-Critiques series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002, pp. 68—73.

Lundquist, James, J. D. Salinger, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979, pp. 78-79.

Mills, Clifford, ''A Critical Perspective on the Writings of J. D. Salinger,’’ in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Bloom's Bio-Critiques series, Chelsea House Publishers, 2002, pp. 50-51.

Salinger, J. D., Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, Little, Brown and Co., 1963, p. 141.

Wiegand, William, ‘‘J. D. Salinger: Seventy-Eight Bananas,’’ in J. D. Salinger, edited by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, p. 8.

Further Reading
Alexander, Paul, Salinger: A Biography, Renaissance Books, 1999.
This recent biography is based on newly released material from the Salinger archives; in it, Alexander explores the reasons for Salinger's withdrawal from the public eye and whether it was based on a sincere desire for privacy or an attempt to generate publicity.

Hamilton, Ian, In Search of J. D. Salinger, Random House, 1988.
Hamilton's controversial book is partly a biography and partly the story of Hamilton writing the biography: at the last minute, Salinger's lawyers challenged Random House's right to print Hamilton's book and eventually argued their case in federal court.

Kotzen, Kip, and Thomas Beller, eds., With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to the Work of J. D. Salinger, Broadway Books, 2001.
This is a collection of essays in which contemporary authors offer their opinions of Salinger's work and reminisce about what his work has meant to them as students, readers, and artists.

Salinger, Margaret A., Dream Catcher: A Memoir, Washington Square Press, 2000.
This much-publicized memoir by Salinger's daughter offers a glimpse into the mysterious author's role as a father and some of the ways his artistic concerns affected his family.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 130

Alexander, Paul. Salinger: A Biography. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999.

Alsen, Eberhard. A Reader’s Guide to J. D. Salinger. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Belcher, William F., and James W. Lee, eds. J. D. Salinger and the Critics. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1962.

French, Warren T. J. D. Salinger. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.

Hamilton, Ian. In Search of J. D. Salinger. New York: Random House, 1988.

Kotzen, Kip, and Thomas Beller, eds. With Love and Squalor: Fourteen Writers Respond to the Work of J. D. Salinger. New York: Broadway Books, 2001.

Lundquist, James. J. D. Salinger. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979.

Steinle, Pamela Hunt. In Cold Fear: “The Catcher in the Rye” Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2000.

Sublette, Jack R. J. D. Salinger: An Annotated Bibliography, 1938-1981. New York: Garland, 1984.

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