illustrated portrait of American author J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger

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J. D. Salinger Short Fiction Analysis

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The main characters of J. D. Salinger, neurotic and sensitive people, search unsuccessfully for love in a metropolitan setting. They see the phoniness, egotism, and hypocrisy around them. There is a failure of communication between people: between husbands and wives, between soldiers in wartime, between roommates in schools. A sense of loss, especially the loss of a sibling, recurs frequently. Many of his stories have wartime settings and involve characters who have served in World War II. Some of these characters cannot adjust to the military, some have unhappy marital relationships, and others are unsuccessful in both areas. The love for children occurs frequently in his stories—for example, the love for Esmé, Phoebe, and Sybil. Like William Wordsworth, Salinger appreciates childhood innocence. Children have a wisdom and a spontaneity that is lost in the distractions and temptations of adult life.

Salinger’s early stories contain elements foreshadowing his later work. Many of these stories are concerned with adolescents. In “The Young Folks,” however, the adolescents resemble the insensitive schoolmates of Holden Caulfield more than they resemble Holden himself. Salinger demonstrates his admirable ear for teenage dialogue in these stories.

The reader sees how often members of the Glass family are present in the stories or novelettes. Looking back at Salinger’s early works, one sees how these selections can be related to events in the actual life of Salinger as well as how they contain characters who are part of the Glass family saga.

“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”

An early example is the character of Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” from the collection Nine Stories. The time and setting of this story tie it into the experiences of Salinger abroad during World War II. At the same time, Sergeant X is Seymour Glass. The reader is shown the egotism of the wife and mother-in-law of Sergeant X, who write selfish civilian letters to the American soldier about to be landed in France, requesting German knitting wool and complaining about the service at Shrafft’s restaurant in Manhattan.

This behavior is the same as that of the insensitive wife of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and that of the wife and mother-in-law of “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” The only person who offers love to Sergeant X is the brave British orphan Esmé, who sings with a voice like a bird and offers him the wristwatch of her deceased father. Esmé is too proper a British noblewoman to kiss Sergeant X, but she drags her five-year-old brother, Charles, back into the tearoom to kiss the soldier good-bye and even invites him to her wedding, five years later. Esmé’s love restores Sergeant X from the breakdown that he suffered from the war. The gestures of love from Esmé lead to Sergeant X finally being able to go to sleep, a sign of recovery in the Glass family.

The love of Esmé is contrasted to the squalor of the other people around Seymour. His wife, “a breathtakingly levelheaded girl,” discourages Sergeant X from attending the wedding of Esmé because his mother-in-law will be visiting at the same time (another selfish reason). The “squalor” that is contrasted to the pure, noble love of Esmé is also exemplified in the letter of the older brother of Sergeant X, who requests “a couple of bayonets or swastikas” as souvenirs for his children. Sergeant X tears up his brother’s letter and throws the pieces into a wastebasket into which he later vomits. He cannot so easily escape the squalor of the “photogenic” Corporal Z, from whom readers learn that Sergeant X had been released...

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from a hospital after a nervous breakdown. Corporal Clay, the jeep-mate of Sergeant X, personifies even more the squalor that Sergeant X is “getting better acquainted with,” in one form or another. Clay has been “brutal,” “cruel,” and “dirty” by unnecessarily shooting a cat and constantly dwelling upon the incident.

Clay has a name that represents earth and dirt. He is obtuse and insensitive. He is contrasted to the spirituality, sensitivity, and love expressed by Esmé. Clay brings news of the officious character Bulling, who forces underlings to travel at inconvenient hours to impress them with his authority, and of Clay’s girlfriend Loretta, a psychology major who blames the breakdown of Sergeant X not on wartime experiences but on lifelong instability, yet excuses Clay’s sadistic killing of the cat as “temporary insanity.” The killing of the cat is similar to Hemingway’s killing a chicken in the presence of Salinger when the two men met overseas. The love of Esmé redeems and rejuvenates Sergeant X from his private hell in this well-written and moving story.

“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”

References to other members of the Glass family tie other stories to the saga of the Glass children. Eloise, the Connecticut housewife in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” had been in love with a soldier named “Walt.” Walt was one of the twin brothers in the Glass family. He had been killed during the war not in battle but in a senseless accident. The central characters in the story are Eloise, a frustrated housewife, living trapped in a wealthy Connecticut home with a man she does not love and her memories of the soldier Walt whom she had loved dearly; and Ramona, her young daughter. Salinger himself was living in Connecticut at the time when he wrote this story.

Ramona may lack the nobility and capacity to show affection that Esmé had, yet she is an imaginative child, with abilities that her mother does not understand or appreciate. Ramona compensates for her loneliness by creating imaginary friends, such as “Jimmy Jimmereeno.” This imaginative spontaneity in Ramona is in danger of being stifled by Eloise. Once when drunk, Eloise frightens her daughter by waking her up during the night after seeing her sleeping on one side of the bed to leave space for her new playmate, “Mickey Mickeranno.” Eloise herself was comforted by memories of her old beloved Walt but did not permit Ramona also to have an imaginary companion. The suburban mother suddenly realizes what has happened to her and begins to cry, as does her frightened daughter. All Eloise has left is the small comfort of her memories of Walt. She now realizes that she had been trying to force Ramona to give up her fantasies about imaginary boyfriends too. In this Salinger story, again there is a contrast between the “nice” world of love that Eloise remembers she once had and the rude, “squalid” Connecticut world in which she is currently living.

The Glass Family Cycle

The The Glass Family Cycle writings of Salinger can be best discussed by dividing them into three sections: his early writings, his great classic works, and the Glass family cycle. The later works of Salinger are more concerned with religion than the earlier ones. Most of these later works deal with members of the Glass family, characters who have elements in common with Salinger himself. They are sensitive and introspective, they hate phoniness, and they have great verbal skill. They are also interested in mystical religion. “Glass” is an appropriate name for the family. Glass is a clear substance through which a person can see to acquire further knowledge and enlightenment, yet glass is also extremely fragile and breakable and therefore could apply to the nervous breakdowns or near breakdowns of members of the family. The Glass family also attempts to reach enlightenment through the methods of Zen Buddhism. Professor Daisetz Suzuki of Columbia University, whose work is said to have influenced Salinger, commented that “the basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do this in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external or superadded. Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion.”

What Seymour, Zooey, and Franny Glass want to do is to come in touch with the inner workings of their being in order to achieve nonintellectual enlightenment. With all religions at their fingertips, the Glass siblings utilize anything Zen-like, and it is their comparative success or failure in this enterprise that forms the basic conflict in their stories. In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” the point made is that Seymour, who has achieved the satori, or Zen enlightenment, is considered abnormal by the world and loved and admired only by his siblings. He is despised by other people who cannot comprehend his behavior. The maid of honor at the wedding that Seymour failed to attend describes him as a schizoid and latent homosexual. His brother Buddy, the only Glass family member attending the wedding, is forced to defend his brother by himself. After enduring all the misinformed verbal attacks on his brother, Buddy replies: “I said that not one God-damn person, of all the patronizing, fourth-rate critics and column writers, had ever seen him for what he really was. A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet.”

The central figure around whom all the stories of the Glass family revolve is Seymour, Seymour alive, Seymour quoted by Zooey, and the memory of Seymour when he is no longer physically alive. Once the Zen experience is understood by the reader, the meaning of earlier stories about the Glass siblings becomes more intelligible as contributing to Salinger’s goal in his later stories. Zen is a process of reduction and emptying of all the opinions and values that one has learned and has been conditioned to that interfere with one’s perceptions.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”

The first Glass story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” is a kind of Koan, one whose meaning the Glass children will be mediating upon for years to come. Seymour is the Bananafish. He has taken in so much from outside himself, knowledge and sensations, and he is so stuffed that he cannot free himself and climb out of the banana hole.

Seymour, in this first story, is married to Muriel and is in a world of martinis and phony conversations in Miami Beach. He discovers that Muriel looks like Charlotte, the girl at whom he threw a stone in his earlier life because her physical loveliness was distracting him from his spiritual quest. He cannot communicate with his wife either. Muriel Fedder was aptly named because her presence serves as a “fetter” to Seymour. The only one with whom he can communicate is Sybil, the young child who is still so uncorrupted by the opinions and values of the world that her clear perceptions give her the status of the mythological Sybil.

Seymour has found, unfortunately, that Muriel Fedder Glass will not serve, teach, or strengthen him, as Seymour’s diary entry before his marriage had indicated: “Marriage partners are to serve each other. Elevate, help, teach, strengthen each other, but above all, serve.” Boo Boo Glass wrote a more admiring tribute to Seymour on the bathroom mirror than one senses from Muriel. Muriel is found reading a Reader’s Digest article, “Sex Is Fun—or Hell.” Marriage to Muriel has turned out not to be a spiritually enlightening experience. The only move that Seymour can make in his spiritual quest is to empty himself totally of all the opinions, values, and drives, of all sensations that distract and hinder him in achieving his spiritual goal. He is best able to move forward in his search by committing suicide and becoming pure spirit. Warren French wrote, “When Muriel then subsequently fails to live up to his expectations of a spouse, he realizes the futility of continuing a life that promises no further spiritual development.”

The critic Ann Marple noted that “Salinger’s first full-length novel, The Catcher in the Rye, emerged after scattered fragments concerning his characters appeared over a seven-year span. For some time now it has been evident that Salinger’s second novel may be developing in the same way.” Salinger wrote of Franny and Zooey: “Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I am doing about a family of settlers in 20th Century New York, the Glasses.” The remaining stories deal with Zen Buddhism and the effort to achieve a Zen-inspired awakening. They continue to deal with Seymour Glass and his influence on his siblings. In addition, the work of Salinger becomes increasingly experimental as he continues to write.

“Franny” and “Zooey”

When “Franny” was first published in the January 29, 1955, issue of The New Yorker, no mention was made that Franny was a member of the Glass family. All the reader knows is that Franny is visiting her boyfriend Lane for a football weekend at an Ivy League college. Lane is an insensitive pseudointellectual who brags about his successful term paper on Gustave Flaubert as he consumes frogs’ legs. Lane is not interested in the religious book The Way of the Pilgrim that Franny describes to him or in hearing about the Jesus prayer that has a tremendous mystical effect on the whole outlook of the person who is praying. The luncheon continues, with Lane finishing the snails and frogs’ legs that he had ordered. The contrast has deepened between the mystical spirituality of Franny and Lane’s interest in satisfying his physical appetites. The reader is shocked at the part of the story when Franny faints. She is apparently suffering from morning sickness. The implication is that Lane is the father of her unborn child.

Almost two and a half years pass before the title character is identified as Franny Glass. “Zooey” was published in the May 4, 1957, issue of The New Yorker. It continued the story of Franny Glass, the youngest of the siblings of Seymour Glass. It is made clear in this story that Franny was not pregnant in the earlier story but was suffering from a nervous breakdown as a result of her unsuccessful attempt to achieve spiritual enlightenment. In “Zooey,” her brother identifies the book that Franny is carrying to their mother as The Pilgrim Continues His Way, a sequel to the other book, both of which she had gotten from the old room of Seymour. Zooey cannot console his sister at first. Franny is crying uncontrollably. Zooey finally goes into the room that had been occupied previously by Seymour and Buddy. Zooey attempts to impersonate Buddy when he calls Franny on the telephone, but Franny eventually recognizes the voice of the caller. Zooey is finally able to convince his sister that the mystical experience she should strive for is not of seeing Christ directly but that of seeing Christ through ordinary people. “There isn’t anyone anywhere who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady,” who is really “Christ himself, buddy.” Reassured by the words of her brother, Franny can finally fall asleep.

In “Franny,” as in many other Salinger short stories, character is revealed through a series of actions under stress, and the purpose of the story is reached at the moment of epiphany, an artistic technique formulated by James Joyce, in which a character achieves a sudden perception of truth. In “Franny,” Salinger uses the theatrical tricks of a telephone in an empty room and of one person impersonating another. He often uses the bathroom of the Glass apartment as a place where important messages are left, important discussions are conducted, important documents are read. It is on the bathroom cabinet mirror that Boo Boo Glass leaves the epithalamium prayer for her brother on his wedding day, from which the title of the story “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters” is taken. The Glass bathroom is almost a sacred temple. Bessie Glass, in the “Zooey” portion of Franny and Zooey, goes in there to discuss with Zooey how to deal with Franny’s nervous breakdown. Buddy closes the bathroom door of the apartment he had shared with Seymour to read the diary of Seymour on his wedding day. He reads that Seymour is so happy that he cannot attend his wedding on that date (although he subsequently elopes with Muriel Fedder). The reader sees in Franny and Zooey the role Seymour played in the lives of his youngest brother and sister, the influence he had over them and their religious education. The reader sees in “Franny” a spiritual crisis in her efforts to retain her spiritual integrity, to live a spiritual life in an egotistical, materialistic society, a society personified by Lane Coutell.

“Franny” can be considered as a prologue to “Zooey,” which carries the reader deeply into the history of the Glass family. The last five pieces that Salinger published in The New Yorker could constitute some form of a larger whole. The narrative possibly could constitute parts of two uncompleted chronicles. One order in which the stories could be read is with Buddy as the narrator, the order in which they were published (this is the order in which Buddy claims to have written them); the other order is the one suggested by the chronology of events in the stories. Arranged one way, the stories focus on Buddy and his struggle to understand Seymour by writing about him; arranged the other way, the stories focus on the quest of Seymour for God. J. D. Salinger has for some years been a devoted student of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, and the teachings of Seymour Glass reflect this study.

If one focuses on Seymour Glass, his spiritual quest, and how this quest is reflected in the behavior and beliefs of his siblings, one sees as a result an unfinished history of the Glass family. Salinger announced, in one of his rare statements about his intentions, on the dust jacket of a later book, that he had “several new Glass family stories coming along,” but, by the close of the century, only “Hapworth 16, 1924” had appeared, in 1965. Readers see in this story the presence of Seymour, a presence that is evident in the four stories published after that time.

These four stories became more experimental in literary technique and are also involved with the Eastern mystical religious beliefs studied by Salinger and promoted by his character Seymour Glass. One interpretation of the stories that deal with Seymour (that of Eberhard Alsen) is that together these selections constitute a modernist hagiography, the account of the life and martyrdom of a churchless saint. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” is the first story to be published after “Franny” and the first to introduce all the members of the Glass family. “Zooey” continues the account of specific events introduced in “Franny,” and the reader learns that the behavior of Franny is influenced by two books of Eastern religion that she found in the old room of Seymour. In “Zooey” the name of Seymour is evoked when Franny wants to talk to him. In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” the reader learns what Seymour has written in his diary, although Seymour is not physically present. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” the reader is offered a much wider range of what he said and wrote, conveyed by his brother Buddy. In “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965, Buddy, now at age forty-six, tries to trace the origins of the saintliness of his older brother in a letter that Seymour wrote home from Camp Simon Hapworth in Maine when he was seven. In giving the reader the exact letter, Buddy provides one with a full example of how things are seen from the point of view of Seymour and introduces the reader to the sensitivity and psychic powers that foreshadow his spirituality. The reader sees the incredibly precocious mind of Seymour, who reflects on the nature of pain and asks his parents to send him some books by Leo Tolstoy, Swami Vivekananda of India, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Makepeace Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Frederick Porter Smith.

“Seymour: An Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924”

In these last two works, “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924,” the reader sees Seymour Glass more closely than anywhere before. The reader sees the brilliance of Seymour, his spirituality, his poetic ability, and his capacity for love. With the character of Seymour, Salinger is trying to create a modern-day saint.

Salinger’s last works received mixed critical reception. Some critics believe that Salinger has lost the artistic ability he had showed during his classic period. His characters write, and others subsequently read, long, tedious letters filled with phrases in parentheses and attempts at wit. Buddy describes “Zooey” as “a sort of prose home movie.” Some critics criticize these last works, calling “Zooey” the longest and dullest short story ever to appear in The New Yorker, but others recognize that Salinger is no longer trying to please conventional readers but, influenced by his many years of study of Eastern religious philosophy, is ridding himself of conventional forms and methods accepted by Western society. In his later years, Salinger has continued to become increasingly innovative and experimental in his writing techniques.


J. D. Salinger Long Fiction Analysis