illustrated portrait of American author J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

J. D. Salinger 1919–-

(Full name Jerome David Salinger) American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents criticism on Salinger's short fiction from 1989 through 2002. For criticism prior to 1989, see SSC, Volume 2. For discussion of Salinger's novella Franny and Zooey (1961), see SSC, Volume 28.

Among the most celebrated and enigmatic twentieth-century American writers, Salinger is best known for his first and only published novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a defining portrait of adolescent angst and disillusionment in postwar American society. Salinger is also acclaimed as a master of the short story form. His Glass family saga, an interrelated series of stories contained in Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), further established his popularity and spawned a proliferation of critical interest in his work—an “industry” of exegesis that Salinger sought to quell through his self-imposed exile.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Salinger attended New York public schools before enrolling at the exclusive McBurney School on the upper West Side in 1932. He was subsequently sent to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1936. While at Valley Forge, he contributed to the school's literary magazine, served as literary editor of his senior yearbook, and began to compose his first stories. In 1937 Salinger briefly attended New York University, then traveled to Europe where he studied the importing business in Vienna while continuing to write. Returning to the United States after the German invasion of Austria in 1938, Salinger briefly attended Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, leaving after only a single, unhappy semester. In 1939 he enrolled in an evening writing class taught by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine and an influential literary mentor, at Columbia University. Burnett recognized Salinger's talent and arranged for the publication of his first short story, “The Young Folks,” in the March-April 1940 issue of Story. With his professional writing career newly established, Salinger began to place his pieces in magazines such as Esquire, Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping, and Cosmopolitan. He later disavowed and refused to republish any of these stories. In 1941 The New Yorker accepted “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” a short story introducing Holden Caulfield. Salinger revised and delayed publication of this story until 1946. The short story, along with “I'm Crazy,” published by Collier's in 1945, would be incorporated into The Catcher in the Rye.

Salinger was drafted into the army in 1942 and served until the end of World War II, during which he served as an interrogator in the Counter-Intelligence Corps and a participant in the D-Day offensive and the campaign to liberate France. He also continued to produce commercially viable short fiction for popular magazines. Between 1946 and 1951 Salinger lived with his parents and devoted himself to writing, publishing a string of stories in The New Yorker that established him as a foremost “New York writer.” After the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye, a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and best-seller, Salinger began to study Eastern religious philosophy, an abiding interest that significantly colored the tone and outlook of his subsequent short fiction. Repulsed by his literary celebrity and clamoring admirers, Salinger began to withdraw into guarded seclusion during the mid-1950s. “Hapworth 16, 1924,” his final published work, appeared in The New Yorker in June 1965. He has published nothing since, though it is reported that he continues to write for his own enjoyment. Salinger has vigorously litigated against attempts to republish his work and against investigations into his...

(This entire section contains 1319 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

personal life.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Salinger's three collections of short fiction consist of reprints of short stories originally published in The New Yorker.Nine Stories includes two of his most acclaimed, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” along with “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” “The Laughing Man,” “Down at the Dinghy,” “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” and “Teddy.” “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” involves a brief friendship between an American soldier and a charming English girl named Esmé whom he encounters during World War II. While later recovering from combat stress in a military hospital, the soldier, identified as Sergeant X, receives a package from Esmé containing a letter and her dead father's watch. Comforted by Esmé's affection, the soldier, also an aspiring writer, begins to recover and eventually repays her kindness by writing a story on her preferred subject—squalor. The influence of Zen Buddhism and Eastern spirituality permeates Nine Stories: “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” includes a Zen koan as its epigram; “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period” features a painter whose sudden epiphany resembles a Zen Buddhist moment of enlightenment; and “Teddy” involves discussion of Vedantic reincarnation. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the first installment of the Glass family cycle, introduces Seymour Glass, the visionary elder sibling of the introspective clan that became the focus of Salinger's subsequent writings. This pivotal story relates Seymour's unhappy marriage to Muriel Fedder, his disavowal of material prosperity, and spiritual longing—ending abruptly with his tragic suicide. Franny and Zooey, Salinger's next publication, contains two companion novellas that describe the psychic and spiritual dilemmas of Seymour's siblings after his mysterious death. In Franny, Seymour's youngest sister suffers a nervous breakdown while struggling to reconcile her carnal yearnings with her desire for spiritual purity, dramatized by her obsessive repetition of the “Jesus prayer.” In Zooey, a continuation of the previous story, Franny's older brother attempts to ameliorate Franny's crisis by identifying the egotism of her incantations and conveying Seymour's wisdom, a mixture of Zen principles and Christian mysticism. Salinger's final published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” is presented as a lengthy and astonishingly precocious letter by seven-year-old Seymour to his parents, in which he relates his experiences at summer camp and prescient observations concerning the nature of existence. Salinger's Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction contains two previously published short stories. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” are narrated by Salinger's fictional alter ego and brother of Seymour, Buddy Glass. “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” provides a meticulous record of events on June 4, 1942—the day of Seymour and Muriel's ill-fated wedding. When the bride and groom fail to arrive, opting to elope instead, the guests grow irritable and Buddy retreats to the bathroom where he reads Seymour's journal. Buddy's recollections establish the Glass family hierarchy—parents Les and Betty and children Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, twins Walt and Waker, Zooey, and Franny—and explain their veneration of Seymour. In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Buddy attempts to articulate the rarified character of his brooding, “artist-seer” brother Seymour and his motives for suicide. Experimental in form, the digressive story reveals the existence of an extraordinary collection of poems left by Seymour and Buddy's meditations on the literary enterprise itself, prompted by Seymour's advice that he write only what he wants to read—typically viewed as a telling insight into Salinger's own literary motivations. In 1974, an unauthorized, two-volume edition of Salinger's magazine stories, The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger, was published, but Salinger halted distribution of the book.

Critical Reception

Salinger's short stories, particularly those of the Glass family cycle, remain at the center of critical debate and recent reconsideration of Salinger's literary prestige. While most commentators attest to Salinger's superior ability to fashion clever, well-crafted narratives, especially as contained in Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey, his subsequent stories are viewed by some as evidence of his declining powers. “Hapworth 16, 1924,” though praised by some as a daring, experimental work, has been dismissed by many critics as an implausible, self-indulgent story that reflects Salinger's contempt for his critics and a lack of desire, or inability, to communicate to his readers. Despite negative reaction to his later work, Salinger's often anthologized “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” are still acclaimed as consummate examples of postwar American short fiction.

James Finn Cotter (essay date winter 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Cotter, James Finn. “A Source for Seymour's Suicide: Rilke's Voices and Salinger's Nine Stories.Papers on Language and Literature 25, no. 1 (winter 1989): 83-98.

[In the following essay, Cotter argues that Rainer Maria Rilke's The Voices is a source for Salinger's Nine Stories.]


J. D. Salinger's short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” employs the traditional device of a surprise ending. Seymour Glass returns to his Miami hotel room, glances at his wife asleep on her bed, takes from his luggage a heavy-caliber German automatic, sits down on his bed, looks again at Muriel, and fires a bullet through his head. Not even Richard Cory's suicide has provoked more critical commentary. Why does Seymour shoot himself?

The number of reasons proposed for this denouement attests to the effectiveness of the surprise. Is Seymour no longer able to cope with the everyday world represented by Muriel and her mother? Is this act a gesture of despair brought on by sexual frustration? Does Seymour want revenge on Muriel and hope by his suicide to win her lost attention? Or does he kill himself because of an inability to reach ideal spiritual perfection? Perhaps, on the other hand, his death is a religious act performed on the perfect day for attaining nirvana? May it not be an heroic deed of self-sacrifice liberating Muriel to her own life at last?1

Obviously, the risk of resorting to guesswork pays off with diminishing returns. Turning to Salinger's later work for possible explanations also takes the chance of second-guessing. Whatever evidence exists for Seymour's death must be found within the story. With the reader's indulgence, let us imagine the immediate aftermath of the suicide. Muriel will follow her mother's last instructions: “‘Call me the instant he does, or says, anything at all funny—you know what I mean’” (14).2 Mother will probably feel vindicated that her fears were well founded: Seymour proves himself a threat, but to himself and not to her daughter. Muriel, for all her selfish aplomb, will suffer genuine shock. While her mother, like the lady in the elevator, cannot see beyond the nose on her face and may even express relief at the outcome, Muriel loves Seymour enough to look for reasons for his act. Since he left her no suicide note, she must seek elsewhere for some clue. Recently he has again asked her to read a book of German poems which he had sent her from overseas. Both the book and revolver are war souvenirs: perhaps they are connected in Seymour's mind. Muriel has looked for the poetry, but her mother had not packed it in the luggage. She found room, however, for the useless suntan lotion.

These poems have been written, in Seymour's words, “‘by the only great poet of the century’” (7-8). Because they are in German, his wife must find a translation or learn the language, a logical demand that elicits from Mother a typical reaction: “‘Awful. Awful. It's sad, actually, is what it is’” (8). She is wrong about so many things in her conversation with her daughter that Salinger obviously intends to whet the reader's curiosity. Muriel has one advantage denied to his audience: possessing the book, she knows its author and title. Whether or not she understands and loves Seymour enough to carry out his wish is at best doubtful. But the volume is her husband's last will and testament for her.

Critics generally agree that the poet referred to is Rainer Maria Rilke. Besides listing him as an author who influenced his development, Salinger sometimes mentions him in his stories. More importantly, some critics discover in Rilke's poem, “The Carrousel,” the key to the concluding scene of The Catcher in the Rye. The same use of allusion may be at work in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Only one critic, until now, has picked up the scent. Gary Lane has suggested that the book involved is the Duino Elegies.3 The parallels he draws, however, are less convincing than those found in an earlier volume of Rilke's, The Book of Images, and in one poem in particular, from “The Second Book, Part II”: “The Song of the Suicide.” This “Song” is one of a series of ten poems entitled The Voices: Nine Pages with a Titlepage. In the second part of this paper the question of Salinger's indebtedness to the whole sequence will be examined.

The poem reads first in its original version and then in translation:


Also noch einen Augenblick.
Dass sie mir immer wieder den Strick
Neulich war ich so gut bereit,
und es war schon ein wenig Ewigkeit
in meinen Eingeweiden.
Halten sie mir den Löffel her,
diesen Löffel Leben.
Nein, ich will und ich will nicht mehr,
lasst mich mich übergeben.
Ich weiss, das Leben ist gar und gut,
und die Welt ist ein voller Topf,
aber mir geht es nicht ins Blut,
mir steigt es nur zu Kopf.
Andere nährt es, mich macht es krank;
begreift, das [sic] man's verschmäht.
Mindestens ein Jahrtausend lang
brauch ich jetzt Diät.


Well then, another minute yet.
Again and again they manage to cut
my rope.
Recently I was so well prepared,
and there was already a little eternity
in my entrails.
They hold out the spoon to me,
that spoonful of life.
No, I don't want, I don't want any more,
only let me vomit.
I know life is well-done and good,
and the world is a full pot,
but with me it doesn't get into my blood,
it only mounts to my head.
Others it nourishes, me it makes sick;
you understand one spurns it.
For at least a thousand years now
I shall need to diet.)(4)

In Salinger's story Seymour is literally fed up with the nauseous phoniness of those around him. Like the six tigers in Little Black Sambo, people are the victims of their own gluttony and pride. Or, to use his own image, they are like bananafish that are overly greedy. As Seymour explains to his friend and pupil Sybil: “‘They [the fish] 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’” (23). Ordinary people in a Miami or American-dream setting overexpose themselves to the good life: too much sun, drinking, phoning, buying and selling in the midst of their pleasure. Ninety-seven New York advertising men occupy part of the hotel; Muriel is “‘so sunburned [she] can hardly move’” (9); the psychiatrist holds forth “‘in the bar all day long’” (11); and Sybil's mother has more time for a Martini than she does for her child.

Despite his mother-in-law's foreboding: “‘Seymour may completely lose control of himself’” (9)—she repeats it for emphasis—he alone possesses self-control, protecting himself against the sun, playing the piano in the bar instead of drinking, and finding time for profitable conversation with Sybil. He manages the rubber float and his own suicide with equally efficient regard for detail and with dispatch. Even his effrontery toward the woman on the elevator shows a similar economy of behavior. If the woman refuses to look him in the eyes, she must be gazing at his feet, and he reprimands her for her dishonesty, just as he corrects Sybil (more subtly, to be sure) for her treatment of the toy bulldog in the hotel lobby. Like Rilke's “Suicide,” [“The Song of the Suicide”] he will not let life get into his blood because he lives consistently in his head. He can “see more” than anyone else in the story.

But how real is Seymour's control? Is Muriel's mother paranoid or is she justified in worrying about her daughter's well-being—even life? Her emphatic references to her son-in-law's behavior in the past indicate an erratic pattern on his part: he has endangered Muriel by his distracted driving, damaging the car while paying more attention to the trees than to the road. Mother summarizes Seymour's problems: “‘The trees. 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—everything’” (8). She says that Seymour has also tried to do something to Granny's chair. Her conclusion is that the Army released Seymour prematurely from the hospital. How is the reader to take these “sad” and “awful” horrors?

Surely the mother-in-law's list is not meant to be taken seriously. Muriel offers the correct perspective toward Seymour when she answers: “‘Mother, I'm not afraid of Seymour’” (14). Since Muriel is not threatened by Seymour, the reader too should not be intimidated or drawn into the supposedly normal view of him as expressed by the mother and the psychiatrists. If we suspect that his final gesture in reaching for the gun and preparing to fire it has anything at all to do with a threat to Muriel's life, then we have completely missed the point of Salinger's story. Seymour is in control of his fate. All the trivial details of his previous behavior may add up to what a psychiatrist calls a death wish but what a Buddhist believes is nirvana. At the end, he “fired a bullet through his right temple” (26). The echoes of a religious act in a sacred place must be deliberate on the author's part. Like the suicide of Rilke's poem, Seymour doesn't “want any more” of this nauseating existence. A phony life only makes him vomit. Muriel's mother finds that the topic of death is a horrible thing to mention to Granny. But Seymour has his own “plans for passing away.” For Granny and for everyone—even the mother—such plans are entirely appropriate and necessary. Only Seymour carries his out.

Seymour exercises dietetic self-control by wanting no part of the world's appetite for “a full pot.” Through a series of references to the stomach, Salinger establishes this theme. We first meet Seymour on the beach: “He turned over on his stomach, letting a sausaged towel fall away from his eyes” (16). The image of the sausage cleverly fits in with the eating metaphor. Sybil next “looked down at her protruding stomach” (17) and, later, “resumed walking, stomach foremost” (20). In the water, “the young man picked her up and laid her down on her stomach on the float” (22). As a receptive child, Sybil has yet to taste the avarice that fills most grown-up lives; she too can turn away from the spoon held out to her. As Teddy tells Nicholson in the final story of Salinger's collection, people are “‘a bunch of apple-eaters’” (292). The apple represents the archetypal object of man's greed. Teddy says: “‘What you have to do is vomit it up if you want to see things as they really are’” (291). “Only let me vomit,” Rilke's “Suicide” begs. Those who hunger now may yet be satisfied.

The bananafish, on the other hand, do not throw up the forbidden fruit. Seymour relates their fate to Sybil: “‘Naturally, after that [eating as many as seventy-eight bananas] they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again’” (23). As a result, they die of banana fever—“a terrible disease” because those who suffer from it cannot escape their own craving; they “‘can't fit through the door’” (23). Not even death offers them hope of delivery since they remain trapped in the cave, modern counterparts of Plato's prisoners.

In contrast, Seymour's death, which like Teddy's is merely physical, means deliverance and even reincarnation. Since bananafish nourish their bodies but not their souls, their “tragic” death is by rights spiritual and irrevocable. Teddy describes mere dying: “‘All you do is get the heck out of your body when you die. My gosh, everybody's done it thousands and thousands of times’” (294). Like the suicide of the poem, Seymour is also ready for a thousand-year diet. He too spurns a materialistic life.5 When Sybil sees the bananafish with six bananas in its mouth, the young man kisses her foot in gratitude because her vision no longer comes from earth but from within. She shares his non-material view. Sybil's diet of candles and discarded olives has already won Seymour's approval: “‘Olives and wax. I never go anyplace without 'em’” (21).

Since he has now communicated the essential meaning of Rilke's poem—not, unfortunately, to his wife but to another mother's daughter—Salinger's hero proceeds straight to his death. Having “already a little eternity / in [his] entrails,” Seymour Glass, with his accustomed sense of purpose and self-control, acts according to his hidden schedule without “another minute” lost.


A comparison of Rilke's poem and Salinger's story helps to establish the motive of Seymour's suicide. May not similarities between other poems in Voices and the rest of Nine Stories provide evidence of Salinger's intention in the organization of his collection? Similarities here can only be sketched in and they do not all carry equal weight. Internal evidence yields conclusions in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” because the author included the clues as part of the plot. We are not again told to look for a book of poems by a German poet of this century. However, since this allusion comes in the first story and Salinger refuses to allow any story to be published separately, some kind of scaffolding for the whole is worth looking for and may give an idea of why he chose these stories—and only nine of them from the thirty that had already appeared in print. In the discussion that follows, we use Salinger's arrangement of his stories rather than Rilke's order for his poems.

Nine Stories and The Voices: Nine Pages with a Titlepage show the following correspondences in their contents: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “The Song of the Suicide”; “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut” and “The Song of the Drinker”; “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” and “The Song of the Idiot”; “The Laughing Man” and “The Song of the Dwarf”; “Down at the Dinghy” and “The Song of the Widow”; “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “The Song of the Orphan”; “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and “The Song of the Blindman”; “Teddy” and “The Song of the Beggar.” In addition, the poem “Titlepage” establishes the theme of Rilke's sequence in a way that echoes Salinger's theme and the presentation of his characters:


Die Reichen und Glücklichen haben gut schweigen,
niemand will wissen, was sie sind.
Aber die Dürftigen müssen sich zeigen,
müssen sagen: ich bin blind,
oder: ich bin im Begriff es zu werden,
oder: es geht mir nicht gut auf Erden,
oder: ich habe ein krankes Kind,
oder: da bin ich zusammengefügt. …


The rich and the fortunate may well keep silent,
nobody wants to know what they are.
But the needy have to reveal themselves,
have to say: I am blind,
or: I am about to become so,
or: things are not well with me on earth,
or: I have an ailing child,
or: I am patched together here. …

The characters in both songs and stories are compelled to speak because they have somehow been maimed and starved by life. Their conversations—the simple impulse to talk—sustain and reveal them, from the Beggar's protest to the Leper's dirge, and from Seymour's chat with Sybil to Teddy's dialogue with Nicholson. Things are not well with Salinger's grown-ups: their children, Ramona, the Comanches, Lionel and Esmé, are ailing; their own psyches are patched together. Their ills remain interior, buried in their minds and hearts, rather than physical diseases, but like Rilke's needy ones they “have to reveal themselves” and make us want to know them by their own self-expressions.

Rilke's needy “have to sing.” In a letter to Hermann Pongs on 21 October 1924, Rilke states that each of his characters possesses an “incomparable fate”:

To want to improve the situation of another human being presupposes an insight into his circumstances such as not even a poet has toward a character he himself has created. How much less insight is there in the so infinitely excluded helper, whose scatteredness becomes complete with his gift. Wanting to change or improve someone's situation means offering him, in exchange for difficulties in which he is practiced and experienced, other difficulties that will find him even more bewildered. If at any time I was able to pour out into the mold of my heart the imaginary voices of the dwarf or the beggar, the metal of this cast was not obtained from any wish that the dwarf or the beggar might have a less difficult time. On the contrary: only through a praising of their incomparable fate could the poet, with his full attention suddenly given to them, be true and fundamental, and there is nothing that he would have to fear and refuse so much as a corrected world in which the dwarfs are stretched out and the beggars enriched. The God of completeness sees to it that these varieties do not cease, and it would be a most superficial attitude to consider the poet's joy in this suffering multiplicity as an esthetic pretense.6

Salinger's treatment of his characters is equally detached and objective; the author cannot change the world in which Eloise and Sergeant X find themselves. Their suffering remains untouched by his sympathy for or interest in them. Their needs remain just as real, their worlds just as empty or full. The stories, like the poems, present us with characters who need to be loved and then left to their fate.

In “Uncle Wiggly,” the heroine Eloise seeks a nameless happiness that she once shared with Walt but cannot find with her husband. This happiness Rilke refers to only as “it” in the Drinker's monologue:

Es war nicht in mir. Es ging aus und ein.
Da wollt ich es halten. Da hielt es der Wein.
(Ich weiss nicht mehr, was es war.)
It was not in me. It came and went.
I wanted to hold it. It was held by wine.
(I no longer know what it was.)

The Drunkard now is caught in drink's “game, and he scatters me / round with contempt and will lose me even today” (“Jetz bin ich in seinem Spiel, und er streut / mich verächtlich herum und verliert mich noch heut …”). In spite of material prosperity, Eloise, like Rilke's speaker, may end up thrown away “in den Kot,” in the emotional “muck” of her memories. Her final appeal to the even more inebriated Mary Jane expresses the pathos of Rilke's poem: “‘I was a nice girl,’ she pleaded, ‘wasn't I?’” (56). Eloise can barely endure the pangs of her spiritual hunger, made more acute because she cannot name their cause. Like the Drinker, she can only cry: “Fool I” (“Ich Narr”).

In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” Ginnie Mannox finds her life going in circles, from school to tennis court to home by taxis, until she meets Selena Graff's brother, Franklin. Rilke's Idiot is told: “Es kann nichts geschehn. Alles kommt und kreist / immerfort” (“Nothing can happen. All things come and circle / constantly”), but this motion can be “good” and “round the Holy Ghost.” Franklin's own madness wins her love; at first he looks “goofy” to her, but his goodness in sharing his chicken sandwich helps her to see, as does the Idiot, the earth as a friendly place. “Ah, what a beautiful ball that is” (“Ah, was ist das für ein schöner Ball”), exclaims the Idiot, just as Ginnie accepts Selena's “fresh cans of tennis balls.” Franklin's bleeding finger may also allude to the lines in the poem:

Da ist freilich das Blut.
Das Blut ist das Schwerste. Das Blut ist schwer,
manchmal glaub ich, ich kann nicht mehr—.
(Wie gut.)
Of course there's the blood.
The blood is the heaviest. The blood is heavy,
sometimes I think I cannot go on—.
(How good.)

Her acceptance of his sacramental offering saves Ginnie from petty greed.

Both the Laughing Man and his dwarf Omba may be found in the Dwarf's Song [“The Song of the Dwarf”]:

Meine Seele ist vielleicht grad und gut;
aber mein Herz, mein verbogenes Blut,
alles das was mir wehe tut,
kann sie nicht aufrecht tragen.
Sie hat keinen Garten, sie hat kein Bett,
sie hängt an meinem scharfen Skelett
mit entsetztem Flügelschlagen.
My soul is perhaps straight and good;
but my heart, my distorted blood,
everything that is hurting me,
it cannot carry upright.
It has no garden, it has no bed,
it hangs on my sharp skeleton
with terrified beating of wings.

The hideous-looking Laughing Man's physical distortion belies the nobility of his soul. He is the fictional alter ego of the Chief, John Gedsudski, who is also homely and good-hearted. He hopes to find in Mary Hudson a “garden” that will be the equivalent of the playing field he enjoys with the Comanches, but when she leaves it and him, the Chief destroys the heroic Laughing Man and the boys' imaginary world. Rightly or wrongly, he bequeaths to his team a memory of hurt and “distorted blood.” Rilke's Dwarf asks of God: “Ob er mir zürnt für mein Gesicht / mit dem mürrischen Munde?” (“Is he angry with me for my face / with its mumpish mouth?”). The Laughing Man likewise possesses “a face that featured, instead of a mouth, an enormous oval cavity below the nose” (87), and he must subsist on eagles' blood. The mouth of the story-teller Chief finally frightens the children into recognizing cruel reality, the mask torn from the illusion. The poem communicates the same nightmarish, freakshow quality that pervades Salinger's story—the same sense of alienation and longing to give and discover love. Again, the hunger remains uncompromised: the Laughing Man refuses to drink from the vial of blood and dies.

In her husband's absence, Boo Boo Tannenbaum, “née Glass,” the heroine of “Down at the Dinghy,” must play the role of father as well as mother to the lost Lionel. “She peeled down her cigarette Army style” (120), we are told, and assumes the title “Vice-Admiral” to persuade her son to return to shore. The two share the lesson given in Rilke's “The Song of the Widow”:

Das Schicksal will nicht nur das Glück,
es will die Pein und das Schrein zurück,
und es kauft für alt den Ruin.
Fate wants not only the happiness,
it wants the pain back and the crying,
and it buys the ruin for old.

But Salinger's character is unlike the Widow of the poem who allows Fate to acquire “every expression of my face, / even to my way of walking” (“jeden Ausdruck meines Gesichts, / bis auf die Art zu gehn”). Boo Boo is not pretty in a conventional way, yet she remains “a stunning and final girl” (115) whose behavior and walk convey her whole personality. Mother and son join forces and avoid their Fate by going to the station to “bring Daddy home” (130). They will eat pickles on the way; like olives and wax they form part of Salinger's approved diet for the soul.

Both Esmé and Sergent X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” are orphans of the war.7 Like Rilke's Orphan, they experience loneliness: “Ich bin niemand und werde auch niemand sein” (“I am nobody and neither shall I be anybody”) and fear “Ich werde doch gemäht” (“I shall be mowed down all the same”). Rilke's little girl appears more desperate than Esmé: “Ich habe nur dieses eine Kleid. … Ich habe nur dieses bisschen [sic] Haar” ‘“I have only this one dress. … I have only this bit of hair,”’ but Salinger describes his heroine's dress and hair with the same solicitous detail: “She was wearing a tartan dress—a Campbell tartan, I believe” (139) and she has “straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length” (136). More significantly, the song delivers the same sense of desperation binding even enemies together as does the inscription written by the unmarried daughter whom Sergeant X has arrested for being an official of the Nazi party: “Written in ink, in German, in a small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words ‘Dear God, life is hell’” (159). The hero has to vomit before he can bring himself to read Esmé's letter.

In “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” the cuckold Arthur's search for his wife resembles the Blindman's lament that his wife “leads me through nothing but emptiness” (“sie führt mich durch lauter Leeres”). Rilke's Blindman also suffers from obsessive self-pity and a need for attention:

                                        … ich allein
lebe und leide und lärme.
In mir ist ein endloses Schrein,
und ich weiss nicht, schreit mir mein
Herz oder meine Gedärme.
                                        … I alone
live, am afflicted and clamor.
In me is an endless crying,
and I know not, is it my
heart cries or my bowels.

Arthur too knows he is “weak,” but he is blind to Joanie's affair with his friend Lee. The latter, who is called “the gray-haired man” throughout the story, may be suggested in the line: “meine graue Hand auf ihr graues Grau” (“my gray hand on her gray gray”). Arthurian echoes also sound in this story.

The opening lines of “The Song of the Leper” expresses the same ostracism De Daumier-Smith encounters in Montreal:

Sieh, ich bin einer, den alles verlassen hat.
Keiner weiss in der Stadt von mir,
Aussatz hat mich befallen.
See, I am one whom all have deserted.
No one knows of me in the city,
leprosy has befallen me.

Salinger's hero suffers from an emotional rather than bodily disease, but the metaphor of a spiritual sickness-unto-death is clearly established by Sister Irma's painting of the dead Christ, the Yoshotos' moaning in the night, the protagonist's dental extractions, and the location of the orthopedic appliances shop. The Leper likewise craves human relationships but finds himself shunned:

So dass ich sehr lange gehen kann,
ohne Mädchen, Frau oder Mann
oder Kind zu entdecken.
So that I can go a very long way
without discovering girl or woman
or man or child.

While feeding him unappetizing meals, the Japanese couple ignore the lonely artist. Previously, in New York City, De Daumier-Smith has discovered that “everything I touched turned to solid loneliness” (201), and his efforts to get close to the Yoshotos or Sister Irma fail miserably. Only after changing his plans to dine at the elegant Hotel Windsor and to get drunk there, and eating instead a simple meal of “soup, rolls and black coffee” at a lunch bar, does the painter experience his vision at the orthopedic appliances shop window. As with Seymour, a plain diet precedes eternity.8

Teddy, the one Salinger character who comes nearest to attaining religious and human perfection, still must submit to parental neglect, an abusive sister, and the ignorance of academicians. Like Rilke's Beggar, he is a wanderer who hasn't “a place / where to put my head” (ich hätte nicht, / wohin ich mein Haupt tu”)—except out of the porthole where he perceives the unchanging truth of floating orange peels. Teddy does not eat, he contemplates. Both the Beggar and Teddy share a suspicion of poetic verbiage; Rilke writes of his speaker: “Ich schreie um eine Kleinigkeit. / Die Dichter schrein um mehr” (“I clamor for a little mite. / The poets clamor for more), and Teddy complains: “‘Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions’” (282). With his dirty sneakers, no socks, baggy shorts and torn T-shirt, Teddy looks like a beggar. (One is reminded of Seymour's affectionate title for Muriel: “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948.”) Finally, the Beggar's gesture: “auf einmal leg ich mein rechtes Ohr / in meine rechte Hand” (‘suddenly I will lay my right ear / into my right hand’) resembles Teddy's act of giving “his right ear a light clap with his hand” (283). If, as James Bryan believes, this gesture provides the answer to the Zen koan (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) which serves as the epigraph of the collection, the Beggar's “Song” may be the source of the original idea.9 The opposite motions described by Rilke and Salinger shape the only perfect response to result in a mantra of both cleansing and rest, just as the right hand of Buddha holds his head in a posture of eternal repose. Significantly, Seymour shoots himself in the “right temple.”

When he sent the manuscript of his first version of Das Buch der Bilder to his publisher, Rilke wrote: “This is an important moment for me, in which I send you the poems. This collection … is the most precious thing I have of these years, and in laying it in your hands I am gladly showing you a great confidence. … Read it … and try to feel how dear every line of it is to me.” After writing three of the “Songs” for Voices, he gave them to his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, with the greeting: “You will love them too, I know, and quite avant la lettre as they are (entirely of today all three), I send them to you.”10 If Seymour wanted Muriel to share his love for the volume, Salinger too may have wished his readers to discover Rilke's moving poems as a source for the theme and structure of Nine Stories.

The reader, then, would best read the poems with Nine Stories in mind. While the details of resemblances between the songs and stories act like hints or clues of correspondences, the overall impression of needy characters hungering for recognition and love remains the essential point to be made. Both authors find “joy in this suffering multiplicity,” but this joy is not “an esthetic pretense,” as Rilke wrote to Hermann Pongs. The imaginary voices of Seymour the Suicide, Eloise the Drinker, Franklin the Idiot, the Laughing Man and Dwarf, Boo Boo the Widow, Esmé the Orphan, Arthur the Blindman, De Daumier-Smith the Leper, and Teddy the Beggar sound in the reader's ear with an urgency to be heard and taken seriously. The author acts only as a channel for broadcasting their frequencies. Seymour's suicide is not fully explained by Rilke's Song, but it is communicated on the same airwave. His fate and the fates of each of the needy remain incomparably mysterious; they resonate from the characters' own self-expression of suffering and death. The author's task is not to improve, correct, or change their world, but to praise it as the God of completeness presents the world to us: sickening, inebriating, crazy, stunted, painful, deprived, lonely, and destitute, but for all that ever worthy of our attention and love.

Reading Nine Stories in the light of Rilke's Voices enriches our appreciation of Salinger's intention in choosing these stories as a single collection. As an analogue and shaping device of the stories, the poetry sequence reverberates in the characters' words and gestures, and the characters themselves assume a heightened existence, a new dimension of what is true and fundamental to them: “the needy have to reveal themselves,” for all they have are their voices.11 “Life is a gift horse in my opinion,” writes Teddy in his diary. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Take it for what it is and rejoice in the gift, no matter what the horse's mouth might reveal.


  1. See Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, The Fiction of J. D. Salinger (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1958) 19-21; William Wiegand, “J. D. Salinger: Seventy-Eight Bananas,” Chicago Review 11 (1958): 3-19; and Samuel I. Bellman, “New Light on Seymour's Suicide: Salinger's ‘Hapworth 16, 1924,’” Studies in Short Fiction 3 (1966): 348-51.

    For arguments about sexual frustration, see James E. Bryan, “Salinger's Seymour's Suicide,” College English 24 (1962): 226-29; Dallas E. Wiebe, “Salinger's ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’” Explicator 23 (Sept. 1964): item 3; Charles V. Genthe, “Six, Sex, Sick: Seymour, Some Comments,” Twentieth-Century Literature 10 (1965): 170-71; and Frank Metcalf, “The Suicide of Salinger's Seymour Glass,” Studies in Short Fiction 9 (1972): 243-46.

    The revenge motif is suggested by Warren French, J. D. Salinger, 2nd ed. (Boston: Twayne, 1976) 78-85, while John Russell, “Salinger's Feat,” Modern Fiction Studies 12 (1966): 310-11, and David G. Galloway, The Absurd Hero in American Fiction (Austin: U of Texas P, 1970) 149-51, argue for the inability to reach spiritual perfection.

    Gordon E. Slethaug, “Seymour: A Clarification,” Renascence 23 (1971): 115-28, asserts that Seymour attains nirvana. Kenneth Hamilton, J. D. Salinger: A Critical Essay (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967) 30, posits Seymour's motive to liberate Muriel.

  2. This and subsequent quotations are from Nine Stories (Boston: Little, 1953).

  3. French sees in the phrase an “obvious” reference to Rilke (Salinger 80). So do Gwynn and Blotner, among others (Fiction 20). In “The Stranger” (Colliers 116 [1 December 1945]: 18, 77), Rilke's poems appear on Helen's bookshelf, and in “Franny,” Lane Coutell has been assigned the Fourth of the Duino Elegies for study (Franny and Zooey [Boston: Little, 1961] 6).

    See also Edward Stone, “Salinger's Carrousel,” Modern Fiction Studies 13 (1967): 520-23; Gary Lane, “Seymour's Suicide Again: A New Reading of J. D. Salinger's ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish,’” Studies in Short Fiction 10 (1973): 27-33.

  4. M. D. Herter Norton, Translations from the Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Norton 1962) 118-19. This bilingual edition was first published in 1938. All subsequent citations of Rilke's poetry are to this edition and translation. Norton renders Das Buch der Bilder as The Book of Pictures, but I prefer the more generally accepted The Book of Images.

  5. James E. Miller states that Seymour's suicide is “a release for himself from a physicality that has simply ceased to be endurable,” in J. D. Salinger (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1965) 29. But this view seems to me to be too Manichaean. It is the corruption of the physical that Seymour repudiates.

  6. Cited in The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random, 1982) 299.

  7. The hero first sees Esmé at children's-choir practice. Rilke writes in “Titlepage”: “Freilich die Menschen sind seltsam; sie hören / lieber Kastraten in Knabenchören” (“Indeed people are strange; they would rather / hear castrati in boy-choirs”). Not Sergeant X, however; he listens to the songs of the needy.

  8. In Franny and Zooey, the facetious answer Zooey gives his mother is in fact close to the truth: “‘Bessie, you've sounded the missing keynote of the whole New Testament. Improper diet. Christ lived on cheeseburgers and Cokes. For all we know, he probably fed the mult—’”; and earlier Franny orders a chicken sandwich instead of snails (86,23).

  9. James Bryan, “A Reading of Salinger's ‘Teddy,’” American Literature 40 (1968): 367.

  10. Quoted by Norton 237, 240.

  11. For some of the theological and philosophical implications of this heightened existence, see James F. Cotter, “Religious Symbolism in Salinger's Shorter Fiction,” Studies in Short Fiction 15 (1978): 121-32.

Som P. Ranchan Sharma (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Sharma, Som P. Ranchan. “Echoes of the Gita in Salinger's Franny and Zooey.” In The Gita in World Literature, edited by C. D. Verma, pp. 214-19. New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers, 1990.

[In the following essay, Sharma finds references to the Hindu sacred text Bhagavad Gita in Salinger's Franny and Zooey.]

In the mid-fifties, throughout the sixties, and even the early part of the seventies, J. D. Salinger was enormously popular. Although his popularity stemmed from his Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye, it was also due to his saga of the Glass family which he had created, beginning with “Franny” (1955) and “Zooey” (1957), “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (1955), “Seymour—An Introduction” (1959), and “Hapworth” [“Hapworth 16, 1924”] (1965). The narrator of these three slim novels and an epistolary long short story, “Hapworth,” is Buddy, the second brother in the Glass family comprising parents, Les and Bessie, the eldest son, Seymour, two twins, Waker and Walt, the youngest son, Zooey, and two sisters, Boo Boo and Franny.

My contention is that the Glass family that Salinger has created is sacral and rich in reverberation. For its reverberation, Salinger has drawn upon Vedanta, Zen, Judeo-Christian mysticism and that this reverberation is not a matter of Salinger's use of direct quotation, allusion, mythic manipulation which is best left to the heavies such as T. S. Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, etc, but instead of a writer who has absorbed these thought streams so deeply, so psychically that it has become an echoing system within these writings listed in the first paragraph.

This paper is not concerned with the echoing of this total gestalt. The scope of this paper is merely to show the echoing of the Gita in the first novel, Franny and Zooey in the Glass Saga, though in the showing thereof, it will make references to the other novels in the Glass Saga.

My cue comes from Franny and Zooey itself. Zooey who is forced to deal with the spiritual crises of his sister Franny because of the presence of his mother Bessie who had kept up her harangue at him, and who had earlier talked to Franny a few times without succeeding in bringing her out of her withdrawal from the college world and nervous prostration, finally returns to his brother's bedroom. Therein, he reads quotations written in small lettering on a snow-white beaverboard nailed to the back of the door. The first quote is from the Gita, and that too from the translation of it in English by Swami Prabhvananda and Christopher Isherwood. The quote is regarding working without craving for results, being even-minded in success and failure, and being concentrated on the Supreme Lord. In short, the quote recommends the Gita credo of Karma-Yoga from the stance of a prospective Sthithaprajna. Allow me to quote the quote.

You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.

Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered (underlined by one of the calligraphers) in success and failure: for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by Yoga.

Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the Knowledge of Brahman. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.

Bhagavad Gita

After reading this quote and eleven other quotes in the one-fifth left-hand column of the beaverboard, Zooey walks over and sits down at his brother Seymour's desk where he meditates for a good twenty minutes: “With his face in his hands and his handkerchief headgear drooping low over his brow, Zooey sat at Seymour's old desk, inert, but not asleep, for a good twenty minutes.” (p. 181) Coming out of it, he reads some personal entries of Seymour on himself and the family and then goes back into meditation for half an hour. “Once again, he leaned forward on his elbows and buried his face in his hands. This time he sat motionless for almost half an hour.” (p. 182)

Then bursting with Kundalini energy, he shifts to Buddy's desk, he speaks to Franny on the phone, first impersonating Buddy, and then later, after the impersonation has been detected, as Zooey. His message is Gitaesque. He tells Franny to be an actress which she was and from which she had recoiled in the wake of disillusionment with audiences and college ego ethos.

“One other thing. And that's all. I promise you. But the thing is, you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences. The goddam ‘unskilled laughter’ coming from the fifth row … But that's none of your business, really … An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's.” (p. 199)

Of course, he had played a minute earlier a theistic variation on the action theme “The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to—be God's actress, if you want to.” (p. 198)

In addition to these two notes—on actions which come from the Gita—he holds up for her the value of detachment, but it is not to be confused with renunciation. Detachment lies in owning one's temperament, one's active nature, and expressing it in one's actions and when it is all worked out through living and action, one will naturally enter cessation and Nirvana.

The only thing that counts in religious life is detachment. I don't see how you'll ever move an inch. Detachment, buddy and only detachment. Desirelessness, ‘Cessation from all hankerings’.

But Zooey points out that Franny cannot take out the cessation copout because her desires have turned her into an actress just as Krishna points out to Arjuna that he has to be a warrior, and cannot be a renunciate.

As regards Franny's religiosity, which was an eclectic psychedelic college of Hindu Yoga, Buddhist-Japa and Christian prayer with cathexis on Christ, he tells her to see Christ in one and all, and not in transferential exclusivity, to see him in Seymour's Fat Lady—an emphasis, bit motif of the Gita which demands that Brahman or his incarnation be seen in one and all.

And just as Arjuna in the Gita after having passed through the ego-states of depression, metaphysical interest in different yogas, pure consciousness, archetypal visitations, etc., enters clarity and says that his doubts are dispelled, likewise, Franny after going through her night-sea journey, Nekiya. Nigredo enters into, call it Maslovian peak, altered state, an approximate Turiya. Salinger's description of Franny's entry into sacred consciousness is so low-key that the reader misses the symbolic comment.

A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather, as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself. But she seemed to know, too, when to stop listening to it, as if all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers. For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling.

(p. 202)

This brings me to the second unit of my paper. My contention is that when a writer is saturated with a particular attitude, a repercussion to which he has come as a result of reading and reflection, that attitude determines the meaning of a work even before the work is written, that coherence is a priori. Any Salinger reader browsing through the Glass Saga writings cannot miss on Salinger's Hindu connection. For example, in “Seymour—An Introduction,” the narrator actor Buddy who is writing his memories of his dead brother Seymour with a view to meditating on his relationship for entering into Seymour's consciousness says that his roots are in Advaita Vedanta, would it be out of order for me to say that both Seymour's and my roots in Eastern philosophy … were, are planted in … Advaita Vedanta.” (p. 208) In the same paragraph he wants to be regarded “as a fourth-class Yogin, with perhaps a little Jnana Yoga thrown in to spice up the pot.”

Seymour again who is regarded by Buddy as a ring-ding enlightened man, a Mukta, nay, as an Ishtam, is heavily into Vedanta; the Gita was into his past lives. One such life was in ex-urban Banaras. In “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published in The New Yorker in 1965, at the age of seven he talks about giving up ten years of his life for the privilege of shaking Swami Vivekananda's hand in a busy street in Calcutta. So on and so forth.

In the light of this saturation, the Gita can be seen as echoing in Franny and Zooey at the level of not merely quotation and allusion but in terms of thematics, the posing of fundamental problems and the resolution thereof in ways which are Gitaesque. Franny's problem of a near breakdown is handled the way Krishna handled Arjuna's problem. The breakdown is not handled psychologically. Instead, she is given Karma Yoga. As a supplement of Karma Yoga, the Jnana Yoga values of detachment, seeing situations, problems, people from the higher perspective of Samata Bhava, not personalising emotions, and Bhakti Yoga on Christ are invoked as complements to Karma Yoga by Zooey. Zooey himself had overcome an infatuation by translating Manduka Upanishad into classical Greek. His brothers, Seymour and Buddy had initiated him into Shankaracharya and Ramakrishna (Franny and Zooey, p. 66). The techniques and the strategies at work, the motifs invoked are the same. Perhaps, it will not be unsafe to infer that the Gita is a central note in Salinger's echoing system in Franny and Zooey.

Finally, for sharing a piece of personal information on the subject—Salinger's Indian connection. In 1969, I asked a monk, now the head Swami of the Vedanta Society of Southern California with its head office in Hollywood (1946 Vedanta Place, Vine St.) regarding my experience as a reader, of Salinger's insemination by Hindu philosophy. The monk told me that Salinger was an active frequenter of the New York centre and was close to Swami Nikhilananda. To my query if he received an invitation from the Swami, he replied that he did, “but we cannot give you the record on it as documentary evidence for research writing.” Then I told him that Salinger has an old man, some relative of Muriel who attends Seymour's wedding, travels in the taxi, is deaf and dumb, behaves as an Ogar Jogi, has a gin in Seymour's bachelor apartment, remains unflappable in the midst of heat, confusion, maid of Honour's vitriolic character assassination; does not lose for a moment his cool, etc. I told the Swami that he is Salinger's comic delineation of the Sthithaprajna. He said that he would read “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters.” Of course, we never broached the subject again. But one inference can be drawn that Salinger's connection with the Eastern-Indian Vedanta, Yoga, is not intellectual, but from the depths of his being. The Hindu texts have become resonances in the ether of Vyoma of his consciousness so that he has no problem in anachronising them in a sensibility which is rich in quidditas. In so far as the Gita is the text, most known outside, it is part of his Atma-Satkaran so that in seeing the Gita in Franny and Zooey is not to be done in a comparative vein. One can do that with T. S. Eliot for whom the Gita is an allusion to be analogised in a system which is Heraclitean, Bradleyian or Christian. One can do that with Whitman for whom the Gita is a reference, not even a yeasting strain in a Weltanschaning which is Dionysian, Tantric. But not with J. D. Salinger. And that emboldens me to close with a thought in our ersatz epoch of quotation, allusion, pastiche, parody, intertextuality, myth stripmining which according to me is not echoing in the true sense because echoing can only issue from the soul. The rest is ricochetting from the learned erudition centres, not true echoing. If Whitman echoes the Gita in the encounter of the body, soul, and oversoul in Passage to India this echoing is not from the Gita.

It is because he has experienced the terrifying transcendent and the universal which is also experienced by Arjuna. But Whitman is not echoing Krishna. The reader may experience it as an echo from the Gita because of his culture. Salinger's echoing is partly Whitmanesque in the sense that he has experienced the truths, the states that the Gita talks about, partly assimilative. And only that portion of the assimilated material can echo which has been owned, absorbed and identified by the soul. Regarded thus, Salinger's echoing is from the soul, from the Ananda and the Vigyan sheaths.

Of course, we would like the Gita to echo through all literatures and in our enthusiasm may hear it in works where it is not real or genuine. Then again, a given echo may be one in a melodic or orchestral arrangement. So its place must not be over-emphasised. However, in Salinger's Franny and Zooey, the Gita is echoing both overtly and covertly.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Nine Stories 1953; published in England as For Esmé—With Love and Squalor, and Other Stories, 1953

*Franny and Zooey 1961

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction 1963

The Complete Uncollected Short Stories of J. D. Salinger. 2 vols. 1974

The Catcher in the Rye (novel) 1951

*“Franny” first published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1955; “Zooey,” The New Yorker, May 4, 1957.

†“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” first published in The New Yorker, November 19, 1955; “Seymour: An Introduction,” The New Yorker, June 6, 1959.

Jai Dev (essay date April 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Dev, Jai. “Franny and Flaubert.” Journal of American Studies 25, no. 1 (April 1991): 81-5.

[In the following essay, Dev discusses the function of allusions to Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary in Salinger's novella Franny.]

This note is based on the assumption that in a text all foregrounded intertextuality has a definite formal function. The text in such a case can be seen as insisting that the reader bring a prior understanding of the invoked texts in order to grasp its meaning. Salinger's story “Franny” (1955) in Franny and Zooey (1961) depicts a lunch which is supposed to mark the start of a happy weekend for Lane Coutell, a literature undergraduate, and his date, Franny Glass. The lunch is a fiasco and at the end the “unimpeachably right-looking girl”1 faints from nervous tension. Lane is a pretentious young man who wants Franny to hear his paper on Flaubert. The paper has fetched him an A from his specialist teacher, and he believes—and wants Franny to believe—that it is an earth-shaking event in the world of Flaubert scholarship. Franny is not impressed; in “Zooey” (1957) she tells her brother that it was “some perfectly harmless test-tubey paper on Flaubert.”2 Covering over two pages, the Flaubert-paper episode is important in the structure of the story. It precipitates a discord between the two characters. Lane's aggressive harping on his “incisive” talents wears Franny out and she rebukes him for talking like the section men in her own department. There seems to be considerable authorial self-reflexivity at work behind Lane's references to Flaubert, and it is this that the present note seeks to highlight.

In “Franny” allusions are made to many authors besides Flaubert, but apart from those to the Russian author of The Way of a Pilgrim, they have only local significance as part of the characterization. Not the authors as such, but the way Salinger's characters handle—or drop—their names becomes a means of discriminating between his characters. By contrast, the allusions to Flaubert have far larger implications. This is partly because Salinger is the Flaubert of American fiction, insofar as he is religiously committed to style. Flaubert, says Alan Russell, “devoted more care than any novelist, even any French novelist, had done before him to the actual writing of his sentences.”3 Stylistic virtuosity is the single most pronounced feature of Salinger's works, and it manifests itself right from the first sentence of the story: “Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather. …” It is not accidental that Lane's psychoanalytical paper should concentrate on Flaubert's attraction by the mot juste.

But—I don't know—I think the emphasis I put on why he was so neurotically attracted to the mot juste wasn't too bad. I mean in the light of what we know today. Not just psychoanalysis and all that crap, but certainly to a certain extent. You know what I mean. I'm no Freudian man or anything like that, but certain things you can't just pass over as capital-F Freudian and let them go at that. I mean to a certain extent I think I was perfectly justified to point out that none of the really good boys—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Shakespeare, for Chrissake—were such goddam word-squeezers. They just wrote. Know what I mean?4

The Freudian theme apart, Lane's remarks about his paper are couched in a style that is revoltingly anti-Flaubertian. It is clumsily redundant (“but certainly to a certain extent”), rhetorical and clichéd. As if this were not sufficiently damning, the authorial narrator has prefaced the episode with such unlikeable details in Lane's behaviour as his monopolizing the conversation, his use of the trendy neologism, “testicularity,” and his slouching posture. At the end of the episode, the narrator once again makes his attitude clear through a remark accompanying Lane's speech:

“This guy Brughman thinks I ought to publish the goddam paper somewhere,” he said abruptly. “I don't know, though.” Then, as though he had suddenly become exhausted—or, rather, depleted by the demands made on him by a world greedy for the fruit of his intellect—he began to massage the side of his face with the flat of his hand, removing, with unconscious crassness, a bit of sleep from one eye.5

Subtle moral discriminations and the narrator's deflationary observations accompany Lane's style, which is a bad inversion of Flaubert's (and Salinger's) mot juste. Franny and Salinger notice—and judge.

So much seems obvious even to a reader who has only some rough knowledge of Flaubert. However, the entire episode is Flaubertian because the method it uses is derived—or adapted—from the famous agricultural show scene in Madame Bovary. The scene achieves devastating ironic effects by mixing Rodolphe's bogus romantic jargon and Monsieur Derozerays' speech, itself a pastiche because it is a mixture of praise for the government, farming and religion. The mixing of Rodolphe's sickly romantic rubbish and the public speaker's announcement of prizes is meticulously designed to mock the “conquest” scene on the first floor of the Town Hall:

While Rodolphe was talking to Madame Bovary about dreams, presentiments and magnetic attraction, the speaker went back to the infancy of society, to those savage times when men lived on acorns in the heart of great forests. … Rodolphe had led on gradually from magnetism to affinities; and while the Chairman alluded to Cincinnatus at his plough … the young man was explaining to the young woman that the cause of these irresistible attractions lay in some previous existence.

“We, now, why did we meet? What turn of fate decreed it? Was it not that, like two rivers gradually converging across the intervening distance, our own natures propelled us towards one another?”

He took her hand, and she did not withdraw it.

“General Prize!” cried the Chairman.

“Just now, for instance, when I came to call on you …”

“Monsieur Bizet of Quincampoix.”

“… how could I know that I should escort you here?”

“Seventy francs!”

“And I've stayed with you, because I couldn't tear myself away, though I've tried a hundred times.”


“And so I'd stay tonight and tomorrow and every day for all the rest of my life.”6

Here too the scene presents two incompatible sets of characters, one including the lovers and the other the public speaker and the Show crowd. Irony is devastating, for Rodolphe's promise is juxtaposed with manure and his delight in escorting Emma with seventy francs. In “Franny” Lane's conceited nonsense is juxtaposed with Franny's behaviour which consistently deflates that nonsense. Certain details are remarkably effective because they are unexpected and in the context produce Flaubertian effects. The result is that communication breaks down whenever Franny makes a short remark of her own. Also, it is made clear why Franny regards food or a cigarette as being more real than Lane's lengthy panegyric on his paper:

“I mean, God, I honestly thought it was going to go over like a goddam lead balloon, and when I got it back with this goddam ‘A’ on it in letters about six feet high, I swear I nearly keeled over.”

Franny again cleared her throat. … “Why?” she asked.

Lane looked faintly interrupted. “Why what?”

“Why'd you think it was going to go like a lead balloon?”

“I just told you. I just got through saying. This guy Brughman is a big Flaubert man. Or at least I thought he was.”

“Oh,” Franny said. She smiled. She sipped her Martini.

“This is marvellous,” she said, looking at the glass. “I'm so glad it's not about twenty to one. I hate it when they're absolutely all gin.”

Lane nodded. “Anyway, I think I've got the goddam paper in my room. If we get a chance over the weekend, I'll read it to you.”

“Marvellous. I'd love to hear it.”

Lane nodded again. “I mean I didn't say anything too goddam world-shaking or anything like that.” He shifted his position in the chair. … Lane looked at Franny somewhat expectantly. She seemed to him to have been listening with extra-special intentness.

“You going to eat your olive, or what?”

Lane gave his Martini glass a brief glance, then looked back at Franny. “No,” he said coldly. “You want it?”

“If you don't,” Franny said. She knew from Lane's expression that she had asked the wrong question. … “This guy Brughman thinks I ought to publish the goddam paper somewhere. … As a matter of fact, I don't think there've been any really incisive jobs done on him in the last—”

“You're talking like a section man. But exactly.”7

Franny's “wrong” questions are really “right,” in that they provide a momentary stay against Lane's self-inflation; her whimsical interruptions like her praise of the martini or remark about the time are not only welcome but also a proper judgment on him. They puncture his pride, just as the reference to manure or seventy francs in Flaubert deflates Rodolphe's clichés and passes a judgment on their worth. Salinger's material is altogether different, but it can be claimed that he repeats Flaubert's method of anomalous and ironic juxtapositions to judge Lane and to distance the reader from him.

The truth is that Lane has no style. Thus, what at first appear to be a couple of printing errors in Franny's letter to Lane Coutell: “I hate you when your being helplessly super-male and reticent”8 are revealed as her sophisticated parodies of Lane's clumsy English. The “retiscent” is deliberately misspelt and “your” is a stylistic parody of his way of using “you're” for “your” as in “You're letter didn't sound so goddam destructive.”9 One understands why in a devotee of style like Salinger, aesthetic and stylistic norms get converted into moral ones. At the self-reflexive level, the value that is style points to the text's wish to be appreciated for its style. Flaubert is the norm; Lane suggests its inversion, the more grotesque because he sits in judgment on both Flaubert and the norm.

It is outside the scope of this note to build a comparison between Flaubert and Salinger. However, since self-reflexivity involved in intertextuality does promote comparative speculation, two contrary possibilities can be noted here on this issue. The first is obvious: indirectly the references to Flaubert express Salinger's desire that the reader should reflect on the connections of his fiction with Flaubert's. This kind of a suggestion is not unusual in fiction and can also be legitimate: The Assistant and several other novels by Malamud hint at their desire to be related to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky; Roth's The Breast wants to be seen as a latter-day “Metamorphosis” or “The Nose.” Intertextuality in the form of allusions and quotations signifies affinities, aspirations, ambitions. It may be difficult to relate Salinger to Flaubert, even at the level of style; except in a conceptual sense, there is little else in common between them. But the intertextual use of Flaubert in “Franny” represents one direction that Salinger's ambitions take.

The second possibility is that perhaps something altogether contrary is being suggested through the references to Flaubert in the story. Salinger is a sophisticated ironist, quite capable of putting certain beliefs dear to himself in the mouth of somebody whom his whole method sets out otherwise to ridicule. This procedure too is fairly common in fiction. A nasty character may be given several crucial authorial truths to articulate. It is possible that Lane is articulating certain deeper anxieties and self-doubts in Salinger himself. Is style really such an absolute value? If so, then what about “the really good boys—Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Shakespeare”?10 In “Seymour: An Introduction” (1959) a far more likeable character than Lane depreciates Flaubert and suggests that while writing, one should follow one's heart: “Please follow your heart, win or lose.”11 The suggestion is that too much of “style,” especially if it is at the cost of the heart, is not a good thing, and this accords well with the issue involved in Lane's clumsy offensive against Flaubert. If this were taken to be Salinger's own position, then it is possible that he is all too aware of the Flaubertian streak in himself but hates it all the same. Self-reflexivity thus becomes a means of expressing one of two feelings: the author's anxiety over his devotion to style and all that this devotion implies; or his belief that he can be both a latter-day Flaubert and a latter-day Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Shakespeare. The way Salinger teases us with such contradictory signals sounds clever rather than inspired or profound. This is only an opinion. But should it be tenable, at once the authorial self-reflexivity of the Flaubert references in “Franny” would start clamouring to be linked to other self-reflexive details contrasting a poem and intellectual, syntaxy droppings, inspired productions and competent ones, beauty and ingenuity, genius and cleverness.


  1. J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (1961; rpt., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 15.

  2. Ibid., 110.

  3. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Alan Russell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950), 7.

  4. Salinger, 16.

  5. Ibid., 17.

  6. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 161.

  7. Salinger, 15-17.

  8. Ibid., 10.

  9. Ibid., 18.

  10. Ibid., 16.

  11. J. D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction (1963; rpt., Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 120.

Jai Dev is Reader in the Department of English, Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla 171 005, India.

Ruth Prigozy (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Prigozy, Ruth. “Nine Stories: J. D. Salinger's Linked Mysteries.” In Modern American Short Story Sequences: Composite Fictions and Fictive Communities, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, pp. 114-32. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Prigozy discusses the unifying elements of the narratives in Salinger's Nine Stories.]

From its publication in April 1953, through the heyday of “the Salinger industry” in the 1960s, and intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s, J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories has proven an unusually seductive text for critical theorizing.1 Indeed, even those most devoted to Salinger studies, after the first burst of scholarly enthusiasm, welcomed a moratorium on further efforts to interpret Salinger's oeuvre, including this collection for which there apparently could be no final word. What is most striking, after thirty years of critical attention, are the contradictory, even antipodal responses to each of the collected stories. At the heart of Nine Stories is a mystery, perhaps epitomized by the “monstrous vacuole” that the narrator sees below the nose of the Laughing Man.2

Further, within each story there lie other mysteries, some trivial, some profoundly complex, but all defying easy solutions. To search for a unifying principle in Nine Stories is to admit that the individual stories must be bent and shaped to conform to a preconceived pattern. But these stories stubbornly resist such attempts. The clue to the cryptic nature of the collection lies in the Zen koan epigraph that subtly instructs the reader to forgo the effort to devise a too logical scheme linking the individual works that follow. Whatever linkage we may find in the stories derives as much from what is missing as from similarities of subject, structure, voice, symbolism, character, milieu, and other literary elements that provoke interpretation. In story sequences, as J. Gerald Kennedy has noted, “recurrent features may disclose differences as readily as similarities.”3 But Salinger's mysteries, finally, disgorge further mysteries, so that whatever unifying pattern we may have discovered (perhaps to render the experience of reading Nine Stories less disturbing) simply crumbles into those cigarette ashes that the author so obsessively describes.4 And perhaps the mysteries in Nine Stories account for its continuing appeal as much as does its enormous readability.

The stories are thus characterized as much by discontinuity as by those deceptive surface similarities for which Salinger initially won critical and popular attention: brilliant mimicries of postadolescent speech, accurate depictions of upper-class, sophisticated New Yorkers, memorable evocations of childhood sensitivity and adolescent pain, and repellent glimpses into the “phony” world of material plenty and spiritual waste. Yet each story suggests another dimension beyond the narrative, a realm that exists beyond the silence of the Zen koan. John Wenke sees the Zen koan epigraph as a clue to the collection as a whole, discussing Salinger's interpretive openness and the vexing holes that appear in the narratives.5 I would like to carry Wenke's argument a step further, by demonstrating how the unifying elements combine with the fragmenting mysteries that shadow each of the stories. Despite persuasive critical interpretations, such problems as the motive for Seymour's suicide, the cause of the Coach's failed love affair, or the impulse behind Teddy's pursuit of death, resound like the hollow echoes in the Marabar caves.6

The arrangement of the stories in the collection coincides with the sequence of their original publication as separate works. The first six, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” “The Laughing Man,” “Down at the Dinghy,” and “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” dating from January 1948 to April 1950, precede the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, and the seventh, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” was published in the same week in July as the novel. The last two stories, “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period” and “Teddy,” were published, respectively, in May 1952 and January 1953. Salinger would continue writing about characters who first appeared in this collection, the Glass family, in five later stories from 1955 through 1965.7 He did not alter the publication sequence for the collection, and it is assumed that “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period” was the first story he wrote after publication of Catcher. Although he published “Teddy” after he left New York for his permanent home in Cornish, New Hampshire, in January 1953, he had already made plans for the collection before his move. The immense popularity and immediate cult status among college students of Catcher in the Rye insured a wide audience for Nine Stories, but clearly readers were intrigued with the volume beyond their fascination with the novel.8

Salinger's title, Nine Stories, presents the initial interpretive challenge of the collection. Always interested in numbers (tantalizingly so in many instances), the author directs us only to the simple fact that nine stories have been grouped together.9 We will never know why Salinger settled on such a spare title (think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first collection, Flappers and Philosophers, or Hemingway's In Our Time, or Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find for titles of first volumes designed to suggest their contents or to pique the reader's interest), but it is the first of the many puzzles pervading the sequence.

Less simple, but no less inscrutable than the title, the Zen koan epigraph reads: “We know the sound of two hands clapping, / But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” A koan is a problem that defies rational, intellectual solution, the answer having no logical connection to the question. The purpose of the koan for the Zen disciple, as Alan Watts explains, is to present “the central problem of life in an intensified form.” For when we accept that there is no solution available through our traditional approaches to problems, we must stop trying, we must relinquish even our right to know and accept life as “free, spontaneous and unlimited.”10 The central fact of Zen, according to D. T. Suzuki, lies “in the attainment of ‘Satori’ or the opening of a spiritual eye.”11 Thus, at the outset, Salinger presents the reader with a paradox that throughout the book, grows insistent: The stories delineate the path from spiritual death to spiritual enlightenment (satori) at the same time that they exemplify the uselessness of imposing any pattern, through logical analysis, on this random collection of fiction. This contradiction persists throughout Nine Stories, producing a multiplicity of critical responses.

Although Salinger collected the stories in their order of publication, there are connections, illuminating juxtapositions, and incremental repetitions that suggest a more subtle arrangement. The individual titles, with the exception of the last story, derive from the texts they introduce; they are puzzling, intriguing, and literarily unique, in sharp contrast to the title of the volume. These individual titles refer to stories within the stories, or italicize a crucial moment, or allude to place or time. The title “Teddy,” for example, proves as cryptic as the story it precedes and the psyche of the child it names.

The arrangement of the stories also illustrates what Kennedy describes as “purposive juxtaposition,” where “the differential relationship between two conjoined narratives … generates supplemental meanings distinguishable from those of the collection as a whole.”12 Thus, the first two stories are linked by references to place and by similarity of character. The last two are connected by repetitive language, and “For Esmé” [“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”] and “Pretty Mouth” [“Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”] may be said to find their complementarity in the contrast between redemption and betrayal in love. The third story, “Just Before the War” [“Just Before the War with the Eskimos”], offers yet a third alternative to the two that precede it in its offering the possibility of emotional openness and compassion. And the questions raised by “The Laughing Man” are linked with those raised by “Down at the Dinghy” and “For Esmé.” The following analysis of structuring devices of Nine Stories, culminating in questions that elude conclusive interpretation, should clarify the method by which Salinger constructs the linked mysteries of these collected stories.

As in many similar collections, the subjects, characters, and milieus of Nine Stories bear many superficial similarities. Four reflect the war, although only in “For Esmé” is there a wartime setting; in the other three, it serves as a catalyst for emotional distress. All but one of the stories (“Pretty Mouth”) focus on either very young children or adolescents. All of them concern the plight of sensitive outsiders alienated by a society unable or unwilling to recognize and value their special qualities, their unique sensibilities. Three stories dramatize the relationship between a very young child and a parent or surrogate parent, providing suggestive glimpses into the psychic needs of both. The overriding subject of each story, directly or indirectly, is death—physical, emotional, or spiritual. Clearly, some kind of death is the price Salinger's characters pay for their inability to adapt to a hostile world.

Many of the characters, then, resemble Flannery O'Connor's misfits, although Salinger's are distinguished by minor physical imperfections or quirky behavior, rather than by the cartoonish grotesqueries of O'Connor. Indeed, Salinger's characters are appealing, rather than repellent, in their uniqueness. Seymour is pale, with narrow shoulders and a sickly look, but he is also witty and perceptive; Ramona is pitiable in her homeliness and her need for love and companionship; Eloise is cold and unfeeling, yet even she, reduced to tears by missed opportunities, evokes reluctant sympathy. And a few of the characters find the strength to transcend the banalities and petty cruelties of their world (Boo Boo Tannenbaum, Esmé, Ginnie) to find meaning in a connection to another sensitive hungry soul. Beyond their special gifts, personalities, and desires, Salinger's protagonists prove exceptionally intelligent and occasionally brilliant (Seymour, Teddy, Sergeant X). The major characters show keen insight into others; what they fail to understand they nevertheless question, repeatedly and persistently (“De Daumier-Smith's” [“De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period”], “Teddy”). Those questions become as important for the reader as for the characters and enhance the sense of mystery and openness that marks these stories. Further, Salinger's important characters are unusually verbal. Like O'Connor he captures accurately the speech patterns and cadences of his own world, here an educated, often intellectual environment, enlivened by the vitality of adolescent verbal excesses. Like Holden Caulfield in Catcher, the characters in Nine Stories assume a life of their own, (partly, too, because of the stories' lack of closure). It seems entirely fitting that Salinger was moved to continue the saga of a few of them, the Glass family, in his later stories.

The local references in Nine Stories clearly indicate a recognizable fictive world: New York City predominates, from the opening line in “A Perfect Day” [“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”], set in Miami, but alluding to “ninety-seven New York advertising men” (3). In “The Laughing Man,” the precise geography of the city forms a substructure for the double-layered story as does the east side of Manhattan for the dramatized encounters of “Just Before the War.” Whether the characters are on vacation, on a ship, in a foreign country, or in a Connecticut suburb of the city, the sensibility of Salinger's world is firmly established by its references to the sophistication, polish, manners, and locales associated with the New York City of Salinger's educated upper middle class. Similarly, the temporal signs point to the post-World War II era, not only in stories that refer directly to the war, but also in those stories that capture the characteristics of the period: the sense of estrangement from the past, the reflection of Reisman's “lonely crowd,” the adolescent angst seemingly rekindled after the traumatic events of the previous decade, and above all the precise evocation of the era that pondered men in gray flannel suits, their pursuit of thoroughly materialistic ends belying the expressed efforts of the war years to find meaning in a democratic society. Salinger is not a sociological writer, but as surely as in those books that sought to explain what had happened to us materially and spiritually after our wartime victory, Nine Stories heralds that period in our nation's history that has been since characterized as frighteningly conformist, spiritually bankrupt, and intellectually adrift—the American 1950s.

In its structural patterns, self-reflexive buried stories, and insistent symbolic motifs, as well as in Salinger's use of narrative voice and evocative language, Nine Stories illustrates the cryptic, elusive design of its linked mysteries. Each story, moreover, presents its own challenges.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is divided into two sections, with a brief concluding epilogue. The major divisions dramatize the conversations of two sets of characters, first Muriel Glass and her mother, then Seymour Glass and the child, Sybil (a brief interlude with Sybil and her mother heightens the atmosphere created by the first section and prepares the reader for the Sybil/Seymour meeting). The last section, Seymour's return to his hotel room and stunning suicide, conveys a finality that the preceding events belie. Within the story, as elsewhere in the volume, lies a riddle, or more precisely, a series of riddles, all of which suggest diverse interpretations of Seymour's action: Muriel's mother's concerns about the trees, “that business with the window,” remarks to “granny,” “what [Seymour] did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda,” the bananafish story, Seymour's playful yet cryptic remarks about his nonexistent tattoo, his injunction to the woman on the elevator not to stare at his toes, his teasing colloquy with Sybil about the color of her bathing suit and other matters of interest to her, and even his faintly ominous control of the child's raft. Further, Salinger's insistent use of numbers, six in particular, invites speculation while defying resolution. After the opening paragraphs that define Muriel with withering precision, the ensuing dialogues reveal the essence of his characters, yet provide possibilities for alternative readings.13

Salinger uses a variety of narrative voices and perspectives in the collection. In “A Perfect Day” the narrator (whom some believe is Buddy Glass) is casually omniscient, relinquishing dispassionate objectivity to remark with cruel accuracy, “She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone has been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty” (3). The narrative voice is familiarly conversational, blending effortlessly into two lengthy dialogues. The opening story establishes immediately the tone of the volume, an inviting informality, a series of conversations between people we might ourselves know, a perfect mimicry of the cadences and inflections of contemporary speech of his upper-middle-class city dwellers. Indeed, Salinger's language is perhaps the most consistent, recognizable element in Nine Stories; it is a unique voice, whether conveyed by authorial omniscience, first-person narrative, or the precise transcription of telephone conversations. That language is a clue to the deeper structure of the fictions is most evident in the first story. After the Muriel/mother dialogue, the second section begins with Sybil's prescient words to her mother, “See more glass.” With the child's mystifying request, repeated again to her mother and then to Seymour Glass, the reader is covertly instructed to look for the hidden import of the Seymour/Sybil repartee. At the same time, Salinger alerts his readers to the multiplicity of meanings contained in even the simplest assertion.

The next story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” is structured by time and place, its three sections occurring on a winter afternoon in a wealthy Connecticut suburb. That time is a major issue becomes apparent as Eloise and Mary Jane, her guest, recall their past college days, leading Eloise to recount the tragic event in her past that has corroded her present life as suburban wife and mother. As the two women drink from afternoon into evening, Eloise shows increasing nastiness, exacerbated by the tearful revelation of her lover's violent and senseless death. She expresses her unhappiness in cruel and insensitive remarks to and about her child, in a brusque drunken response to her husband's telephone call (rejecting her maid's request that her husband be allowed to spend the night because of the bad weather), and in a furious heaving of one of her daughter's galoshes over the bannister. Eloise's violent and tragic story repeats itself in her daughter Ramona's imaginative life: The child kills her imaginary companion, Jimmy Jimmereeno. The emotional ending of the story—Eloise's refusal to countenance Jimmy's replacement, Mickey Mickeranno, her tears that wet the lenses of Ramona's glasses, her kiss for the sleeping child, and her final pitiful plea for reassurance that she once was a “nice girl”—fail to alleviate the pervasive bitterness of the narrative tone.

As in “A Perfect Day,” the narration is informally omniscient, with an opening description that cruelly mimics the banality of Mary Jane's speech and the bitchiness of Eloise's response to Mary Jane's verbal mistake (“Merrick”): “Merritt Parkway, baby” (19). Eloise is immediately identified as someone who does not allow anyone to escape her criticism. Linguistic patterns are again both subtle and obvious: Eloise never addresses Ramona by name, and she is consistently critical and irritable as when she takes the child's galoshes off: “Gimme your foot … Sit down, first, please. … Not there—here. God!” (34). Eloise censures and corrects; she is unresponsive, indeed blind, to her daughter's obvious loneliness and misery. Ramona's eyes, her glasses and myopia, are linked by contrast, with Sybil's unknowingly wise misuse of Seymour's name. Salinger's language again points the reader toward meanings that lie beneath a very detailed and visually explicit surface. Here again the key moments revolve around an adult and a child and stand in sharp contrast to the affectionate exchange between Seymour and Sybil. The juxtaposition of these two stories reinforces the importance Salinger attaches to relations between adults and children.

Although “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” is not linked in the way that its two predecessors are, this two-part story with a brief epilogue nevertheless offers an oblique commentary on what we have already perceived as insensitive responses to extreme suffering. Through the central consciousness of an adolescent girl, Ginnie, Salinger offers a perspective that suggests the redemptive power of compassion. The buried stories here concern her friend Selena's “goofy” brother Franklin's unrequited love for Ginnie's sister, Joan, and his ambiguous relationship with his unpleasant, certainly homosexual friend, Eric. The two major scenes, which take place within an hour in Selena's apartment, reveal Franklin's hopeless ineptitude at life along with his desperate need for human connection (expressed by the sandwich he insists on giving Ginnie) and Eric's intangible yet faintly sinister hold over his friend. The previous stories lead one to expect despair, but this story, primarily through the narrative voice that reflects Ginnie's sustained central consciousness, offers the distinctly redemptive possibility of an unexpected and generous response to a thoroughly unattractive, deeply suffering soul. As different as this story is, it connects to the other two by Salinger's suggestive use of glasses and eyestrain, implying that vision, no matter how difficult to attain, is at the heart of his characters' often ineffectual struggles. Ginnie unconsciously shares Holden Caulfield's dream of rescuing children before they fall off a cliff; Franklin may have already fallen, but like the dead Easter chick it took her three days to dispose of some years earlier, she must save his sandwich and, in so doing, perhaps save him.

Salinger's language is particularly notable in this story; Franklin and Ginnie's loose slang dominates the first section, and Eric's revelatory italicized declamations define his orientation in the second. Throughout, the reader is treated to the observations, clearly through Ginnie's eyes, of a myriad of repellent, often physical details, as when she watches Eric “scratch his ankle till it was red. When he began to scratch off a minor skin eruption on his calf with his fingernail, she stopped watching” (46). Salinger defines his misfits consistently by unattractive physical qualities or behavior, like Ramona's repeated scratching herself and picking her nose.

The fourth story, “The Laughing Man,” departs from the first three in narrative structure and voice. Told in four parts from a first-person perspective with minimum dialogue by an adult looking back to a defining moment in his youth, the story also marks the most self-reflexive fiction in the collection. On several occasions, the narrator comments on the difficulty of telling a story, of remembering important details that should not be omitted from his account of the Chief and the boys, the Chief's continuing narrative about the Laughing Man, and the buried mystery of the Chief's broken love affair with Mary Hudson. The narrator thus assures the reader that “the Chief's physical appearance in 1928 is still clear in my mind” (57), and later, referring to the story of the Laughing Man, he asserts, “I'm not saying I will, but I could go on for hours escorting the reader—forcibly, if necessary—back and forth across the Paris-Chinese border” (61). Self-consciously he directs the reader to the story's lingering mystery: “I had no idea what was going on between the Chief and Mary Hudson (and still haven't, in any but a fairly low, intuitive sense)” (70). Actually, in this complex work, three levels of narrative develop: the flashback, the Chief's relationship to Mary Hudson, and the story of the Laughing Man, which the Chief tells in installments for the delectation of the boys who spend their afternoons with him either in sports or in visits to Manhattan museums. As in “Just Before the War,” the narrative voice is intimate, deeply involved in the events witnessed. And in both, a revelation of adult pain intrudes piercingly upon adolescent confusion. Here, however, the narrator tells the story of the Chief and the Laughing Man to make sense of something deeply felt, but only dimly comprehended, years ago. In so doing, he recaptures the actual voice of his younger self. The story of the Laughing Man is closely allied to events in the lives of the Chief and of the narrator whose identification with the older man is certainly that of a son. And both stories, the Laughing Man's and (by implication) the narrator's, suggest thwarted expectations of the family.

The location of “The Laughing Man” within the collection directs the reader to the problem of storytelling. So unlike the preceding three stories, it illuminates Salinger's exploration of the craft of fiction, and at the same time offers the reader a less tense, less hyperbolic glimpse of suffering and struggle. The language is informal and indirect, with conversations recalled rather than enacted: “I asked her if she had a cold. … I told her I didn't have anybody in left field. I told her I had a guy playing center field and left field. There was no response at all to this information” (70). The end of the Chief's romance and the violence with which he concludes the story of the Laughing Man profoundly affect the narrator. The elusiveness of both tales, with their shattering finales, adds a tragic dimension to this affectionate memoir of an unforgettable episode of his youth.

The next story, “Down at the Dinghy,” returns to the earlier Salinger strategy of presenting a situation through revealing dialogue. Told in four parts by a narrative voice resembling that of the first two stories, it also centers on relationships between adults and children. Yet unlike “A Perfect Day” and “Uncle Wiggily” [“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”], the key relationship—between mother Boo Boo Tannenbaum and her son Lionel—reveals the affection and understanding of a parent for her child; but structurally it resembles “Just Before the War” in its relatively strong narrative closure and its unity of time and place. The informally omniscient narrator, as in “A Perfect Day,” offers with relaxed objectivity a peculiar and certainly puzzling description of Boo Boo: “Her joke of a name aside, her general unprettiness aside, she was—in terms of permanently memorable, immoderately perceptive, small-area faces—a stunning and final girl” (77). Salinger's descriptive prose often contains similarly cryptic lines that reinforce the puzzles developed by the narrative pattern. Like the Chief, Boo Boo creates a fantasy world for Lionel wherein she is the admiral calling her crew with a bugle, but the buried story in this narrative is the mystery of Lionel's repeated running away from his loving, sensitive family.

Dialogue in “Down in the Dinghy” occurs first between two employees of the Tannenbaums, revealing the author's skill at mimicking lower-class inflections and idioms to illustrate their ignorance and bigotry, and then between the mother and son, which recalls Seymour's light bantering with Sybil. Here too, language assumes importance beyond its referential meaning. Just as Sybil's three words suggest deeper implications, the too-obvious meaning of Mrs. Snell's description of Daddy as “a big—sloppy—kike” (86), which Lionel hears as “kite,” suggests an adult world that this intuitive child cannot forever flee.

The subsequent story, “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” connects with “The Laughing Man” as a self-conscious act of storytelling, the first-person narrator addressing the reader with disarming directness. We learn that indeed, it has been written for a specific reader—Esmé—and that this story fulfills a promise the narrator made to her six years earlier during the war. Placed between “Down at the Dinghy” and “Pretty Mouth,” “For Esmé” assumes even greater importance than its length and complex narrative structure imply. The stories that precede and follow are dramatic, unified in time and space, whereas “For Esmé” employs two narrative voices (we learn why the voice shifts to omniscient narrator in part four) and recalls several actions occurring over a two-month period six years earlier, first in England, then in an army barracks, and later in New York City where the narrator now lives and writes his story for Esmé.

The opening of this six-part story introduces the narrator, whose voice is assured, ironic, humorous, and confiding. His description of his wife as “a breathtakingly levelheaded girl” and his almost imperceptible dislike of his mother-in-law, “Mother Grencher,” stir an interest in the story he tells “to edify, to instruct.” Several elusive stories inform the narrative he writes for Esmé, some of which concern the narrator's psychological and emotional breakdown, Esmé's recovery from her own war wounds, and the importance of the Goebbels book to the low-level Nazi official who has left it in the house where Sergeant X (the narrator), who arrested her, finds it. Finally, there is the unspoken question of the life the narrator has been living for the past six years. All of these stories are buried within the central narrative that links his meeting with Esmé, his breakdown and inability to function after leaving the hospital, his alienation from his insensitive fellow soldiers, and finally, the gift from Esmé that restores his hope—and his ability to sleep. An additional layer of narrative complexity lies in the language, especially in Esmé's letter, which reflects with total accuracy the inimitable pattern of her conversation with the soldier in the tea shop on a memorable afternoon in Devon. Like other conversations between adults and children in the collection, theirs is marked by the child's utterly serious demeanor, yet it is unique in the expression of her obvious insecurity, her appealing misuse, yet clear love, of language (including French), and above all her brave efforts, through words, to surmount the stunning loss of her father in the war. The bond of loneliness between Esmé and the narrator is apparent, and both treat little Charles like indulgently appreciative parents. Before Esmé returns to ask him to write an “extremely squalid moving story” (103), the narrator has confessed that her leaving the tearoom “was a strangely emotional moment for [him]” (102). Esmé's parting words, “I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact” (103), direct the narrator, as well as the reader, to the story he will now write for Esmé.

At this point, the narrator self-consciously begins his narrative, changing the voice from first person to omniscient third person, but with the admonition to the reader not to trust the narrator's objectivity. He says, “I'm still around, but from here on in, for reasons I'm not at liberty to disclose, I've disguised myself so cunningly that even the cleverest reader will fail to recognize me” (103). He is, of course, immediately recognizable as Sergeant X, and his “reasons” become one of the buried stories in the narrative. The narrator also tells his reader that this is the way to tell a story.

We learn that the young man has not come through the war with his faculties intact (104) and that he is now pondering the Nazi's inscription in the Goebbels book, “Dear God, life is hell” (105). His response, to inscribe Dostoevski's “‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love,” is undecipherable, so complete is the loss of his “faculties.” The penultimate section, his conversation with Corporal Z, or Clay, who quotes his girlfriend's letter offering psychological banalities about X's condition, serves as a sharp contrast to the final section when he receives Esmé's gift of her father's watch and reads her formal, precise, infinitely moving letter. Salinger maintains the omniscient narrative voice until the last line of the story, when the narrator speaks directly to Esmé, and by indirection to us, revealing in Esmé's own words the effect of that moment on the broken soldier. “For Esmé” is a long, ambitious, complex narrative that picks up several structural and narrative patterns from previous stories but adds a degree of closure that, although not resolving the questions that remain, makes the experience of reading it enormously pleasurable. Paradoxically, “A Perfect Day,” which raises more questions than it can handle, and “For Esmé,” which at least on the surface satisfies a reader's desire for a well-made story, remain Salinger's most popular short stories.

The next story in sequence, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” seems startlingly unlike those that precede and follow it. Both “For Esmé” and “De Daumier-Smith's” are long, multilayered, primarily first-person narratives that draw the reader into the emotional and spiritual conflicts of their protagonists. “Pretty Mouth” is a richly dramatized account of an adulterous affair between a young married woman and her older lover, who are interrupted by two phone calls from the woman's husband who is trying to locate her. The narrative voice is once again cruelly objective, noting apparently trivial details of the couple's activities while the two men are talking. After the opening passage describing the couple with unsparing precision, the ringing telephone and the gray-haired man's efforts to answer it, the rest of the story portrays, through dialogue, a sordid affair, morally squalid lives, and a brief, touching memory—the buried story—of the husband's idealized love. The pathetic second telephone call that reveals the latter's efforts to salvage his pride leave the older man stunned and perhaps angry at himself, and the reader is repelled by this brutal revelation of spiritual waste. “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period” is constructed in ten parts, with a first-person narrator whose reliability, unlike that of the narrators of “The Laughing Man” and “For Esmé,” is distinctly questionable. His narrative voice is insecure and anxious, his imagination given to fevered excursions into fantasy, his responses to situations unexpected or exaggerated. He experiences the pain of facing adulthood after the painful loss of his mother, and he feels sexually jealous of his stepfather.

That he dedicates his story to his late stepfather indicates, however, that he has at last accepted his past, left behind his “blue period,” and feels compelled to acknowledge his debt to the man with whom he was engaged in an inner, secret conflict years earlier when they discovered that they were “both in love with the same deceased woman” (133). Indeed, the story, like “For Esmé,” is a repayment of a debt by someone who owes his current ability to function (in whatever way he does—his present condition is not made clear in either story) to the person to whom the story is dedicated. Unlike the former soldier in the earlier story, this narrator feels the urgency of correcting a wrong in telling his story: “It's a matter of life and death” to describe his late stepfather as “adventurous, extremely magnetic, and generous,” having “spent so many years laboriously begrudging him those picaresque adjectives.”

The opening paragraph thus suggests that the story will describe the young man's coming to maturity, which indeed it does, but in such a veiled, convoluted way that critics have differed widely in their interpretations.14 Once again, Salinger's narrator returns to the past, to 1928 when he was eight years old, to recount the traumatic events that left him a lonely, alienated, sensitive young man. (In this story, as in “Laughing Man” and “Down at the Dinghy,” the missing or elusive father figure is the source of disturbance to a child.) In the third part of the story, set in New York's Ritz Hotel in 1939, he finds the advertisement in a Quebec newspaper that will ultimately lead to his psychological and even spiritual regeneration.

The narrative momentum of the story gradually increases after the initial leisurely descriptions of Quebec and the Yoshotos, the couple who run Les Amis Des Vieux Maîtres for whom he is employed as instructor. Parts six, seven, and eight are sharply defined by the narrator's anxiety over a three-day period after he has written to one of his students, Sister Irma, whose work has strangely touched him. The intricately structured narrative reaches its climax in the narrator's real or imagined moment of spiritual illumination—the transmutation of apparatuses (irrigation basins, a truss) in an orthopedic-appliance shop into a “shimmering field of exquisite, twice-blessed, enamel flowers” (164). The unique experiences of De Daumier-Smith raise, however, a number of unanswered questions: what does he see? what prompts his conclusion that “everybody is a nun”? and (perhaps, the most important question contained in his letter to Sister Irma) why does he remember as “pregnant with meaning” the moment at seventeen, when ecstatically happy after a long illness and walking toward Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris, he “bumped into a chap without any nose” (160)? These mysteries connect with experiences within the story, yet questions linger even after the most convincing interpretation. Perhaps because of the openness of the body of the story, Salinger imparts a rare degree of closure as the narrator describes his return to normalcy signified by his reuniting with his stepfather, the apparent resolution of his sexual conflicts (he spends the summer “investigating that most interesting of all summer-active animals, the American Girl in Shorts,” 164-5), and the fate of the art school and his pupils.

Salinger once again signals at the outset that language uncovers buried meanings. The narrator recalls a significant incident in New York City when he was nineteen, his “badly broken-out forehead” signifying his difficult late adolescence, when a bus driver says to him, “All right, buddy … let's move that ass.” For the young man, it is the word “buddy” that deeply disturbs him, and that same word is the linguistic link with the last story, “Teddy,” where in the first line a father cruelly mimics his son, using “buddy” as a disparaging epithet.

Despite its verbal and thematic connections to “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period,” the concluding story, “Teddy,” is nevertheless the stunning complement to the first story, “A Perfect Day.” They are constructed similarly (although “Teddy” is much longer and more philosophically suggestive) and both end in sudden, shocking deaths of the major characters. Indeed, it can be argued that the ending of “Teddy” is another suicide, for if the child knows the future and is aware that the swimming pool is empty, then his insistence on meeting his hateful little sister at the pool is certainly an act of self-destruction. Like “A Perfect Day,” the opening sections describe through dialogue Teddy's materialistic, selfish, and insensitive parents, and his younger sister Booper, whose words reveal her resentment and rage. The narrative voice remains distant and objective, save for a typical Salinger interpolation when Teddy gives his father a look of inquiry, “whole and pure” (167). Language serves as a thematic link in the first two sections which take place in the family's stateroom. Mr. McArdle repeats his initial rhetorical threat with variations, addressing Teddy by the scathing and impersonal “buddy”: “I'll exquisite day you, buddy, if you don't get down off that bag this minute” (166) and “I'll Queen Mary you, buddy, if you don't get off that bag this minute” (169). The husband and wife exchange remarks that are cruel, even violent: “I'd like to kick your goddam head open” (168), he tells her. His use of “god” and “Jesus” to curse his wife relates to Teddy's rejection of Christianity in favor of Eastern religion, specifically the Vedantic reincarnation and the rejection of emotion in pursuing spiritual advancement. The emotional level of the first section is thus connected to Teddy's need to be released from a world that finds spiritual sustenance in an expensive leather suitcase, a Leica camera, and the paraphernalia of everyday existence. Teddy is a prodigy, and his replies to the young teacher, Nicholson, reveal his intellectual sophistication and youthful intensity. The last sections of the story, like those in “De Daumier-Smith's,” concern time: Teddy is intent on meeting Booper at the pool at precisely 10:30 a.m., and he tries to extricate himself from Nicholson's insistent curiosity. The interchange between Nicholson and Teddy provides Salinger with the opportunity to develop the Vedantic approach to spiritual purity, and at the same time to create suspense over Teddy's fate. The last lines, narrated through Nicholson's consciousness, are matter-of-fact, in stark contrast to the horror of Teddy's death and Booper's shriek after she has pushed him into the empty pool. Among the unsolved problems in “Teddy” are the haiku poems, his journal, the origin of Booper's hatred, and above all, Teddy's gift of foreknowledge. “Teddy” provides the perfect bookend to the collection, his death the mystery linked with Seymour's suicide and the many other instances of emotional and spiritual death that pervade the sequence.15

The preceding analysis of structural patterns, voice, language, and story arrangement suggests that the occasional links hardly unify the whole collection. Indeed, although Salinger uses repeated symbolic motifs to familiarize the reader with his fictional world and major concerns, they fail to offer a basis for a unified or conclusive interpretation. In addition to the pervasive symbolism contained in references to vision; to repellent physical characteristics and behavior; to cigarettes, ashes, and ashtrays; and to changing seasons, the collection is most suggestive in its symbolic allusions to Dantesque motifs that reinforce the primary conflict in the collection between the material world, a modern “Inferno,” and a spiritual realm fitfully imagined but given a degree of shape and substance in the last two stories. An early Salinger critic noted that most of his work “is about those who think they are in hell, a place where the soul suffers according to its qualities, and without escape.”16 In Eastern thought there is no eternal hell, and Salinger's characters, looking for escape from this world, find it either in sleep (“For Esmé”) or in an afterlife that offers eternal surcease from pain.

Dantesque motifs include references to the trees (Dante's Wood of the Suicides) that figure as the “whirly woods” of “A Perfect Day” and reappear in the following story set in the same Connecticut location. Seymour's pallor recalls the “death-pale” of Dante's suicides, as does the description of Sergeant X looking like “a goddam corpse.” Dante's hell is reflected not only in the “life is hell” inscription on the Goebbels diary but in the popular culture Salinger evokes. As in Catcher, the author's favorite expletive is “hell!” familiar enough in contemporary speech, but symbolically suggestive in the context created by the first story. Muriel reads a magazine article, “Sex is Fun—or Hell,” surely a clue to the psychosexual conflicts within most of Salinger's male characters. The tigers in “A Perfect Day” suggest the Inferno's female hellhounds; and the repeated allusions to the extreme heat in that story, followed by the deathlike cold of the next, suggest Dantesque allusions to extremes of temperature. “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” has also been linked to Dante's Inferno, not only through the repeated religious expletives and the fire and ashes, but also through the characters' resemblance to Dante's Paolo and Francesca.17 If Salinger's Manhattan is hell, a hell of unleashed materialism, then for the tortured souls who inhabit the city, the search for a serene spiritual existence perforce becomes central to their efforts to find meaning where none apparently exists. This, then, is the spiritual level of Nine Stories, and it evolves naturally out of the brilliant depiction of a modern urban hell.

Does the search for a way out of hell or for meaning in a spiritual realm create, however, a firm structure linking the stories in the collection? The vexing mysteries raised by individual stories are, if anything, more insistent than any thematic link we may perceive. Indeed, the mysteries that linger after the last story are themselves the meanings that elude us throughout the collection. There have been many brilliant and intricate speculations and interpretations, but these enigmas provide the final link among the Nine Stories. I have previously alluded to the questions that remain after Seymour's and Teddy's deaths and the Chief's broken relationship, but they barely hint at the accumulating questions that suggest an ineffable narrative dimension that itself functions much like a Zen koan. They concern the symbolism of the bananafish story; the recurrent patterns of numbers; Eloise's careful placement of Ramona's glasses lenses down; her true feelings for her daughter; the source of her sorrow; the nature of Franklin's relationship with Eric; the importance of Franklin's misery to Ginnie; the allegory in the story of the Laughing Man; the meaning of Lionel's flights; the relationship between Boo Boo and her husband; the significance of the Nazi woman's inscription on the Goebbels book; the Sergeant's relationship with his wife; the effect of Esmé's invitation on his marriage; the impulse that led the husband in “Pretty Mouth” to poeticize his wife's eyes; the noises in the Yoshoto's room; the quality of Sister Irma's painting; the connection between the narrator's dentist and Father Zimmerman, who share the same name. Finally, the last story may contain a clue to the meaning of the entire work, but we can never be certain: Teddy may be the psychologically scarred child of cruelly insensitive parents, or he may be a true guru who achieves satori by relinquishing his material being.

I am not suggesting that these mysteries are utterly insoluble. They have, in fact, spawned the Salinger industry. But they pose questions that remain even after the most thorough explication has apparently tied up all the loose ends. They suggest the openness of life itself; they suggest the puzzles that Salinger and we well know lie at the heart of all human existence. No attempt to explain Nine Stories can erase its mysteries. That is why it is a classic, as fresh today as it was on publication, forty years ago.


  1. George Steiner, “The Salinger Industry,” in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, ed. Henry Anatole Grunwald (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 82.

  2. J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1964), 59. Subsequent parenthetical references to Salinger's Nine Stories will correspond in pagination to this edition.

  3. J. Gerald Kennedy, “Toward a Poetics of the Short Story Cycle,” Journal of the Short Story in English 11 (Autumn 1988): 11.

  4. Two of Salinger's favorite recurring motifs are cigarette ashes and the ashtray. In 1961 Alfred Kazin criticized the excesses of the Salinger industry: “Someday there will be learned theses on The Use of the Ashtray in J. D. Salinger's Stories; no other writer has made so much of Americans lighting up, reaching for the ashtray, setting up the ashtray with one hand while with the other they reach for a cigarette.” See Kazin, “‘Everybody's Favorite,’” in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, 45. James Finn Cotter, acknowledging Kazin's caveat, nevertheless explicates the religious import of Salinger's ashtrays in “Religious Symbols in Salinger's Shorter Fiction,” Studies in Short Fiction 15 (Spring 1978): 129.

  5. John Wenke, J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne, 1991), 32.

  6. Although most commentary on Nine Stories has been devoted to individual stories, there have been three major discussions of the collection as a short story sequence, by Wenke (cited earlier), Paul Kirschner, and Warren French. Kirschner finds a “completed pattern” (76) emerging from the collection; French notes that “one develops a sense of an interconnectedness among [the stories], of a progression based upon the slow and painful achievement of spiritual enlightenment … of successive stages that a soul would pass through according to Vedantic teachings in at last escaping fleshly reincarnations.” See Kirschner, “Salinger and His Society,” Literary Half-Yearly 12 (Fall 1971): 51-60; 14 (Fall 1973): 63-78; and French, J. D. Salinger Revisited (Boston: Twayne, 1988), 63-4.

  7. All were published first in the New Yorker: “Franny,” 29 January 1955, 24-32, 35-43; “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” 19 November 1955, 51-8, 60-116; “Zooey,” 5 May 1957, 32-42, 44-139; “Seymour, An Introduction,” 6 June 1959, 42-52, 54-111; “Hapworth 16, 1924,” 19 June 1965, 32-113. All but the last story have been collected.

  8. Nine Stories rose to ninth position on the New York Times bestseller list, and remained among the top twenty for three months, a remarkable record for a collection of short stories. The English publisher Hamish Hamilton feared the title would prove a handicap and persuaded Salinger to permit a change. The volume appeared as For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories (1955), without the Zen epigraph, and despite the title change, did not achieve the readership of the American edition. Today, Nine Stories, like all of Salinger's collected stories and novel, is available in mass-market paperback and sells steadily. See Ian Hamilton, In Search of J. D. Salinger (New York: Random House, 1988), 135-6.

  9. These stories were selected from twenty the author had already published in such mass magazines as Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Good Housekeeping, Esquire, and the New Yorker, as well as in the prestigious small circulation journals, Story and University of Kansas City Review. The selection reflects Salinger's correct perception of his skills: These are his most polished, skillful, and sophisticated fictions. That all but two originally appeared in the New Yorker led many early critics to the conclusion that Salinger's work was in part shaped by the editorial demands of that magazine. That conclusion is too simple; Salinger was already a skilled magazine writer by the time the first of the nine stories had been published. The high standards, editorial receptivity, and general ambience of the New Yorker provided Salinger with the ideal outlet for his fiction.

  10. Alan W. Watts, The Spirit of Zen (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958), 75.

  11. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1961), 37.

  12. Kennedy, 16-17.

  13. Although early readings of the story almost uniformly saw Muriel as a cold, materialistic woman, whose insensitivity leads Seymour to suicide, recent criticism has looked more charitably upon her and has seen his action as a far more complex response to his spiritual dilemma.

  14. See, for example, the discussions by French, 80-3; Wenke, 56-60, who notes the narrator's “diseased imagination” and describes the story as the “most odd and disjunctive” in the collection (59); and Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph Blotner's fine analysis of the Oedipal conflict in the story in The Fiction of J. D. Salinger (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958), 33-40.

  15. The ending of “Teddy” illustrates the varying degrees of narrative closure in the volume. “A Perfect Day” and “Teddy” are the most open, perhaps because the endings do not settle any of the questions they raise. The muted endings of “The Laughing Man” and “Uncle Wiggily” also resist closure, and “Pretty Mouth” ends abruptly, but there is no resolution for any of the characters. The other four stories, “Just Before the War,” “For Esmé,” “Down at the Dinghy,” and “De Daumier-Smith's,” are the most structurally complete, with the strongest degree of narrative closure, yet the questions within these stories are no less insistent than in those that remain open-ended.

  16. Donald Barr continues: “Ten people have read and enjoyed the Inferno for everyone who has read the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. It is fun; like looking at real estate, it gives us a sense of our own possibilities. But Salinger's hell is different. It is hell for the good, who can feel pain, who really love or hope to love.” See his “Saints, Pilgrims and Artists,” in Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait, 174.

  17. John Hagopian, “‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’: Salinger's Paolo and Francesca in New York,” Modern Fiction Studies 12 (Autumn 1966): 353.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Alsen, Eberhard. Salinger's Glass Stories as a Composite Novel. Troy, N. Y.: Whitston Publishing, 1983, 271 p.

Provides analysis of the characters, plots, narrative structures, and unifying spiritual themes of Salinger's Glass family saga.

———. A Reader's Guide to J. D. Salinger. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002, 270 p.

Full-length critical study of Salinger's fiction.

Wenke, John. J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991, 177 p.

Analysis of Salinger's short fiction.

Additional coverage of Salinger's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 2, 36; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 18; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941–1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5–8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 39; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 12, 55, 56, 138; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers, Ed. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 102, 173; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors,Novelists, and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 17; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 28; Something about the Author, Vol. 67; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults.

William F. Purcell (essay date spring 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Purcell, William F. “Narrative Voice in J. D. Salinger's ‘Both Parties Concerned’ and ‘I'm Crazy.’” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 278-80.

[In the following essay, Purcell analyzes the use of first-person narrative voice in Salinger's short stories “Both Parties Concerned” and “I'm Crazy.”]

Billy Vullmer in “Both Parties Concerned” is the narrative forerunner to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. John Wenke (24) has suggested that following his success with Billy's narrative voice, J. D. Salinger returned to his Holden Caulfield character with this type of narration in mind for “I'm Crazy,” one of the two stories around which Catcher was eventually constructed.1 Wenke sees a linear progression in the development of Salinger's narrative technique that begins in “Both Parties Concerned,” proceeds through “I'm Crazy,” and culminates in Catcher. Clearly, “Both Parties Concerned” does anticipate Catcher in that both are successful attempts at skaz narration. However, “I'm Crazy,” which falls chronologically between the two, is different in terms of narrative technique. While it shares similarity as a first-person narrative, it lacks the essential characteristic of skaz that is found in these other stories.

Russian in origin, skaz differs from other first-person narratives in that it attempts to “give the illusion of spontaneous speech” (Prince 88). Although a carefully prepared and highly polished text, a successful skaz leaves the reader with the impression of listening to an unrehearsed, rambling monologue such as one might hear from an excited or talkative stranger on a train or in a bar. “I'm Crazy” clearly does not live up to this definition. Although a colloquial first-person narrative, it fails to create the illusion of spontaneity.

Three characteristics of Billy's narrative contribute in large measure to making it a successful skaz. These include the use of clichés and trite figures of speech, emphatic hyperbole, and extensive repetition that suggests a self-conscious concern about his ability to communicate successfully. Each of these characteristics contributes to the sense of spontaneity by adding a degree of imprecision to the meaning of the speaker's utterances, as if he were struggling as he speaks to understand what it is he really wants to say. These same characteristics are also part of Holden's narrative voice in Catcher. However, they are largely absent from “I'm Crazy.”

In “Both Parties Concerned,” Billy uses a number of clichés and trite figures of speech: “What was I supposed to do? Sit around home like a dope every night?” (14); “Then she laughed like a dope” (48); “I thought you'd be tickled to death” (14); “But that morning I had to shake the stuffin's out of her” (48); “She was crying to beat the band” (48). Reliance on such clichés and stock similes makes Billy's utterances seem unplanned, primarily because their use implies a lack of forethought that more original or creative figures of speech would suggest. In “I'm Crazy,” on the other hand, Holden generally avoids using such figures of speech. The few times he does resort to them, however, they tend to be more complicated and original: “It was as though Buhler and Jackson and I had done something that had died and been buried, and only I knew about it, and no one was at the funeral but me” (36); “Old Spencer handled my exam paper as though it were something catching that he had to handle for the good of science or something, like Pasteur or one of those guys” (48). The complexity of these similes suggests deliberate forethought that makes them seem anything but spontaneous.

Hyperbole similarly adds to the sense of spontaneity in Billy's narrative. Such exaggerations primarily add emotional emphasis to the speaker's thoughts. Because they cannot be interpreted literally, their meanings are somewhat imprecise, and thus indicate that the speaker is responding more from his emotions of the moment than with considered forethought. Billy makes moderate use of such hyperbole: “And they must have played eighty-five choruses of it” (47); “Ruthie danced about ten miles away from me” (47); “I asked her about a million times just to look at me once” (48); “When we come in at night, she breaks about thirty speed records getting out of the house” (48). In “I'm Crazy” Holden also uses hyperbole. However, unlike Billy, he does not use it in his narrative. Rather, it only appears twice, and both times in the context of earlier conversations with Mr. Spencer and with little sister Phoebe that Holden recounts for his audience: “I could see my mother chasing around stores, asking the salesmen a million dumb questions” (48); “I like a million things. I like sitting here with you” (51). By limiting the use of hyperbole to this context, Holden's narrative is less affected by emotion and thus seemingly more deliberate.

Perhaps the most important characteristic in creating the illusion of spontaneous speech is the speaker's uncertainty about his ability to communicate successfully. Billy opens his narrative rather uncertain about what it is he wants to say or if his audience really understands what “I mean”: “There really isn't much to tell. I mean it wasn't serious or anything, but it was kind of funny, at that” (11). This self-consciousness about making himself understood pervades the story, mostly in the form of frequent repetition of statements: “Ruthie and I, we never really split up. Not really split up” (11); “I know her like a book. I mean I know her like a book” (11); “I told her then. I mean, I wasn't afraid to tell her. I told her” (47); “They started playing Moonlight Becomes You. It's old now, but it's a swell song. I mean it isn't a bad song” (47); “My hands were shaking like. I mean they were shaking” (48). From beginning to end, Billy worries about getting the story right. This same feeling of doubt, however, never surfaces in “I'm Crazy.” While the narrative is related in an extremely informal, colloquial manner, Holden knows what he wants to say, and shows no self-conscious concern about being understood. Thus, while Billy stumbles along constantly repeating himself, Holden's narrative flows unencumbered by doubts or hesitations.

By the time “Both Parties Concerned” was published, Salinger was already planning a novel based on the Holden Caulfield character (Sublette 30-31). This story clearly demonstrates that from early on, Salinger was aware of at least some of the characteristics of spontaneous speech. The fact that he did not also exploit these in “I'm Crazy” would thus suggest that his original plans for Holden did not include skaz, and that it was not until after he completed the story and began reworking the material for the novel that he reached back to the voice of Billy Vullmer for his narrative model.


  1. “Slight Rebellion off Madison,” the original Holden Caulfield story, had been sold to New Yorker in 1941, nearly three years before “Both Parties Concerned” was published (French 56).

Works Cited

French, Warren. J. D. Salinger. Rev. ed. Twayne's United States Authors Series 40. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.

Salinger, J. D. “Both Parties Concerned.” Saturday Evening Post 20 Feb. 1944: 14+.

———. “I'm Crazy.” Collier's 22 Dec. 1945: 36+.

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

Wenke, John. J. D. Salinger: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne's Studies in Short Fiction Series. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Alfred F. Boe (essay date fall 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Boe, Alfred F. “Salinger and Sport.”1Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 14, no. 1 (fall 1996): 41-5.

[In the following essay, Boe asserts that Salinger employs sport as a significant thematic device in many of his stories.]

O Chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—W. B. Yeats

In J. D. Salinger's universe, sport, like human beings and many other phenomena, tends to be divided into two categories, phony and authentic—not, as Warren French ineptly puts it in his Twayne study of Salinger, phony and “nice” (J. D. Salinger, revised edition [Boston: Twayne, 1976], chapter two). Here French falls into the trap of identifying author with narrating character. “Nice” is Holden Caulfield's word, not Salinger's, and though Salinger as far as I can recall never actually uses the word “authentic,” that word, in its full Sartrian existential sense, is a much more precise antonym to “phony.” The distinction is essentially one of motive: authentic behavior is that which stems from a person's own unique personality and natural desires rather than from a socially assumed role or a desire to impress someone or to achieve some other result extraneous to the nature of the behavior itself. Phony behavior, of course, is just the opposite.

You may have noticed that I said above “sport” and not “sports.” This was by intention, for the division I'm talking about is not one of categorizing the various sports—football is phony, tennis is authentic, golf is phony, baseball is authentic—although these categorizations are sometimes suggested by Salinger and/or his narrators. But actually, in Salinger any given sport, like any given human being, can be either phony or authentic depending on how it performs, in the case of people, or is performed, in the case of sports. Any sport, that is, may be phony or authentic—or, more realistically, a mixture—according to its context and function.

For, despite the idealistic yearning for perfection that runs through Salinger's writing, despite his or his characters' tendency to sentimental oversimplifying, the fact is that Salinger generally knows, and shows his characters striving to know, that life does not fall neatly into dichotomized categories of black and white, good and evil, phony and authentic. But the two categories phony and authentic provide a scale for analyzing and evaluating human beings and their behavior and experience, and this analysis and evaluation is, I think, the major thematic concern of Salinger's whole body of work.

Sport is an essential and omnipresent, though for the most part unobtrusive, element of Salinger's cross-sectional portrayal of American life—or at least of upper-middle-class American life—in mid-Twentieth Century: the situation of the short story “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” for instance, is that of two girls coming home from playing tennis; Seymour and Buddy Glass were great, albeit flawed, athletes, at least in their childhood; Franny had her breakdown on the way to a football game; Holden leaves Pencey during a football game, regards Ring Lardner as his favorite writer (other than his brother D. B.), remembers Allie's baseball glove with poems written on it, goes ice-skating, etc.; and various Salinger characters and narrators occasionally use sports metaphors, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously.

But I'm arguing that Salinger uses sport not merely as a naturalistic piece in a naturalistic mosaic of American society, but as a significant thematic device, to help elucidate his analysis of people and experience in terms of the phony-authentic axis. Sport serves particularly well for this purpose because of its sheer physicality and its (potential, at least) purity, its isolation from the complexities of politics, society, the economy, and so on. But notice I said its potential purity: any specific instance of sport, as I said earlier, like any other human phenomenon, may lie anywhere along the phony-authentic axis, toward one end or the other, or anywhere in between,

Sports are at their phoniest when most entangled with extrinsic ends, particularly those of ego or of artificial, insincere social behavior. Football and golf seem to suffer here, at Salinger's hands, because of the high degree of their involvement with social status. In his only real novel Salinger hits us with this right at the very beginning: the first scene of The Catcher in the Rye is Holden's departure from Pencey Prep: “it was the Saturday of the football game with Saxon Hall. The game … was supposed to be a very big deal around Pencey. It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win” (Bantam paperback edition, New York, 1964, 2). Here Salinger brilliantly and economically uses Holden's adolescent style to encapsule a whole complex of phony socially-induced attitudes to football—and, of course, Holden's refusal to share them.

But it's not football that's at fault, it's the way football is used, the context it's forced into. We see that in a striking contrast: just two pages later, as Holden tries to find some positive feelings about Pencey and leaving it, he remembers “this time, in around October, that I and Robert Tichener and Paul Campbell were chucking a football around, in front of the academic building. They were nice guys, especially Tichener. It was just before dinner and it was getting pretty dark out, but we kept chucking the ball around anyway. It kept getting darker and darker, and we could hardly see the ball any more, but we didn't want to stop doing what we were doing” (4-5, Salinger's italics). No crowds, no phony school spirit, no extrinsic ends, only doing the activity for its own sake, for the sheer fun of it: authentic. (And if it reminds you, on a vastly scaled-down level, of the final football game in Don DeLillo's End Zone, so much the better, because DeLillo was working the same kind of contrast between the phoniness of organized college football and the spontaneous, natural authenticity of the game in the snow.)

Rather than reiterate this contrast by citing the many possible additional examples in Salinger, however, I'd rather probe a bit more deeply into the authentic mode of sport. What it is in Salinger, in its most idealistic form, is the paradox of simultaneous total detachment from and total commitment to one activity: the attitude of Zen, in fact.

In the only article I know of to deal with sport in Salinger (until now, of course), “Salinger's Feat,” (Modern Fiction Studies, 12 [1966], 299-311), John Russell argues that Salinger uses feet to represent the natural, nonintellectual, and thus “pure” element of human behavior (that which is habitual, unmediated). He quotes Holden's account of helping a child tighten her skates: “Boy, I hadn't had a skate key in my hand for years. It didn't feel funny, though. You could put a skate key in my hand fifty years from now, in pitch dark, and I'd still know what it is” (Catcher, p. 119). Russell goes on to comment: “The order of knowledge—no brain-effort needed here, no change anticipated or possible—is what sanctifies the moment. There is no estrangement” (p. 307). He goes on to quote a seemingly casual sports metaphor which narrator Buddy Glass uses to describe a particular habit of his brother Zooey while shaving: it “may well have been mostly reflexive, just as a veteran baseball player, at the plate, will tap his spikes with his bat whether he needs to or not” (Franny and Zooey, Bantam paperback edition, New York, 1964, 92). Says Russell,

It is noteworthy that Salinger recurred to the athletic comparison. … Reflexive but cyclically repeated movements, stances, assumptions of a line of sight—these are ways of addressing oneself to a skilled task in which the essence of being ‘in form’ is the absence of a ‘self’ that monitors these movements. Joseph Campbell in his Masks of God, describing Zen as ‘the art of being “in form” for everything, all the time,’ says without ado that ‘any great athlete or performer will recognize this … being “in form.”’ [Russell elaborates:] It involves a rightness of feeling, a kind of impersonal advance surety that the catcher's mitt, or whatever the target is, will be hit.


And of course it is the absence of that intrusive monitoring ego that produces the desired result—produces it, paradoxically, proportionately to the lack of desire for that result, proportionately to the degree to which the performer is attuned to the activity itself rather than its results.

In his most overt presentation of these themes, in the last 20 pages of “Seymour: An Introduction” (published together with “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” Bantam paperback edition, New York, 1965), Salinger has narrator Buddy Glass experience an epiphany of memory as he reviews Seymour's career as “Athlete and Gamesman.” There's a bit of delicious satire in the passage, by the way, on English professors who are a little overzealous in their desire to prove themselves “regular guys” by their interest in sport—though Buddy says of himself, “I've been a baseball fan myself all my life, and I don't doubt that there's an area inside my skull that must look like a bird-cage bottom of old shredded Sports Sections” (193).

Back to the epiphany: Buddy remembers when he was eight years old, playing curb marbles in the magical time of twilight. Suddenly Seymour (age 10) appeared, balanced on the opposite curb (and that “balanced” is very important—the stance of the Zen athlete); Seymour suggested to Buddy that he not aim so much. “If you hit him when you aim, it'll just be luck” (202). Buddy objects vigorously. Seymour explains “You'll be glad if you hit his marble … won't you … And if you're glad when you hit somebody's marble, then you sort of secretly didn't expect too much to do it. So there'd have to be some luck in it, there'd have to be slightly quite a lot of accident in it” (203, Salinger's italics). Seymour, of course, was a brilliant, though very unorthodox, curb marble player. But only 32 years later can Buddy appreciate Seymour's advice, as he recalls “that after Seymour himself shot a marble, he would be all smiles when he heard a responsive click of glass striking glass, but it never appeared to be clear to him whose winning click it was. And it's also a fact that someone almost invariably had to pick up the marble he'd won and hand it to him” (209, Salinger's italics).

What makes this epiphany so meaningful for Buddy is that he sees it as applying to his own adult performance: writing. In fact, Buddy's need to cultivate a Zen attitude to his writing is a major theme of the novel; the essence of the story is Seymour's impact on Buddy and Buddy's attempts to come to terms with that impact—perhaps suggested by Salinger metaphorically in the imagery of the marble game: we need to read, “the responsive click of Glass striking Glass.”

I have already dealt with the subject of Salinger's connections between sport—specifically baseball—and writing in my review of W. P. Kinsella's recent novel Shoeless Joe in Arete, 1:1 (Fall, 1983), 179-85. There I noted the pregnant motif of Allie's baseball glove with poems written on it, and Seymour's storing of his collection of poems in a drawer marked “athletic equipment.” (Now despite Jack Higgs's debunking of muscular Christianity and other confusions of sport with religion [Arete, 1:1, 59-85], in Salinger, at least, sports and writing are identified with each other, and both are, or at least can be—should be—spiritual exercises in the Zen sense.)

Another story where Salinger, it seems to me, works out a parallel between sport and writing is “The Laughing Man” (Nine Stories, Bantam paperback edition, New York, 1964). In this story, too, a narrator recalls, some twenty years later, an experience of his childhood, as a nine-year old member of a boy-scout-like group called the Comanches. The young law student who was their “counsellor” entertained them (after school, and on Saturdays and Holidays) with exactly two kinds of activities: sports—soccer, football, and especially baseball; and stories—actually one enormous continuing saga, that of the Laughing Man. A kind of Zen spirit pervades both activities, as the boys play baseball for the sheer delight of it, and as John Gesudski, their “chief” tells the stories, also for the sheer delight of it—his own, and theirs. This spirit is interrupted, however, when the chief's girlfriend comes on the scene: she wants to join in the baseball games. The boys, though they're young and relatively pure, are socialized enough to resent having a girl in the game. But she wins them over by turning out to be a perfect Zen-like player: instinctive, spontaneous, attuned to the task itself, not to extraneous results.

Unfortunately, when she and the chief have a falling out—which the narrator didn't understand then, and only superficially does now—the results are not Zen-like at all, but just the opposite: Gesudski takes out his pique over the incident on the boys; he lets his egoistic interest take over the telling of the story he kills the Laughing Man. Thus the story teller is not one with the story, telling it for its own sake, he is using it, cruelly, in this case, for extraneous ends, those of expressing his own bitterness.

Salinger's plaintive dedication to his last book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction, indicates how hard he was finding it to be a Zen writer, avoiding the cult of celebrity that was building up around him and that he hated so much. It also indicates that he wanted Zen readers—like the little boys who listened to the Laughing Man:

If there is an amateur reader still left in the world—or anybody who just reads and runs—ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.

“Who reads and runs”—hmmm—are there further implications here for the relation of sport to writing? Well, so to speculate is to violate the very Zen-like reading spirit Salinger seems to be asking for here, so I'll stop. And perhaps that's why Salinger himself has stopped—though, he tells us, he hasn't stopped writing, he's just stopped publishing. …


  1. This paper was presented originally at the National Council of Teachers of English 75th Annual Convention in Detroit, November 21, 1984.

Anthony Kaufman (essay date spring 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Kaufman, Anthony. “‘Along This Road Goes No One’: Salinger's ‘Teddy’ and the Failure of Love.” Studies in Short Fiction 35, no. 2 (spring 1998): 129-40.

[In the following essay, Kaufman offers a psychological interpretation of Salinger's short story “Teddy”, asserting that Salinger advocates a “doctrine of redemptive love” through the voice of the story's narrator.]

The reputation of J. D. Salinger rests largely on two relatively short works: The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. The Nine Stories collection is brilliant, but it is seemingly marred by the final story, “Teddy.” Salinger himself seems to dismiss the story. In what can be read as his own commentary, Salinger, through his arch, uncertain disguise as Buddy Glass, in “Seymour—An Introduction,” calls “Teddy” “an exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story” (205). Critics have generally agreed, objecting particularly to the seemingly contrived character of Teddy who claims that he is a 10-year-old perfect master, equipped with clairvoyance, and to the ambiguity of the conclusion, where it is not entirely clear what happens.1

But despite these seemingly well-founded objections, I will argue that the story is highly successful—indeed deeply moving—when we understand that “Teddy” is the story not of a cool and detached mystical prodigy, but of an unloved, frightened 10-year-old. Teddy has reacted defensively to an exploitative adult world by intuitively developing the persona of the mystic and clairvoyant both to gain the love he desperately needs and, paradoxically, to distance himself from his uncaring family and the grown-up world. Although critics have in general taken straight the premise that Teddy is indeed a little swami and analyzed in depth the importance of Zen to this story and to Salinger generally, it is only when we peel away the overlay of mysticism that the story becomes coherent and moving—and only then does “Teddy” become a valid and satisfactory conclusion to the Nine Stories collection. We will see, however, that the mystic elements of the story are indeed crucial, although not in the way that critics have suggested.

What has happened is this: in defensive reaction to the egotism, lovelessness, and incessant hostility of his parents toward each other and toward their children, and reinforced by his sense of the vulgarity, selfishness, and materialism of grown-up life, Teddy has instinctively felt his way to creating his persona of the mystic savant. That is, based on his precocious acquaintance (perhaps through Allen Watts and Dr. Suzuki?) in Eastern philosophy, he has convinced himself (and some of the grown-up world) of his mystic powers.2 The benefits of this disguise to Teddy are several: not only can he withdraw from his parents, and the adult world more generally, and ward off feelings of anxiety and depression that any ten-year-old might experience in his difficult family situation—he can also vent his feelings of anger toward them through his pose of studied responsibility and tolerant acceptance of their faults. He can feel distanced from a frightening world, sought-after, superior. He can believe that he has control of his 10-year-old world. His disguise of perfect master (although extreme) has affinities with the defensive use of the imagination by other children in the Nine Stories collection: Romona's imaginary lover and defender Jimmy in “Uncle Wiggley in Connecticut,” the precocious adult-like attitude of Esmé, and the pretentious self-presentation of De Daumier Smith.

Thus the story “Teddy” works in two ways, both to portray Salinger's characteristic child victim (and thus it forms a satiric comment on the adult world), and also to create an interesting and credible study of the way in which a 10-year-old has intuitively defended himself against the ego, anger, and indifference that his parents and the adult world have inflicted upon him. In its portrayal of the underloved child, “Teddy” embodies the Salinger masterplot as seen in Catcher and the other stories of Nine Stories.

Yet Salinger makes another, highly important use of the mysticism Teddy explains and advocates. The doctrine of love he preaches represents a valid and necessary response to the world and suggests the author's putative answer to the problems seen throughout Nine Stories and, indeed, all of his published fiction. In reaction to the harshness of American life, it is necessary to return acceptance, tolerance, and love. This response is clearly seen, for example, in the longer story, “Franny,” in which Zooey's sermon on the fat lady suggests this selfless way of encountering the world. I think then that Warren French is only partly correct when he insists that “One misleading thing about the story is that Teddy's palaver creates the feeling that mysticism is in some way involved in what happens” (J. D. Salinger 134). If we are misled into believing that Teddy himself is truly a mystic and clairvoyant, the story fails: it is incredible. But the ethic that Teddy derives from his acquaintance with Eastern religion stands in the story as a potential response to the difficulties of life in America. Teddy's doctrine of love is both defense and valid response to the crummy world. As such, it is a satisfactory conclusion to the Nine Stories, all of which dramatize the difficulties of “being born in an American body.”

We must see, moreover, that Teddy's sense of not being loved, has produced in him an anger that is both expressed through and disguised by his pose of the junior savant. His response to the adult world is carefully controlled passive aggression, seen chiefly in his polite contempt for his parents and later the intrusive Nicholson. His obliquely expressed anger may be sensed, for example, in his response to Nicholson's inquiry about the education of children. Teddy, who equates “logic and intellectual stuff” with the fatal apple of Eden, responds: “I'd just make them vomit up every bit of the apple their parents and everybody made them take a bite out of” (106). The violent image of forcing small children to vomit up a kind of poison thrust upon them by the adult world suggests Teddy's anger and his sense that he and children generally are being poisoned by being brought up “in an American body.”3

Like his spiritual kinsman, Seymour Glass of the collection's first story, whose importance to the later story I will discuss, Teddy, I would argue, commits suicide as the ultimate gesture of hostility and withdrawal, carefully planning it in advance to inspire terror and guilt. He deliberately designs his death so that the hateful Booper should be witness and victim, and her horror will later, of course, be shared by his miserable parents.


It is useful to approach Teddy through the first story in the collection: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” since, I believe, Nine Stories reveals a thematic unity. The centrality of the character Seymour Glass to Salinger's fiction is well understood. Teddy and Seymour are closely related characters. Salinger called attention to the parallels between Teddy and Seymour in his introduction to “Seymour—An Introduction,” where, with irritating coyness, Salinger/Buddy says that some of the Glass family members thought that his description of Teddy's eyes looked very much like those of Seymour: “at least two members of my family knew and remarked that I was trying to get at his eyes with that description, [of Teddy's eyes] and even felt that I hadn't brought it off too badly, in a peculiar way” (132).4 Surely a similarity of vision is suggested in the two characters. In “Seymour” [“Seymour—An Introduction”] the narrator, Buddy Glass, a writer, says with wry amusement that some people tell him that all his stories are about one person only: Seymour.

“Teddy,” the last story of the collection ends, as does the first story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” with a suicide.5 Seymour Glass kills himself sitting three feet away from the very embodiment of a world he cannot abide, his wife Muriel, and in a way that will cause the ultimate shock and horror. Teddy also kills himself in front of a female he intends to injure, that small concentration of hostility and meanness, his sister Booper, whose “all-piercing” scream can be thought of as an echo of the scream of Muriel a microsecond after the death of Seymour, and, of course, a forecast of the response of Teddy's own parents who will shortly learn of Teddy's death. The deeply disturbed Teddy throws himself into the empty pool (untouched by Booper) to protest and escape a life he cannot abide, and to inflict guilt feelings on his family and the adult world that has violated him through its ceaseless probing of his personality. Thus understood, there is no problematic ambiguity to the conclusion of “Teddy.” Salinger's deliberate reduplication of the figure of Seymour from “Bananafish” [“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”] in “Teddy” tells us exactly what happens at the end of Teddy's story. The motives of suicide are alike: to escape, protest, and inspire horror and guilt: in short, to punish the unloving, grown-up world in the person of a particularly dreadful female.6

We may say a little more about Seymour, then, and the crucial reflection of him in Teddy. We learn more of Seymour in the second of the Nine Stories, “Down at the Dingy,” and outside the Nine Stories collection, most notably in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” “Seymour—An Introduction” and “Hapgood 16, 1924.”7 Like Teddy, Seymour is, we learn in “Carpenters” [“Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”], careful and responsible concerning his family, suspicious of sentimentality (53), a connoisseur of haiku. He is a student of mysticism: like Teddy, he keeps a diary, and notes, “I've been reading a miscellany of Vedanta all day” (70). Another diary entry reflects a central fictional concern of Salinger—that of the care of children. Married couples are to “Raise their children honorably, lovingly, and with detachment. A child is a guest in the house, to be loved and respected—never possessed, since he belongs to god” (70). Thus Seymour's diary anticipates and glosses the story “Teddy.”

As seen in the other stories in which he appears, Seymour Glass was as a child prodigy, the subject of examination by a hostile probing adult world, and this intense puzzlement about Seymour, seen both within the Glass family and the world outside the family, is ongoing. In “Bananafish,” Seymour, obviously disturbed by his experience in the war, is the object of examination by all those who surround him—including the professional scrutiny of two psychiatrists named in the story. He is considered special, puzzling, something of a freak. The story begins with Mrs. Fedders, Muriel's mother, questioning Muriel about Seymour. We learn that Seymour is preoccupied with death: “Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away” (6). His conversation with Sybil defies the “Western” logic that Teddy so discommends in his story. Intending to delight the girl, he refutes logic and reason with his witty, charming disregard for reality. He comments teasingly on Sybil's “yellow” bathing suit (actually blue) and his delight in fantasy is seen throughout their conversation. His story of the bananafish, freakish and self-destructive, defines his feelings about himself.

Like Teddy, Seymour, though on the point of suicide, is careful and responsible in his actions toward Sybil. But his hostility against the grown-up world (necessarily more suppressed in the much younger, dependent Teddy), emerges clearly: his anger toward the innocent woman in the elevator, whom he accuses of staring at his feet, reveals his hostility. Seymour projects a suicidal fantasy in the famous story of the bananafish, who, when trapped, die. At the end of the story, he kills himself. His death is an accusation: against the self-absorbed, non-understanding Muriel, against the adult world represented by her mother, Mrs. Fedders, and the psychiatrists—none of whom can understand or help him. Shooting himself while sitting close to the sleeping Muriel is the supremely hostile action, and one that he has planned in advance; he brought the gun with him to Florida.

Teddy, like Seymour, is a person of great potential at the time of his death. Like other unhappy Salinger kids in the collection, Teddy is detached from his parents, and from adults in general, secretive and withdrawn—though Teddy is seemingly the opposite: open, kind, careful, responsible. Teddy, far from being the serene little savant he seems, is in fact lonely, withdrawn, secretive, and emotionally dead, the angry victim of that “phony” adult world central to Salinger's fictional imagination. This situation, though disguised by Teddy's presentation of himself as kiddy-philosopher, is revealed in several key passages in the story and concludes in his horrific suicide.

As the story begins, Teddy is returning from Edinburgh and Oxford where he has been subject once again, as he has throughout his short life, to the puzzled examination of the academics. His curious adult-like poise, his obvious intelligence, seems to validate the sense of enlightened wisdom that he seems to embody. His life has been largely this examination; he is typically surrounded by questioning, baffled, sometimes amused, sometime hostile adults. To his examiners, he is a freak: “kidding around and asking me a bunch of questions … they all kept sitting around smoking cigarettes and getting very kittenish” (192). Teddy is pleased to have some measure of comic revenge on these types: “I told them a little bit” about when they were fated to die. These scientists and academics are “phonies”—as much so as the various pedagogues in Catcher in the Rye. “I mean I knew that even though they teach Religion and Philosophy and all, they're still pretty afraid to die” (193). His parents, as we see in the brilliant opening scene, provide no counterbalance to this intrusive, careless world: the negligence and indeed hostility of the parents are fatal.

The first scene is set in the small stateroom of Teddy's parents. Salinger dramatizes with skill and economy the inadequacy of Teddy's parents. They are at odds: tension and hostility permeate the atmosphere as the parents lie abed late, irritable and languorous, presumably hungover after a long smoky, boozy night. The father is presented as an unpleasant failure: an impostor as a man, with his “third-class leading man's speaking voice: narcissistically deep and resonant, functionally prepared at a moment's notice to out-male anyone in the same room with it, if necessary even a small boy” (167). His voice is “theatrical” and an element of competition with his own son is suggested. His irritable carping (“I'll exquisite day you, buddy”), his incessant and slovenly smoking and whining low-grade sarcasm all suggest the weak, the unmanly. This sense is heightened by the image of his “nude, inflamed-pink, right arm” (155), flicking ashes from the cigarette. The suggestion is of the anger of this narcissistic showbiz failure—anger, prompted by jealousy of his own son—and of sickness, even degeneracy. Mrs. McArdle's hostility toward her failure of a husband is not disguised; it is expressed through her saccharin, hostile wit. Teddy's farewell kiss is unwilling and perfunctory—as she “brought her left arm out from under the sheet, as if bent on encircling Teddy's waist with it” (172), he slides away. Her hostility toward her husband is expressed in her phony display of affection for Teddy, syrupy, and suggestive of the lazily sexual and perverse. The sheet drawn “tight over her very probably nude body” (168), the anger between these two unpleasant types flares out: near the end of the scene, Mr. McArdle snarls at his wife, “I'd like to kick your goddamn head open” (168), followed by his wife's sarcastically sweet hopes for his heart attack and a funeral where she would sit as a widow dressed in scarlet in the first row, attracting male attention.

Teddy's response to this is withdrawal and passive aggression. He is detached, unhearing. The phrase, “Teddy, did you hear me,” is repeated; but, pointedly, he does not respond. What is ominous here is Teddy's recurring hints concerning his own death, implicit in his suggestions that once out of sight, entities (orange peels in this case) would not exist, and culminating in “After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances” (173-74). The section ends, “He closed the door behind him” (174). And thus he closes out his life with his estranged parents.

Brother-sister relations are important in Salinger and here, although it may seem that Teddy and Booper are entirely different, I suggest Booper mirrors and thus makes clear the anger and preoccupation with death that is Teddy's psychological center. Her essence is anger, hostility, and aggression, and obviously this stems from the McArdle family situation—plus of course her jealously toward her celebrity brother. She echoes her parent's anger on a smaller scale, and she shares her mother's penchant for aggressive fantasy. She vents her anger on the hapless little boy Myron; images of death run throughout her conversation, expressing hostility toward her own parents, albeit in a disguised form. If Myron's mother dies he will be an orphan; two “giants” could throw shuffleboard disks at the passengers and kill them; they could kill Myron's parents—and “if that didn't kill them, you know what you could do? You could put some poison on some marshmallows and make them eat it” (177). As she leaves for the pool for her lesson, she once again expresses her all-consuming anger: “I hate you! I hate everybody in this ocean!” (178).

Teddy, despite his seeming tranquillity, shares this anger and his death, suicide, is a last hostile gesture, directed primarily at his parents, sister, and the rest of the prying and hostile adult world in which he feels alone and isolated. His barely disguised anger emerges in his carefully polite indifference to his parents, to Nicholson, and even in the short scenes in which he dismisses the stewardess and purser. The source of this anger is revealed when he tells Nicholson of his parents: “They don't love me and Booper—that's my sister. … I mean they don't seem able to love us just the way we are. They don't seem able to love us unless they can keep changing us a little bit. They love their reasons for loving us almost as much as they love us, and most of the time more” (187).

Along with anger, his feeling of isolation is the another cause of his suicide, as suggested by his recitation of the haiku: “Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve” (185). Seymour too writes a haiku shortly before his death. Teddy's feelings of being alienated from his parents and the world, his superior intelligence, his fear of and his impatience with the probing examiners leave him with no one to talk to. Teddy is unwilling to speak openly or intimately to any of the adults—most especially the stranger Nicholson whose intrusive questions Teddy seeks to avoid.

Intermingled with this sense of isolation is his emotional deadness, his fear and rejection of the feelings. He insists on this strongly everywhere—associating it, contemptuously, with poetry and sentiment. To Nicholson:

I wish I knew why people think it's so important to be emotional. … My mother and father don't think a person's human unless he thinks a lot of things are very sad or very annoying or very—very unjust, sort of. My father gets very emotional even when he reads the newspaper. He thinks I'm inhuman.


His reaction to his egoistic and irresponsible parents has been withdrawal, a suppression of anger and the deadening of his emotions. For Teddy, emotions are disturbing; the anger he feels must not be expressed. This becomes clear in a key diary entry—a self revealing fantasy, just as Seymour's fantasy of the Bananafish and Gedsudski's Laughing Man reveal their most significant inner feelings. After reminding himself to ask Professor Mandell not to send any more poetry books—those compilations of emotion and sentimentality—Teddy fantasizes:

A man walks along the beach and unfortunately gets hit in the head by a coconut. His head unfortunately creaks open in two halves. Then his wife comes along the beach singing a song and sees the halves and recognizes them and picks them up. She gets very sad of course and cries heart breakingly. That is exactly where I am tired of poetry. Supposing the lady just picks up the 2 halves and shouts into them very angrily, ‘stop that!’


The implications of this fantasy in regard to his own parents are suggestive: the husband is killed violently, in a farcical, cartoon fashion; the wife previously happy, becomes very sad when she recognizes what has happened, and cries heartbreakingly. The unfortunate man involved in this farcical fantasy is both Mr. McArdle, victim of his son's hostile fantasy, and Teddy himself, eliciting the grief and guilt he desires from his mother.

His last diary entry, October 28, 1952, reveals no significant plans for future action. Indeed, the nine letters written in the morning have a farewell quality, and the previous day's memo to look up the phrase “gift horse,” becomes in the next and final day, the observation “Life is a gift horse in my opinion”: that is, life is seemingly delightful and amazing; actually deadly. His final entry, “It will either happen today or February 14, 1958” (182), seems to suggest ongoing deliberation about suicide.

That Teddy targets Valentine's Day, with its suggestions of erotic love, as an appropriate day for his suicide suggests that another uneasiness disturbs the preadolescent Teddy and indeed helps to trigger his decision to end his life this day and not six years later. He feels anxiety concerning his new and disturbing awareness of sex. This is seen in his awareness of his mother's nude form, encircling arm, and attempted kiss, Ensign Matthewson's lipsticky mouth, the casual brush of the stewardess's hand (a huge, blond woman), against his hair. This sexual anxiety is further clarified by Teddy's fanciful notion that in a previous life his spiritual development was going very well indeed, until sexuality entered in. His spiritual advancement was abruptly halted when “I met a lady and I sort of stopped meditating” (188). Typically of such Salinger figures, he qualifies and digresses—but there was a fall: “I wouldn't have had to get incarnated in an American body if I hadn't meet that lady” (188).

Teddy's unease with his incipient sexuality is also projected in his reference to the Adam and Eve story in conversation with Nicholson. The myth that the apple transferred fatal knowledge to mankind has sometimes been understood in terms of sexuality, particularly as the story contains a seduction that leads to sexual shame and exclusion from paradise. In this pointed reference to the biblical story, one recognizes a preoccupation within Salinger's fiction at work. Critics have repeatedly noted that throughout Salinger there is a distrust, an uneasiness, with sexuality. Sex sullies and spoils. A sense of covert sexuality can be seen in Seymour Glass's relationship with the girl, Sybil. Seymour, apparently uneasy with mature sexual relations, seeks out the child, Sybil, and his encounter with her is latently sexual.8 When he returns to the hotel, to the inevitable intimacy of his relationship with Muriel, he ends his life.

It is this new, uneasy sexual awareness that advances his decision to die immediately. He says to Nicholson:

“For example, I have a swimming lesson in about five minutes, I could go downstairs to the pool, and there might not be any water in it. … I might walk up to the edge of it, just to have a look at the bottom, for instance and my sister might come up and sort of push me in. I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously. … That could happen, all right.”


His death is considered, long incubating. It is triggered by the perversity and hostility of his parents, a fresh demonstration of Booper's willfulness and anger, his disturbing awareness of his new sexuality, and yet another endless interrogation by a foolish and insensitive academic phony. That Teddy somehow does not know that there is in fact no water in the pool, that this is cleaning day, is impossible: surely this careful reader of the ship's bulletins realizes this and yet he makes an appointment to meet Booper at 10:30 and reminds her repeatedly and urgently of this appointment. It is clearly his intention is to deliberately kill himself by jumping into the empty pool in front of his sister, parallel to Seymour's shocking death next to that person who most directly represents what he most despises and loathes, Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1958. The scream of course is Booper's—it is the first sign of the horror and guilt that Teddy has intentionally inflicted upon his loathsome family and the adult world more generally. It is interesting that in both “Bananafish” and “Teddy” Salinger inserts a suspenseful uncertainty. In the first story, the reader does not know what is going to happen until the last three words: until then Seymour's anger may lead him to destroy himself or Miss Spiritual Tramp.9 In “Teddy,” the ambiguity is more radical; yet the murder of Booper (as some readers have thought it) would make no fictional sense in context, and the signals of Teddy's approaching suicide are too strong.


The story “Teddy” concludes Nine Stories by dramatizing a potential answer to the corruption, materiality, egotism, and self-seeking of American life: individual rejection of the Western culture and the attempt to gain a truer understanding and fuller humanity through renunciation of the self and unqualified love of a very imperfect human race. Between “Teddy” and “Bananafish” are contrasting stories of redemption. We recognize the sudden understanding of human difficulty experienced by Ginnie Mannox in “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” and the patient, sensitive love of a parent, Boo Boo Tannanbaum, for her highly susceptible and anxious son in “Down at the Dinghy.” A gesture of human affinity, the gift by Esmé of her father's watch, thus selecting Sergeant X as her surrogate—at long distance—father, is cathartic for the man in despair. In “De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period,” the troubled adolescent is saved and returned to sanity by a realization of the purity of Sister Irma and a sudden comic glimpse of Eden in the midst of an image of human despair.

It is ironic and tragic that this gift of love, as mediated though a figure like Esmé, Boo Boo, or Sister Irma, is unavailable to Teddy even though he insists on the possibility of redemption through love. He can feel in himself no power of forgiveness and tolerance through redemptive love. Unlike his literary relation Franny, he has no Zooey to mediate between his feelings of anger and despair, and the love he seeks. A frightened, loveless child, Teddy attempts to maintain his defensive posture as little savant, but finally even this extraordinary persona fails him. Like Seymour, fear and anger overwhelm him.

That Salinger's advocates of this doctrine of redemptive love, Seymour and Teddy, both take their own lives in unexpected and shocking manner irrevocably compromises the positive thematic implications of the collection. Universal love may be an ideal, but very possibly it is impossible to achieve when one is imprisoned “in an American body.”

The significance of “Teddy” to the rest of Nine Stories is clear. Teddy's doctrine offers a potential solution, if a problematic one, to the problem of being born in an American body. We see that what Teddy claims he has done (rejected the materialism and egotism of American life) is exactly what must be done, according to Salinger, and this possibility is seen again in certain other stories of the collection. Yet “Teddy” closes the collection on a note of failure forecast in the opening story: the possibility of redemptive love is fleeting and in most cases, ungraspable. Without the mediation of healing love, Teddy, Seymour and their kind are isolated and doomed: “Along this road goes no one, this autumn eve.”


  1. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner note the “growing diffuseness of the story and the ambiguity of the conclusion” (40). James Lundquist complains of inadequate characterization and the weakness of the dialogue between Teddy and Nicholson and: “… the major thing wrong with the story is that it does not move. Its static quality is the consequence of contrast without conflict” (108). Paul Kirschner concludes that the story “… seems no more than the tantalizing adumbration of a religious philosophy” (75). Laurence Perrine concludes that while Teddy is “a vivid and brilliantly written story … its focus is uncertain and its conclusion mystifying.” Perrine maintains that the ambiguity of the conclusion “suggests that the author either was unclear in his aims or lacked the courage of his conviction” (223).

  2. French suggests that “Teddy's attitude” … may also be an extremely bright and hypersensitive young person's rationalization of his desire to escape from what he finds an intolerable situation” (Revisited 85). But I certainly disagree with French's insistence that Teddy is a cunning little hypocrite, with a shrewdly calculating nature. French finds Teddy “one of the most obnoxious puppets in the whole history of bratty children” (Revisited 133). I suggest that his whole presentation of himself as a mystic and clairvoyant is his intuitive, defensive response to an intolerable situation. It is significant that nobody in the story is entirely convinced of his authenticity as mystic and clairvoyant. His professional examiners in Oxford and Boston are impressed, but not entirely convinced. They are puzzled, annoyed, disturbed, and so on.

  3. Teddy's dreadful little sister Booper, his mirror and foil, speaks gleefully of poisoning: “You could put some poison on some marshmallows and make them eat it” (177).

  4. Teddy's eyes are “slightly crossed,” surely Salinger's hint, evoking as it does the term cock-eyed, the ersatz quality of Teddy's powers as mystic and clairvoyant.

  5. T. L. Gross (263) points out the centrality of suicide to Salinger's fiction. “The act of suicide—at times it seems the only act in all of Salinger's fiction—occurs … when Salinger first begins to write with a clarity of focus and with real efficacy. …”

  6. Thomas Kranidas insists that Teddy's suicide is not tragic, since it is the decision of an enlightened (“immortally composed”) person to leave an unsatisfactory existence. “There ought not to be worry over the death of Teddy, whose very message was transcendence” (91). I argue of course that the story is primarily a psychological study of a child who reacts to his difficult situation by claiming to possess authentic mysticism and supernatural powers. He is certainly not a conscious hypocrite. Instead he consciously believes in what he announces to the world.

  7. James Bryan notes the similarity of Seymour in “Hapgood” to Teddy. Both are incredibly precocious and also disturbed by incipient sexuality (357).

  8. In “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” Seymour fails to appear at his own wedding. In “Bananafish,” the sexual desire he feels for the girl Sybil emerges when, to her consternation, he grasps and kisses her foot.

  9. Earlier in “Bananafish” there is considerable uncertainty as to Seymour's intentions to the little girl, Sybil. He pushes her farther and farther out to sea and she grows frightened. Is he going to drown her? Seymour's obvious mental disorder leads the reader to feel anxiety as to his intentions, especially as we recall the highly ambiguous kissing of the little girl's foot as he pushes her out to deeper waters.

Works Cited

Bryan, James. “A Reading of Salinger's ‘Teddy.’” American Literature 40 (1968): 352-69.

French, Warren. J. D. Salinger. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1963.

———. J. D. Salinger Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Galloway, David D. “The Love Ethic.” J. D. Salinger. Ed. Harold Bloom. Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 29-51.

Goldstein, Bernice, and Sanford Goldstein. “Zen and Salinger.” Modern Fiction Studies 12 (1966): 313-324.

Gross, T. L. “J. D. Salinger: Suicide and Survival in the Modern World.” The Heroic Ideal in American Literature. New York: Free Press, 1971. 262-71.

Gwynn, Frederick L, and Joseph L Blotner. The Fiction of J. D. Salinger. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1958.

Kirschner, Paul. “Salinger and his Society: The Pattern of Nine Stories.Literary Half-Yearly 14 (1969-70; rpt. 1973): 63-78.

Kranidas, Thomas. “Point of View in Salinger's ‘Teddy.’” Studies in Short Fiction 2 (1964): 89-91.

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

Perrine, Laurence. “Teddy? Booper? Or Blooper?” Studies in Short Fiction 4 (1967): 217-24.

Salinger, J. D. Nine Stories. New York: Bantam, 1964.

———. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour—An Introduction. London: Penguin, 1963.

Stein, William Bysshe. “Salinger's ‘Teddy’: Tat Tvam Asi or That Thou Art.” Arizona Quarterly 29 (1973): 253-56.

David Samuels (essay date summer 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Samuels, David. “Marginal Notes on Franny and Zooey.American Scholar 68, no. 3 (summer 1999): 128-33.

[In the following essay, Samuels explores the significance of Franny and Zooey, concluding that the novella is, ultimately, an answer to “the question of how to live.”]

No one becomes a reader except in answer to some baffling inner necessity, of the kind that leads people to turn cartwheels outside the 7-Eleven, jump headlong through a plate-glass window, join the circus, or buy a low-end foreign car when the nearest appropriate auto-repair shop is fifty miles away. With these dramatic examples fresh in your mind, you'll probably require only a small amount of additional convincing that my little theory—based on years of painful experience—is true. Reading requires a loner's temperament, a high tolerance for silence, and an unhealthy preference for the company of people who are imaginary or dead.

It also requires patience, or what my high school gym teacher, whose name I remember as Randy Fisk, or Fist—a bantam-weight Irishman with a ginger mustache, who exhibited a suspicious delight in watching his fourteen-year-old charges vault a padded “horse”—used to call “good old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness.” His opinion was that readers were pale unnatural freaks with a built-in resistance to normal physical exercise. And because, like so many freaks, I have a desperate desire to appear normal, it pains me to admit that Mr. Fist, or Fisk, was right. Readers are freaks. There is really no way to deny it.

The comparison between readers and writers on this score is instructive. While writers have historically made a point of displaying themselves as unusually sensitive, troubled souls (see Verlaine, Rimbaud, Thomas Wolfe, Plath, Burroughs, Ginsberg, et al.; note that most of the truly crazy ones are poets), it is also my theory that their dramatic sufferings are very often the product of too much ambition. Too much actual, organic suffering in one's biography can make it impossible to sustain the energy and egotism necessary for a successful literary career. A career of reading, on the other hand, allows for more prolonged and spectacular forms of disturbance. It is no accident, at least, that most readers I know were unhappy children. They spent months in the hospital; endured long periods of friendlessness or bereavement; watched loved ones die of cancer; had parents who were crazy or divorced; spent formative years in a foreign country; suffered from early exposure to “fantasy” or “adventure” novels for boys or “mystery” or “romance” novels for girls; or lived through some overwhelming experience of dislocating weirdness, such as growing up on an army base, or on a farm, or in a cult.

My own reasons for bookishness are less dramatic. There were the stresses of a home where my unhappy parents fought all the time, inculcating in me a very natural desire to escape from reality. But the greatest injury I suffered was the absence of a color TV, which cut me off from the comforting stream of voices, pictures, characters, and stories in which my peers ritually immersed themselves every day after school. Assigned the role of Gilligan from Gilligan's Island, I remember standing on our asphalt playground in Brooklyn without the slightest idea of what to say or how to behave. After school, I went home and read books. It was less boring than staring up at the ceiling or listening to my parents fight.

By the age of fifteen, I was a full-time reader. I hid books under my desk. I read in the library after school. Reading was an escape from the crushing pressures of adolescence, such as speaking out loud in class or making direct eye contact with my peers in the halls. Books were a promise that I might at least learn to impersonate someone normal. I loved The Great Gatsby. If Gatsby himself was blurry and suspicious, Nick Carraway was the kind of friend I would have liked to have. Hemingway was good, particularly the early stories (how to talk to hoboes and boxers). Flaubert was great, particularly Sentimental Education (Madame Bovary reminded me of my mother). While Edith Wharton had a wonderful eye for details, I could never understand how she chose her main characters. Reading her books was like watching a brilliant hostess in her drawing room making witty observations to dullards and bores. Why she invited these people over was beyond me. Henry James was worse. Virginia Woolf was a great writer. Still, it didn't escape my attention that Septimus Smith threw himself out a window; or that Leonard Bast, my favorite character from Woolf's great predecessor, E. M. Forster, was crushed to death by a shelf of books. Woolf and Forster were snobs. Of the “modern” American writers, John Updike was like Flaubert, except he used his terrific skill to convince the reader that he actually liked Rabbit Angstrom, whereas the Updike I imagined (namely, me) would have been delighted when Rabbit's life turned mediocre and unhappy. Philip Roth was too close to home.

More than any of the other famous writers I read, J. D. Salinger, author of Franny and Zooey, actively courted my worshipful adolescent engagement. In the novel, the author speaks through the character of Buddy Glass, a writer who admired The Great Gatsby, “which was my ‘Tom Sawyer’ when I was twelve,” and whose main business, as far as I could make out, was dispensing cracker-barrel wisdom like an old-timer at the track. Buddy was also happy to share the insider details I craved, namely the interior décor, reading habits, vocal inflections, and bathroom medicine-cabinet contents of a family of precocious, sensitive, unhappy children who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. (My family lived in Brooklyn, then moved to New Jersey when I was nine. Manhattan was a dream. The mental Post-it note I attached to Franny and Zooey reads something like “Notes on the Inner Lives of People with Big Apartments in the East Seventies.”) It was encouraging to know that my yearnings for a guide through the darkness of this world were answered by the tender proclivities (which now seem stranger and darker but no less affecting) of the famous author of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel that played on self-pitying adolescent instincts without offering any useful wisdom in return. Seymour Glass would have hated it. (It is no accident, I believe, that both John Hinckley, Jr., and Mark David Chapman were carrying copies of Salinger's little red book when they shot Ronald Reagan and John Lennon, respectively.)

Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four I read Franny and Zooey from cover to cover at least five times. I underlined passages and made cryptic notations in the margins, hoping to become a better person—witty, literate, living in Manhattan—an acceptable character free from the bipolar alternation of uncontrolled aggression and sad passivity that I saw in my parents' marriage and was only beginning to recognize in myself.

By relating this mishmash of biographical details in a jaded, older-person voice, I hardly mean to suggest that reading was not a worthwhile habit. Nor do I intend to explain away, through an act of knowing posthumous revisitation, the failings of my fourteen-year-old self (who, by the way, deserves tons of sympathy and understanding, but whom I have little interest, should the opportunity somehow present itself, in ever meeting again: his unhappiness, his eagerness to please, and his frantic desire to escape from his family give him all the retrospective charm of a small ferret trapped in a corner). What bothers me about him has nothing to do with his aesthetic sense. It is his lack of any real capacity to enter sympathetically into the minds of other people. I read books in order to learn how to be the right kind of character in the right kind of novel. The authors of these novels were people (by “people” I meant people who were confident and knowing, i.e., rich people, or characters like Nick Carraway, who were accepted by the rich) who had condescended to share their knowledge. They were not people like my parents or me, who were anxious from morning through most of the afternoon, and at night were very often scared to death. It never occurred to me that the need to catalogue the stuff of everyday life might be a sign that the authors I loved were loners and misfits. Normal people, after all, don't stand around at garden parties or lie in bed with their loved ones trying to figure out what even the smallest ordinary gesture means.

Franny and Zooey was different. It was my Stover at Yale. The wisdom that Salinger was interested in dispensing was more difficult than the simple stick-to-it-iveness of Dink Stover (a step up from “striver”) or my high school gym teacher, Mr. Fisk, or Fist. I never felt much identity with such well-balanced characters anyway. I didn't know anyone who went to Yale. And if I wanted to be Dink Stover (a hero-athlete, admired by his peers), or even F. Scott Fitzgerald, I also knew that they were too far a reach. In Franny and Zooey, the Dink Stover character, waiting on the train platform in New Haven to receive Franny Glass, was called Lane Coutell. “Lane Coutell, in a Burberry raincoat that apparently had a wool liner buttoned into it, was one of the six or seven boys out on the open platform. Or, rather, he was and he wasn't one of them.” Who doesn't feel like that? In the paperback Franny [Franny and Zooey] I owned at fourteen, and have read ever since, I underlined “he was and he wasn't one of them” twice in blue ink. The tip about the Burberry coat with the wool liner seemed useful too. (Did the Yale men of 1984—the year of the Talking Heads' best album—still meet “dates” on train platforms in New Haven wearing Burberry raincoats? I believed the answer was yes.)

Still, there was no getting around the fact that I was bad at sports and had trouble looking directly at other people in the halls. And J. D. Salinger knew it. He knew that his readers feared and resented the Lane Coutells of this world with all the force of the profound self-hatred that only adolescents can muster. And unlike Fitzgerald, or Hemingway, or the author of Stover at Yale, whose name doesn't seem particularly worth remembering, Salinger was on our side. “I've missed you,” Franny tells Lane. The words are no sooner out of Franny's mouth, the author quickly informs us, “than she realized that she didn't mean them at all.”

That was how I felt about Lane, too, and it was at this moment that my underlining became enthusiastic. It wasn't Lane we were supposed to like. It was Franny. Lane is a self-important snob, a charm-boy, a gym-class standout who uses words like “testicularity” and then pretends that he said something else. Franny isn't fooled. And as she cuts him up, “with equal parts of self-disapproval and malice,” Salinger is careful to keep the reader on her side by assuring us that her disdain is self-conscious and specific, and would never be extended to us. You don't have to hate yourself, I felt like telling Franny. Lane is an asshole.

Franny was blameless, brave, and falling apart. Also selfless and knowing. “I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego,” she says. “My own and everybody else's.” I underlined that line with a vengeance. “I'm afraid I will compete,” one page later, was even better, rating both a five-pointed star and an exclamation mark in blue. The underlined passages are obvious attempts to engage the sympathies of adolescent loners by telling a familiar story (Dink Stover at Yale) from the more original and appealing reverse angle (Franny, his date, who thinks he's a jerk). They worked. I was charmed. The specter of testicularity was ridiculed and banished. Despite her emotional condition, and the difference in our ages, I might even have considered asking Franny out on a date.

The centerpiece of the next section of the book is Buddy's letter to his younger brother Zooey. I confess that my fourteen- and even my twenty-year-old selves were never very interested in this letter. The writing was looser, stammering, written by a stand-up comic with sweaty palms and a brand-new routine, looking out into the dark. I didn't want to know about Buddy Glass. I wanted to know more about Franny. I was disturbed by Salinger's desire to shift the ground of his story, to break through the conventional demands of rewriting Stover at Yale or early Fitzgerald from a sly, sardonic angle and infuse the voice with a more self-conscious humor that underlined the vulnerability of his narrator—a person of adult years and experience who was willing to admit, in public, that “I burst into tears at the first harsh or remonstrative word.” I knew that line was a joke. (I wrote “joke” in blue ink in the margin.) Still, it was the kind of joke that made me nervous. Entering into a pact of sympathetic understanding with such a person, I knew, was unwise.

On my second reading, at age seventeen or eighteen, I found Buddy's sense of humor more sympathetic. I liked “if my Muses failed to provide for me, I'd go grind lenses somewhere, like Booker T. Washington.” I was proud of myself for getting why the comparison between Buddy Glass and the author of Up From Slavery was funny. (“Unexpected,” I wrote, in pedantic red ink. “Not Benjamin Franklin.”) I also appreciated the description of Les Glass, later on in the book, as “an inveterate and wistful admirer of the wall décor at Sardi's theatrical restaurant.” I underlined the phrase “theatrical restaurant,” because it was the addition of those two words to “Sardi's” that made the joke work.

Funny or not, Buddy Glass—from the perspective of age fourteen, and age seventeen or eighteen, and even age twenty—was never as interesting as his dead brother Seymour, who left behind a deceptively simple three-line koan whose meaning tantalized and captivated me for ten years without ever quite becoming clear: “The little girl on the plane / Who turned her doll's head around / To look at me.” Because Seymour Glass plays only a ghostly Jamesian role in Franny and Zooey, it seems wrong to go into my idealization of him here. Why did Seymour kill himself? Was the beauty of the little girl's gesture—is she trying to be polite, does she really think the doll is a person—not enough? Was it a protest against what the girl would become when she grew up? Or did the charming gesture contain the seeds of the adult corruption that would later destroy her soul? None of these questions can be answered within the text of Franny and Zooey. What's here is Buddy's practical advice to his brother: “Act, Zachary Martin Glass, when and where you want to, since you feel you must, but do it with all your might.

Zachary Martin Glass, or Zooey, was my favorite character in the book. He is Seymour and Buddy's Zen teachings, he is the rebellion against those teachings, he is funny and handsome, he is an actor, and he even bears a passing resemblance to Lane Coutell. (Both are objects of adolescent male identification. The demographics are different, that's all.) If Buddy Glass made me uneasy, Zooey was a perfect stand-in. He is an airbrushed version of Buddy, a character any adolescent misfit would be happy to have as a friend, a proof of the benign and charitable intentions of his author. After twenty pages of Buddy Glass, I was happy to be finally alone with Zooey. Someone in this family was normal. At the same time, my feelings for Zooey contained a hard, uncomfortable kernel of self-hatred that never quite dissolved, no matter how many times I read the book.

But this piece of dishonesty was more than made up for by my favorite scene in the book, the bathroom scene between Zooey and his mother, Bessie Glass. Bessie is a classic. (Les Glass is never seen except for stray references to a long-ago birthday party and his desire to serve Franny a tangerine.) She is a “svelte twilight soubrette … photographed … in her old housecoat.” The sentence that follows a few pages later is worthy of Balzac, a beauty worth admiring again and again. The subject is Bessie's housecoat:

With its many occultish-looking folds, it also served as the repository for the paraphernalia of a very heavy cigarette smoker and an amateur handyman; two oversized pockets had been added at the hips, and they usually contained two or three packs of cigarettes, several match folders, a screwdriver, a claw-end hammer, a Boy Scout knife that had once belonged to one of her sons, and an enamel faucet handle or two, plus an assortment of screws, nails, hinges, and ballbearing casters—all of which tended to make Mrs. Glass chink faintly as she moved about in her large apartment.

Slovenly, patched together, proceeding according to a purely comic logic, if by any logic at all, and stopping just short of the darker comedy of Beckett, Bessie's old housecoat is the best description of domestic memory that I know. Perhaps the ability to find meaning in that memory is ultimately what saves us. Salinger never quite agrees. (Zooey is exasperated. Bessie is a dope.) Still, he is willing to give Bessie and her housecoat their due.

The love scene between Bessie Glass and her son is the answer to the love scene between Franny and Lane in New Haven, and to the lousy television script that Zooey reads in the bath. They are honest with each other. “This is supposed to be a family of all adults,” Bessie says. She is dumb as a post. But she knows that Franny is hurt and that she can't fix it. And just when the scene might get sentimental, Buddy steps in to let us know that the eyes that used to announce the tragedy of her two dead sons now tear up with the announcement that some remote Hollywood starlet's marriage is on the rocks.

“Why the hell doesn't he kill himself and be done with it?” Zooey wonders of the absent Buddy. (That Buddy Glass is putting this sentence in Zooey's mouth didn't hit me until two readings later, in my junior year of college. I noted the additional complexity in blue.) I trusted Zooey because he was angry. “I'm a twenty-five-year-old freak and she's a twenty-year-old freak, and both those bastards are responsible.”

That was where I always stopped underlining. I never marked the last line of the scene, when Zooey makes fun of his mother's pitch-perfect exit (“In the old radio days, when you were all little and all, you all used to be so—smart and happy and—just lovely. Morning, noon, and night.”), but softly, so that “his voice wouldn't really reach her down the hall.”

It was not until I was twenty-three, had graduated from college, and was living in my parents' basement in West Orange, New Jersey, that it occurred to me that Salinger was entirely serious about the last third of the book, or that Franny and Zooey was intended as something other than a novel. I had always wondered about the little books that Franny carried in her purse, The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. Her interest in the religious practice of a thirty-three-year-old Russian peasant with a withered arm who repeats the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” until it enters the rhythm of his heart always seemed to me like a precious symptom to which the author had devoted perhaps a little too much attention. The Jesus Prayer was not the answer to anything. What I realized, lying in bed in the basement, was that Franny and Zooey and The Way of a Pilgrim were similar, if not the same book. They were answers to the question of how to live.

The question interested me because I was twenty-three years old and living in my parents' basement. Before that, I had been living in Manhattan, in a five-room apartment on East Fourteenth Street between Second and Third Avenues that I shared with five people between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-two. I paid $320 a month for a room with three doors and no windows. It was hot in the winter. The summer was worse. People wandered in and out. The building next door was a residence for the deaf, and at night they would bring their Dominican boyfriends to our stairwell, lean up against the wall, spread their legs, open their mouths, and roll their eyes toward heaven without making a sound. Everyone I knew wore leather jackets and took drugs. Two of my roommates were heroin addicts. I was afraid to put a needle into my arm. Over time, I became afraid of the way I was living.

When I moved back home, I stopped taking drugs, which made me angrier than I had been before. I was also scared. In the book, Bessie Glass wanted to send Franny to an analyst, like Philly Byrnes.

“Philly Byrnes,” Zooey answered. “Philly Byrnes is a poor little impotent sweaty guy past forty who's been sleeping for years with a rosary and a copy of Variety under his pillow.” That wasn't me either. If there was someone out there with “any crazy, mysterious gratitude for his insight and intelligence,” it wasn't any psychiatrist I knew. And it wasn't J. D. Salinger either. I was looking for answers, and the notes I made toward the end of the book at age twenty-four quiver with sardonic disappointment. “‘Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase’ lay on top of ‘Fear and Trembling.’” That was Salinger's own line. But it seemed like a better description of the weakness of Franny and Zooey than anything I could invent on my own. I noticed that Franny is described as “a first-class beauty,” and I found the description cheap. I underlined Zooey's line to Franny, “How in hell are you going to recognize a legitimate holy man when you see one if you don't even know a cup of consecrated chicken soup when it's right in front of your nose?” In the margin I suggested that Starbucks could use this motto on a new line of greeting cards, to be sold at the cash register for a dollar apiece.

And that's the last thing I wrote in my copy of Franny and Zooey. The love affair was over.

Reading the book again, for the first time as a writer, I was amazed by how many perfect moments there are, by how rich and funny and wise it is, by how much and how little I understood, and by the fact that the entire book is only two hundred pages long. I still love the bathroom scene the best. But I also love the end of the book, particularly the moment when Franny announces that she wants to talk to Seymour, the moment of pure emotion that the book has been building toward for almost the entire two hundred pages, and that Salinger, Buddy, and Zooey answer by looking out the window and seeing a little girl in a red tam, with her dachshund wandering on the sidewalk nearby. It's not Seymour exactly. It's the little girl from the airplane, or someone like her, a vision of sustaining innocence that will carry us through the harder part of the lesson, Seymour's Fat Lady, for whom Zooey Glass once imagined he polished his shoes every night before appearing on the radio. She had thick legs, very veiny, and her radio was always going full blast. She had cancer.

There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady,” Zooey says. The Fat Lady is Christ. Or forgiveness. There was a time when this sentence didn't make sense, or didn't interest me enough to underline the words or make a check mark or a star in the margin. I'm not saying that the line is unsentimental. There are probably higher peaks of wisdom to climb. Still, in the interests of full disclosure, it seems only fair to relate that after I closed the book, I opened it again, got out my fancy new disposable fountain pen, and added a black check mark to the author's italics. I am still grateful for this book. That is what I mean to say.

Martin Bidney (essay date spring 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “The Aestheticist Epiphanies of J. D. Salinger: Bright-Hued Circles, Spheres, and Patches; ‘Elemental’ Joy and Pain.” Style 34, no. 1 (spring 2000): 117-31.

[In the following essay, Bidney examines the role of epiphanies in Salinger's short fiction.]

Strangely, no attempt has yet been made to find a pattern that can unite the epiphanies of characters in the works of J. D. Salinger. The books and articles about him that have appeared in the last thirty-five years include only a single item with “epiphany” in the title, and even there the word is used in a loose and general way.1 Sources and parallels for Salinger's literary epiphanies have been sought in many religious traditions. Picking up the hints provided by the “recommended home reading” of “the Upanishads and the Diamond Sutra and Eckhart” that the two older Glass boys, Seymour and Buddy, urged on Franny and Zooey (FZ [Franny and Zooey], 60) critics have looked for influences and analogues in Hinduism (Alsen), Taoism (Antonio), Zen (Goldstein and Goldstein, “Zen”), and Christianity (Panichas, Slabey).2 But such references to other people's imaginings cannot reveal—may even distract from—what is distinctive about Salinger's own vision, the epiphanic pattern that underlies his characters' moments of revelation.

These moments are nonsectarian. “The thing with Franny is strictly nonsectarian,” Zooey says at one point (FZ 95), and although there is an aura of the “seer” (Zooey's own self-characterization [FZ 140]) about all the Glass siblings and even about Holden Caulfield, the type of “seer” they all embody at privileged moments is the modern post-Wordsworthian, secularized, and exploratory kind. Salinger is a gifted maker of modern literary epiphanies that need to be investigated for the unique pattern they reveal. A useful beginning has been made in a few studies that focus, in rather isolated fashion, on certain favored objects: Holden's hat has been studied in terms of his psychological history (Vanderbilt, Roper), and Phoebe's carrousel has been compared to its partial source in Rilke (Stone, McCort). But only a comprehensive look at Salinger's epiphanic pattern can offer what the reader of such a skillful post-Wordsworthian inward quester would like to have: the portrait of a distinctive epiphanic sensibility.

In a recent book (Patterns of Epiphany), I worked out a method for studying the distinctive epiphany patterns of writers and applied it to a series of nineteenth-century authors. Here, I will apply the method to the epiphanies of Salinger. My guiding assumption is that the epiphanies produced by any given writer will manifest a pattern unique to that writer. I define an epiphany in general as a moment in a literary work that affects the reader as (1) intense, (2) expansive in meaning (that is, seeming to mean more than such a brief experience would have any right to mean), and (3) mysterious (its resonance or vibrancy exceeding any apparent explanation offered in the author's text).3 In creating epiphanies, authors work with contents I have found discussed in the work of the French phenomenological theorist Gaston Bachelard. From Bachelard, I derive three basic components of epiphanic patterns: elements (in the ancient sense: earth, air, fire, water); patterns of motion (irrespective of whatever it is that moves); and shapes (most commonly, geometric), together with certain recurrent features that are occasionally linked to the above (thus, in one Salinger epiphany the color green is linked to earth in springtime, but patches of bright, pure color appear often, without requiring any “elemental” cause). Having identified in a writer these distinctive components, I next locate the author's “paradigm” epiphany. The paradigm is the one epiphany that manifests the author's recurrent pattern most completely and vividly. Thereafter, I study the pattern in its less elaborate variant forms and note, where appropriate, implications (psychoanalytical insights, for example) that the pattern may suggest.

In Salinger, epiphanies usually involve a combination of two or more elements, but one of these sometimes will be suggested only vaguely by a color-link (as the mention of a gold medallion may suggest the fiery sun). Salinger makes air, earth, and water his favored elements; though actual fires are absent, a patch of sunlight appears in one of his epiphanies. Motion, too, is quite variable in Salinger's privileged moments: we see either complete stasis, the motion of an epiphanic object, the movement of a person or animal toward such an object, or simply the movement of the observer's eye. But one very important motion-pattern recurs often enough in these epiphanies to be specially noted: the frustrating disappearance of an object that the observer tries in vain to follow with his or her eyes; or else the sudden, happy reappearance of an object that the observer had thought was lost (both of these features combine in Zooey's paradigm epiphany).

The geometric shape Salinger prefers in his characters' epiphanies is always something round: circle, sphere, or cylinder. Sometimes a shape determines a motion, as when a sphere turns: a woman carrying a round jug moves it semicircularly over a hill, or a girl turns her doll's face to the side. In his characters' epiphanies, Salinger also likes to use a varied range of colors, but they are all simple and pure, and (except for the first one in my list) all are bright: navy blue, green, gold, white, red. Sometimes, as noted above, the pure, bright colors may suggest or imply links to elements. On occasion, such colors may appear in small patches or blotches rather than in circular forms. Finally, in Salinger, the epiphany usually generates within the observer, and vicariously in the reader, a vivid mixture of pleasure and pain, of joy and grief.

Not only is there something very painterly about Salinger's epiphanies, but they also clearly imply a worldview we may call aestheticist, for they place a very high value on intense and refined aesthetic sensation. Aestheticism further accounts for the strong link of Salinger's epiphanies to both painting and poetry. The bright, pure colors listed above make one think of a watercolor box or palette of oils or acrylics. (Zooey's paradigm epiphany even highlights a reference to van Gogh.) But although the epiphanic scenes often resemble carefully composed paintings, as true epiphanies they arouse feelings mysteriously out of proportion to their meticulous arrangements. And although Salinger's epiphanies are often painterly, they more than once recall the works of poets. In them, we feel a recurrent undertone of pain that increases in direct relation to intensifying aesthetic joy. This undertone suggests the pathos of the cult of sensation found in Keats's odes: “Ay, in the very temple of delight, / Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine” (“Ode on Melancholy” ll. 25-26). We will see that three of Buddy's epiphanies are based on Seymour's three haiku poems, and that certain epiphanies of Zooey (remembering Buddy) and Buddy (remembering Seymour) contain allusions to Wordsworth and Blake. Franny, whose fainting and symptoms of anorexia are triggered by fastidious distaste for the phoniness of Lane, her date, finds still another aestheticist source. Although her obsession with The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way seems at first syncretically religious or metaphysical, the pilgrim Franny admires so much has derived his way of seeing from something called the Philokalia (FZ 33-34), a word that—revealingly—means “Love of Beauty.” Thus, in Salinger's epiphanies, the atmosphere generated by the manifold aesthetic references suggests that what gives meaning to life and even to death is the imaginative value of heightened and refined sensation. The pain accompanying Salinger's heightened epiphanic moments is likely to be brought on by some vulgar “philistine” intrusion or gesture or noise. All this betokens an aestheticist epiphanic sensibility.

In Salinger's epiphanies, the most interesting psychoanalytical implication arises from several factors that we will note: the absence of actual fire (suggesting an absence of ardent, adult passion), the predominance of children (suggesting nostalgia for a simpler state of being), and the association of the seer's death with a disappearing woman (perhaps alluding to a deep grief for Mother). In connection with this latter theme, we will also note the recurrence of the well-known fort-da or “gone”—“here!” pattern of motion described by Freud (in chapter 2 of Beyond the Pleasure Principle). The pattern in Salinger recalls the game Freud describes in which a child makes a spool, fastened to a string, repeatedly disappear when lowered over the edge of a cot and then reappear when suddenly pulled up again. A consolatory play-procedure, it suggests that the child is attempting to master, by symbolic means, the threat of parental disappearance or loss. All these features of Salinger's epiphanies combine to evoke a regressive nostalgia, with narcissistic implications (cf. Seitzman [both articles]; Mellard). This feature ties in with Salinger's aestheticism, for devotion to one's own aesthetic gratification is narcissistic at heart.


Salinger's paradigm is a composite epiphany. It starts with a “scene,” viewed by Zooey through a window, that “was being acted out sublimely” (in the romantic tradition, “sublime” is a traditional indicator of visionary power), and after a painfully unrefined or tasteless interruption it ends with a striking visionary memory. Offering Salinger's signature shapes, motions, colors, and elements is phase one of the epiphany:

At first piecemeal, then point-blank, [Zooey] let his attention be drawn to a little scene that was being acted out sublimely, unhampered by writers and directors and producers, five stories below the window and across the street. A fair-sized maple tree stood in front of the girls' private school—one of the fortunate trees on that side of the street—and at the moment a child of seven or eight, female, was hiding behind it. She was wearing a navy-blue reefer and a tam that was very nearly the same shade of red as the blanket on the bed in van Gogh's room at Arles. Her tam did, in fact, from Zooey's vantage point, appear not unlike a dab of paint. Some fifteen feet away from the child, her dog—a young dachshund, wearing a green leather collar and leash—was sniffing to find her, scurrying in frantic circles, his leash dragging behind him. The anguish of separation was scarcely bearable for him, and when at last he picked up his mistress's scent, it wasn't a second too soon. The joy of reunion, for both, was immense. The dachshund gave a little yelp, then cringed forward, shimmying with ecstasy, till his mistress, shouting something at him, stepped hurriedly over the wire guard surrounding the tree and picked him up. She said a number of words of praise to him, in the private argot of the game, then put him down and picked up his leash and the two walked gaily west, toward Fifth Avenue and the Park and out of Zooey's sight. Zooey reflexively put his hand on a crosspiece between panes of glass, as if he had a mind to raise the window and lean out of it to watch the two disappear. It was his cigar hand, however, and he hesitated a second too long.

(FZ 151-52; emphases added)

In this passage, the red tam, as close as a Salinger epiphany ever gets to a flash of red fire, is a privileged circular shape, like a “dab” of paint from the prestigious van Gogh, and the same color as his “blanket” (itself suggesting bed, sleep, childhood, or babyhood). Other round shapes are shown in the trunk of the “fortunate” maple and the bright “green leather collar”—perhaps also the wire fence around the tree, and certainly the dachshund's “frantic circles.” The roundnesses are thus linked not only to pleasure (the suddenly recaptured sight of the girl in her red tam) but equally to pain (imprisoning collars and fences, frantic circles recalling the earlier “anguish of separation”). Even the mention of van Gogh makes us think at once of “ecstasy” and an “anguished” state. The cylindrical cigar frustratingly and crudely cuts short the aesthetic moment by preventing Zooey from opening the window to lean out and follow with his gaze the girl and her pet. The girl's hide-and-seek game with her dog, like the fort-da or vanishing-and-reappearing spool-on-a-string game, is one that babies are thought to enjoy particularly because, in Freudian terms, it is a symbolic affirmation of the mastery of loss: Mother is suddenly there again; she was really there all the time.

In the wake of these images, we understand why Zooey is so frustrated when the vision ends. For him, it has been a nostalgic return to an early childhood scenario in which a feeling of loss was symbolically mastered. As we will see, Zooey says the dog's joy has freed him from “ego.” But in fact it has momentarily reinforced Zooey's all-too-fragile ego, which soon reclaims its rights by projecting its anger at the cigar-caused interruption onto his hapless sister Franny:

“God damn it,” he said, “there are nice things in the world—and I mean nice things. We're all such morons to get so sidetracked. Always, always, always referring every goddam thing that happens right back to our lousy little egos.” Behind him, just then, Franny blew her nose with guileless abandon; the report was considerably louder than might have been expected from so fine and delicate-appearing an organ. Zooey turned around to look at her, somewhat censoriously.

Franny, busy with several folds of Kleenex, looked at him. “Well, I'm sorry,” she said. “Can't I blow my nose?”

“You finished?”

Yes, I'm finished! My gosh, what a family. You take your life in your hands if you just blow your nose.

Zooey turned back to the window. He smoked briefly, his eyes following a pattern of concrete blocks in the school building.

(FZ 152-53)

So ends the transition; some aesthetically unrefined noise has provided a pretext for a tension-relieving projection. Now the epiphanic scenario reappears in a new, condensed and intensified form as Zooey begins speaking:

“Buddy once said something reasonably sensible to me a couple of years ago […] He said that a man should be able to lie at the bottom of a hill with his throat cut, slowly bleeding to death, and if a pretty girl or an old woman should pass by with a beautiful jug balanced perfectly on the top of her head, he should be able to raise himself up on one arm and see the jug safely over the top of the hill.”

(FZ 153-54)

This fascinating remembered vision of Buddy's is the climax of Zooey's epiphany. What Zooey remembers is Buddy's revelatory speculation about a supremely devoted aesthete, a connoisseur of the beauty of a more-or-less spheric form (jug) and of its perfectly balanced, lovely semicircular motion up, over, and then gradually down the other side of a hill (we see the jug gently lowered until it vanishes). The remembered vision is pleasurable, but deeply painful, too: it is the vision of a dying man. And it is frustrating to Zooey insofar as his own cigar prevented his seeing the dog and girl to the end of the street and “watch[ing] the two disappear”; Zooey perceives a far-from-complimentary contrast between himself, the clumsy cigar smoker, and Buddy's hypothesized dying observer who is quite heroically capable of “see[ing] the jug safely over the top of the hill.”

Re-experiencing Buddy's vision in conjunction with his own, Zooey intensifies in equal measure the pain and joy Buddy had felt. Zooey's vision, too, involved a circular shape like that of the “perfectly” balanced “beautiful” jug; it was the girl's red tam. But while Zooey's initial vision was one of loss, he now blends it with Buddy's vision, which was one of death. The fact that the jug-carrier is first seen as a “pretty girl” allies Buddy's vision to Zooey's window-scene of girl and dog. But the disappearing jug-carrier's transformation into an “old woman” also movingly links the girl to the maternal figure of the Freudian fort-da scenario—here we see only the fort (“gone!”), not followed by any reassuring da (“here!”). Zooey's remembering of Buddy's vision climaxes both the joy and pain of his own: reenvisioning Buddy's scenario, Zooey can take comfort (joy) in the bravery of facing a mother image's disappearance, but, as he pictures an aesthete like himself who is bleeding to death, he is surely filled with self-pity, with a sense of irreparable loss. The reenvisioned earthen jug (reminiscent of the pitcher balanced on the head of a woman in Wordsworth's visionary Prelude4), is laden with emotion because of its link to a mother image seen as descending into earth. The aestheticist epiphany of Zooey-remembering-Buddy implies a powerfully resurgent memory of loss.


Zooey's composite epiphanic paradigm will help us understand another remarkable fort-da epiphany, the one that climaxes Holden Caulfield's autobiographical narrative in The Catcher in the Rye. In Catcher, the girl's red tam that Zooey saw becomes Holden's red hunting cap; the girl's blue coat becomes the blue coat of Holden's little sister Phoebe; the epiphanic geometric form of a circle appears in the carrousel where Phoebe takes a ride—and even the familiar fort-da effect recurs in blue-coated Phoebe's repeated disappearances and returns as the carrousel makes its endlessly reassuring rounds:

“Here. Get some more tickets.”

She took the dough off me. “I'm not mad at you any more,” she said.

“I know. Hurry up—the thing's gonna start again.”

Then all of a sudden she gave me a kiss. Then she held her hand out, and said, “It's raining. It's starting to rain.”

“I know.”

Then what she did—it damn near killed me—she reached in my coat pocket and took out my red hunting hat and put it on my head.

“Don't you want it?” I said.

“You can wear it a while.”

“Okay. Hurry up, though, now. You're gonna miss your ride. You won't get your own horse or anything.”

She kept hanging around, though.

“Did you mean it what you said? You really aren't going away anywhere? Are you really going home afterwards?” she asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. I meant it, too. I wasn't lying to her. I really did go home afterwards. “Hurry up, now,” I said. “The thing's starting.”

She ran and brought her ticket and got back on the goddam carrousel just in time. Then she walked all the way around it till she got her own horse back. Then she got on it. She waved to me and I waved back.

Boy, it began to rain like a bastard. In buckets, I swear to God. All the parents and mothers and everybody went over and stood right under the roof of the carrousel, so they wouldn't get soaked to the skin or anything, but I stuck around on the bench for quite a while. I got pretty soaking wet, especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway. I didn't care, though. I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling. I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don't know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could've been there.

(CR 190-91)

There are only three more paragraphs in the book after this episode ends; it is intended as the novel's epiphanic climax, and it works. In “I don't know why,” Salinger conveys an epiphany's requisite feeling of mystery, while in the sudden surge of happiness even to tears he conveys the vibrant intensity and resonant expansiveness offered by a genuine epiphanic moment. Red hat and blue coat offer a suitable dialogue of Salingerian patches of pure, simple color. The carrousel is a beautifully childlike epiphanic circle. Again, as in Zooey's window-scene, a little girl is central; the sadness underlying Holden's joy arises, in large part, from nostalgia for a past, more youthful and freer self. But the fort-da theme (“Gone!—“Here!”) may also suggest that below the feeling of sister-love lies Holden's need to restore his fragile identity by being reassured of the continuing, recurrent if not continuous, presence of a nurturing parent. Phoebe has helped Holden to feel this presence by putting his magic hat on his head for him. Yet a good part of the joy Holden feels may equally well arise from his own ability to play the role of a supervisory parent here. For a precious moment, Holden has become the parent-figure with whom he wants to identify.


In “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger offers us three excellent epiphanic moments experienced by Seymour Glass, but because we learn of them secondhand through Buddy's accounts, Buddy's epiphanies are blended with Seymour's, much as Zooey's two-phase epiphanic paradigm incorporates a vision of Buddy's. The ease with which Salinger combines, blends, merges, synthesizes his characters' most treasured moments of vision reveals their unity in Salinger's own recurrent pattern of epiphanic feeling.

In Buddy's reenvisioning of Seymour's happiest poetic epiphany, the now-familiar little girl appears, this time on an airplane and holding a doll, a combination of the contrasting elemental themes of air and earth (though we don't know what the doll is made of). Most important, when the girl turns her doll's head so the doll can look at the poet, she reintroduces the central Salingerian epiphanic figure, the (re)turning sphere or circular from (tam, jug, carrousel). Buddy insists that the experience was a vision, not a mundane reality:

on the afternoon of his suicide Seymour wrote a straight, classical-style haiku on the desk blotter [=patch of pure color] in his hotel room. I don't much like my literal translation of it—he wrote it in Japanese—but in it he briefly tells of a little girl on an airplane who has a doll in the seat with her and turns its head around to look at the poet. A week or so before the poem was actually written, Seymour had actually been a passenger on a commercial airplane, and my sister Boo Boo has somewhat treacherously suggested that there may have been a little girl with a doll aboard his plane. I myself doubt it. Not necessarily flatly, but I doubt it. And if such was the case—which I don't believe for a minute—I'd make a bet the child never thought to draw her friend's attention to Seymour.

(“SI” [“Seymour: An Introduction”] 133-34)

To Buddy it seems treacherous for Boo Boo to hint that Seymour's lovely vision was contaminated with fact. But even if the event really occurred just as narrated in Seymour's poem, the factuality of the epiphany is still thoroughly contaminated by, or infused with, vision. For the main point of the episode is that the girl is communicating her vision to an imaginary observer, the doll. The girl wants the doll to “see” Seymour, and Seymour wants the doll to “see” him; because the doll had been looking away and now her gaze meets his, it invokes the familiar fort-da effect. Although Seymour's sense that the gaze of the doll is all-too-imaginary5 may have helped precipitate his suicide, we cannot know that. Nonetheless, the fact that we learn simultaneously about the haiku and the suicide exemplifies the complex emotional effect of a typical Salingerian epiphany: grief underlies joy.

Seymour's other two poetic epiphanies contrast with this one insofar as the earth-air combination becomes a confrontation. The epiphanies are made more painful as the two elements are poignantly counterposed and contrasted. Buddy, who transmits and amplifies both epiphanies, numbers them among the ones he “wouldn't unreservedly recommend […] to any living soul who hasn't died at least twice in his lifetime” (“SI” 128). But this warning is really a compliment, for it quietly alludes to William Blake's vital statistics, as retailed by Blake in William Upcott's autograph album: “Born 28 Novr 1757 in London & has died several times since” (Blake 698).6 The epiphany-poems of Seymour's that Buddy summarizes and interprets are, as he says, “my own favorites” (“SI” 128):

The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. Seymour doesn't describe her, but she comes into the poem just when that cornet of his is doing something extraordinarily effective, and I see her as a terribly pretty girl, moderately intelligent, immoderately unhappy, and not unlikely living a block or two away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She comes home very late one night from a tryst—in my mind, bleary and lipstick-smeared—to find a balloon on her bedspread. Someone has simply left it there. The poet doesn't say, but it can't be anything but a large, inflated toy balloon, probably green, like Central Park in the spring.

(“SI” 128-29)

Because I feel that Buddy (despite the lapses into verbosity that sometimes mar his narrative) has the true Salingerian epiphanic sensibility that it takes to understand Seymour's, I find his amplifications of Seymour's imagery helpful here. For me, they confirm the power of the recurrent pattern we are tracing. The bleariness and lipstick smears that Buddy imagines make Seymour's woman appear aesthetically unrefined—crude, earthy—a clear elemental contrast to the airiness of the balloon. But the green color Buddy gives to the balloon nicely connects it to spring in Central Park, not only to the airiness of fresh vernal breezes but also to the blossoming of earth. The balloon, an aesthetic, aerial, refinement of spring's own earthiness, is a reproach to the woman, but a reproof with a wonderfully light touch. Perhaps the touch is so light that there is no reproof at all, merely a suggestion that her companion—whether spouse or child—like the spring air outside, claims another kind of freedom. The woman can have her earthy loves; nothing of earth will last, everything floats away, this too will pass, even as the rising of the breeze and the budding of the sticky green leaves (not to mention—that's the point of this wonderfully suggestive, enigmatic epiphany, not to mention—their turning and fall). The best part of the vision is that the recurrent Salingerian sphere is filled with air. Lost love hardly weighs anyone down; the extreme of lightness is what's breathtaking. The sphere, static for now, has endless potential for motion upwards.

But Buddy is right: the epiphany can best be appreciated by readers who have themselves “died” several times; aesthetic pleasure here is inseparable from the pain of the absent individual who left the balloon on the pillow, and surely also of the “immoderately unhappy” bleary, smeary woman. The uncomfortable touch of misogyny in the episode is of a piece, perhaps, with the regressive idealization of little girls we note in Salinger's epiphanic moments: adult women are seen as far less attractive than younger female embodiments of the observer's own happier, lost childhood state.

Buddy's final epiphany is based on Seymour's third reported haiku poem:

The other poem, the last one in the collection, is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night, implicitly in his pajamas and robe, to look at the full moon. A bored white cat, clearly a member of his household and almost surely a former kingpin of his household, comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.

(“SI” 129)

Here, earth and air are contrasted and intertwined, much as in the previous epiphany, but this one, bereft of spring breezes, is sadder. The “patch” of presumably green lawn is a recognizable Salingerian shape of bright, pure color, and the moon's white sphere combines brightness with the predictably round geometric figure signaling a Salingerian epiphany. The cat's roundness is shown as it “rolls over.” The white cat on the earthly lawn shares its hue with the aery moon, itself a kind of elevated earth, so earthly and aery elements are as allied as they are mutually distant. The cat's painful bite mingles with the widower's pain of bereavement but also with his pleasure in seeing the moon; pleasure intermingles with pain so inseparably that a masochistic frisson arises.

We can't blame the cat; it, too, suffers a loss, the deprivation of being only “former” household kingpin. Whiteness is delusive; purity, unspotted bliss, is impossible, or at least not lasting, either “here” or “there.” One's lost purity comes back and “bites,” a literal remorse.7 For this reason there is a heaviness as well as a brightness to the solid upper sphere. Together with the white cat's aggression, this heaviness counters the hints of hope we get from the patch of lawn. All these suggestions make this one of the richest, most troubling and loveliest, of Salinger's strange, ambivalent epiphanies.


Finally,8 Franny's two “solo” epiphanies (not counting the highly attenuated, fragmentary one she shares at the book's end with Zooey) produce a comparable intensity of mixed emotions, particularly when juxtaposed. In “Franny,” the protagonist is plagued with self-disgust over her hatred of ubiquitous phonies (most jarringly, Lane, her date):

“I'm sorry. I'm awful,” she said. “Ive just felt so destructive all week. It's awful. I'm horrible.”

“Your letter didn't sound so goddam destructive.”

Franny nodded solemnly. She was looking at a little warm blotch of sunshine, about the size of a poker chip, on the tablecloth. “I had to strain to write it,” she said.

Lane started to say something to that, but the waiter was suddenly there to take away the empty Martini glasses. “You want another one?” Lane asked Franny.

He didn't get an answer. Franny was staring at the little blotch of sunshine with a special intensity, as if she were considering lying down in it.

“Franny,” Lane said patiently, for the waiter's benefit. “Would you like another Martini, or what?”

She looked up. “I'm sorry.” She looked at the removed, empty glasses in the waiter's hand. “No. Yes. I don't know.”

(FZ 15-16)

There is a realization here that Franny cannot verbalize; it remains mysterious, expansive in meaning, with a “special intensity,” as Salinger puts it. Her epiphany is the sudden, powerful wish to lie down in a “little blotch of sunshine,” a Salingerian epiphanic patch of pure brightness. The blotch even resembles a “poker chip,” a circular counter, the appropriate round geometric figure. Franny could only lie down “in” this area imaginatively, in a deep waking dream, one deeper than metaphor. With immersion in a patch or circle of sunlight, particularly as linked to sleep through the idea of lying down, comes a mystical feeling but also overtones of a fatal consummation, of a death. As entrancing and alluring as they are self-effacing and annihilating, the images here dramatize the inseparability of pleasure from pain or loss that recurs in Salinger's epiphanies.

This epiphany leads (in “Zooey”) to Franny's dream-epiphany of immersion not in fire but in water, a “spidery nightmare” suggesting a web that is really an entrapping, deadly whirlpool:

“Oh, God,” I remember it now!” she said. “It was just hideous. I was at a swimming pool somewhere, and a whole bunch of people kept making me dive for a can of Medaglia d'Oro coffee that was on the bottom. Every time I'd come up, they'd make me go down again. I was crying, and I kept saying to everybody, ‘You have your bathing suits on. Why don't you do a little diving, too?’ but they'd all just laugh and make these terribly snide little remarks, and down I'd go again.” She gave another shudder. “These two girls that are in my dorm were there. Stephanie Logan, and a girl I hardly even know—somebody, as a matter of fact, I always felt terribly sorry for, because she had such an awful name, Sharmon Sherman. They both had a big oar, and they kept trying to hit me with it every time I'd surface.” Franny put her hands over her eyes briefly. “Whew!” She shook her head. She reflected. “The only person that made any sense in the dream was Professor Tupper. I mean he was the only person that was there that I know really detests me.”

(FZ 126-27)

As Franny talks the dream over some more with Zooey, it turns out that she despises pompous Professor Tupper far more than he could possibly detest her. The people who are pushing Franny under are the crass philistines, the unbearable fakes or pitiable unfortunates whose very names (the “awful […] Sharmon Sherman”) are offenses to the aesthetic ear.

Yet below the spidery nightmare lies a fulfillment fantasy. Such repeated immersions are escapes from pomp and pretense, downward flights away from what can no longer be tolerated. And in an odd twist of imagery, down equals up: the coffee can is the Salingerian epiphanic circle, or cylinder; and “Medaglia d'Oro,” a symbolic name not chosen by chance, means Gold Medal, another circle of brilliant, pure color, like Seymour/Buddy's green balloon or Franny's poker chip of sunlight. Here, circles of earth (metal) and firebright gold are the goals of a watery immersion that comes to resemble Franny's “lying down” in a patch of sunlight—something Franny wanted to do. This is an epiphany that defies, and exceeds, all the analyses poor Zooey (that would-be psychotherapist) can muster. As a Salingerian epiphany of pleasure-pain, of willed-unwilled motion toward an epiphanic circle, it allusively combines a recurrent geometric form with an equally recurrent idea of bright, pure color, all in a context of several contrasting-merging elements.

Although Salinger makes a curious attempt at story's end to resolve Franny's problems, the epiphany he designs to achieve this resolution is regrettably attenuated and fragmentary. Even as a child radio star, Franny, as Zooey reveals to her in his therapy-counseling, was always right to be peeved by the “stupidity of audiences,” the “goddam ‘unskilled laughter’ coming from the fifth row” (FZ 199), but Seymour was also right when he told all his siblings to “shine” their “shoes” for the “Fat Lady” (FZ 200), to dedicate their performances precisely to all the unskilled laughers and crass philistines. Franny and Zooey, it further turns out, had both imagined Seymour's symbolic “Fat Lady” as cancerous and as having her “radio going full-blast all day” (FZ 201). So there was an occult empathy between the two siblings, as Franny—“looking extremely tense” (FZ 201)—suddenly realizes. And now Zooey tells her that “There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady”—the Fat Lady is “Christ Himself” (FZ 201-02). After this revelation, even the dial tone on the telephone seems to Franny “the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself,” and she ends the book “in a deep, dreamless sleep,” “quiet, smiling at the ceiling” (FZ 202).

Except for the reference to Christ, this episode reads like one of Salinger's customary secularized epiphanies, but it is a greatly weakened one. True, the Fat Lady's radio entertainment and cancer combine pleasure and pain in a way we have learned to expect. A shined shoe will presumably show a boss of light on the toe, and the Fat Lady offers another somewhat rounded shape. I am trying to help Salinger out here, but in fact he mentions no polished boss, nor is the fat lady easy to see as circular. The epiphanic pattern is only hinted at; shoes and lady hardly reflect each other so clearly or convincingly as Seymour's cat and moon mirror whitenesses, or as Holden's red hat and Phoebe's blue coat share the bright color-patch motif. Elements, colors, geometric shapes are vague in the “Fat Lady” episode if they are present at all. Can Franny, Zooey, or any other Salingerian aesthete believe for long that the unskilled laugher in the fifth row is a transcendent being? Perhaps the painful discomforts of aesthetic narcissism cannot so easily be cured. The statement that the Fat Lady is Christ is a declaration, or an implicit exhortation (“Behave as if she were”), but it cannot create, or replace, a genuinely effective, well-developed Salingerian epiphany like those of Zooey, Holden, Buddy, Seymour, or the earlier two epiphanies of Franny herself.

Salinger's best, most typical epiphanies, as presented by an outstanding literary artist, are powerful, and the responses they call forth are implicit in the visionary moments themselves. In the best ones, we have not needed to invoke Zen, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity, or even the traditional techniques of haiku in order to elucidate Salinger's personal style of epiphany. That style is induplicably his, and its meanings reside in the individual features Salinger gives it. Bright, pure color—in full, circular or spheric forms or vivid painterly dabs and patches—suggests both the brightness of childhood and the heightened sensation of the aesthetic moment: red tam, green balloon, gold medal, blotch of sunshine, white moon, balanced jug, doll's head, colorful carrousel, red hat, blue coat, patch of lawn. But in Salinger's most characteristic epiphanies, these emblems of pure pleasure are threatened, partly or temporarily counteracted, or annoyingly displaced by unaesthetic intrusions: a loud sneeze, an awkwardly held cigar, a boring young man who talks about martinis, a girl with an awful name. Also, in these epiphanies, the bright, pure, painterly colors are attacked or contrasted, more simply and deeply, by the sloppiness and sorrow of “earthy” life itself: a bleary-smeary unfaithful spouse; an aggressive cat that reminds one of a bitter loss; the wish-and-fear of drowning in light or water; the fact that an aesthete, too, can bleed to death at the foot of a forbidding hill.

Awareness of such contrasts ensures that pain will be inseparably mixed with pleasure in Salingerian moments of heightened sensation. In Salinger, life's ineluctable complexity arouses the nostalgia of characters for an idealized childhood, with its play-techniques for the symbolic reparation of loss. Thus the fort-da motion pattern—“It's gone!” “No! there it is! I can still see it!”—unites many epiphanies: the reappearance to Holden of Phoebe's blue coat, the turning of a doll's head toward Seymour, the woman-with-a-jug vision of Buddy, the girl-behind-the-tree vision of Zooey, even the repeated dives toward the submerged coffee can in Franny's spidery dream. Psychological fascination and painterly-poetic lyricism combine to make Salinger's visions among the most rewarding aestheticist epiphanies of our era.


  1. Lyle Glazier writes, “In his two double-jointed books (Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction) Salinger included a poetic epiphany as the first narrative in each book, a more prosaic argument for humanism as the second” (251). Most people think of an epiphany as a sudden, illuminating breakthrough of intensity, mystery, vibrancy. By describing the entire first narrative of each book “as” an epiphany, Glazier makes it hard for us to know what the word means.

  2. I cite here only a sample or two representative of each group.

  3. I borrow the criteria of expansiveness and mysteriousness from Nichols (Poetics of Epiphany 28).

  4. It is worth quoting from The Prelude part of Wordsworth's vision, whose mysterious pathos may have deeply affected Salinger:

    Then, reascending the bare common, [I] saw
    A naked pool that lay beneath the hills,
    The beacon on its summit, and, more near,
    A girl, who bore a pitcher on her head,
    And seemed with difficult steps to force her way
    Against the blowing wind. It was, in truth,
    An ordinary sight; but I should need
    Colours and words that are unknown to man,
    To paint the visionary dreariness
    Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,
    Invested moorland waste, and naked pool,
    The beacon crowning the lone eminence,
    The female and her garments vexed and tossed
    By the strong wind.

    (12.248-61 [1850])

  5. Because Buddy's comments on Seymour's poem make us think and feel deeply about the imaginary status of the doll's gaze, and because this focus of attention gives added pathos to his epiphany of Seymour's poem, Buddy's account is a more fully developed epiphany than would be offered by Seymour's poem simply presented in English translation without comment. The poem itself, as cited by Zooey elsewhere, is as follows: “The little girl on the plane / Who turned her doll's head around / To look at me” (FZ 64).

  6. Neither this reference to Blake nor my earlier citation of Wordsworth's young woman carrying a pitcher is noted in Strauch; his sense of a “romantic background” is a highly generalized one.

  7. A contrast between Seymour's epiphanies and traditional haiku poems has been usefully noted by the Goldsteins:

    What seems immediately obvious in Seymour's poems is that there is perhaps more action or movement than one expects to find in Japanese haiku: A girl turning her doll's head, a mother returning from a tryst, a widower having his finger “chewed” by a cat. In addition, the human element is stressed by Seymour, though the seasonal element remains in spite of not being easily apparent. [Yet the authors admit that] in the doll poem, one would be hard pressed to insist that it is winter (or soon-to-be-hot weather on a Florida vacation).

    (“Seymour's Poems” 345-46)

    The word chewed comes from the final section of Buddy's commentary, a portion I did not quote (SI 130-33) because in it the epiphany has lost power and has fizzled out into pointless prolixity. “I apologize for that verbiage,” says Buddy in the middle of it. “Unfortunately, there's probably more” (SI 131).

  8. I exclude Nine Stories from my discussion because I find no true epiphanies in them; one certainly can write works of distinction without literary epiphanies as I define them. While the receipt of the watch in “For Esmé, With Squalor” is affecting, it offers no epiphany because it is rationally accountable and so lacks mystery. The crushing of the vial of eagles' blood in “The Laughing Man,” with its patch or dab of bright, pure, Salingerian color, comes closest to offering one of Salinger's typical epiphanies, but the mysterious shudders it gives the youthful protagonist are offset by the comic-grotesque ambience of the tall tale.

Works Cited

Alsen, Eberhard. “The Role of Vedanta Hinduism in Salinger's Seymour Novel.” Renascence 33 (1981): 99-116.

Antonio, Eugene Dale. “The Fiction of J. D. Salinger: A Search through Taoism.” DAI 52 (1992): 8.

Bidney, Martin. Patterns of Epiphany: From Wordsworth to Tolstoy, Pater, and Barrett Browning. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1997.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David Erdman. Commentary by Harold Bloom. Rev. ed. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey and others. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth P, 1958. Vol. 18, 1-64.

Glazier, Lyle. “The Glass Family Sage: Argument and Epiphany.” College English 27 (1965): 248-51.

Goldstein, Bernice, and Sanford Goldstein. “Seymour's Poems.” Literature East and West 17 (1973): 335-48.

———.“Zen and Salinger.” Modern Fiction Studies 12 (1966): 313-24.

Keats, John. “Ode on Melancholy.” The Poems of John Keats. Ed. Miriam Allott. London: Longman, 1970. 538-41.

McCort, Dennis. “Hyakujo's Geese, Amban's Doughnuts, and Rilke's Carrousel: Sources East and West for Salinger's Catcher.Comparative Literature Studies 34 (1997): 260-78.

Mellard, James M. “The Disappearing Subject: A Lacanian Reading of The Catcher in the Rye.Critical Essays on Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Ed. Joel Salzberg. Boston: Hall, 1990. 197-214.

Nichols, Ashton. The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Modern Literary Moment. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1987.

Panichas, George A. “J. D. Salinger and the Russian Pilgrim.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 8 (1963): 111-26.

Roper, Pamela E. “Holden's Hat.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 7 (1977): 8-9.

Salinger, J[erome] D[avid]. The Catcher in the Rye. 1951. Boston: Little, Brown. 1953. New York: NAL.

———.Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961.

———.Nine Stories. 1953. Boston: Little, Brown. 1954. New York: NAL.

———.Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour: An Introduction. 1963. Boston: Little, Brown. 1965. New York: Bantam.

Seitzman, Daniel. “Salinger's ‘Franny’: Homoerotic Imagery.” American Imago 22 (1965): 57-76.

———. “Therapy and Antitherapy in Salinger's ‘Zooey.’” American Imago 25 (1968): 140-62.

Slabey, Robert M. “The Catcher in the Rye: Christian Theme and Symbol.” College Language Association Journal 6 (1963): 170-83.

Stone, Edward. “Salinger's Carrousel.” Modern Fiction Studies 13 (1967): 520-23.

Strauch, Carl F. “Salinger: The Romantic Background.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4 (1963): 31-40.

Vanderbilt, Kermit. “Symbolic Resolution in The Catcher in the Rye: The Cap, the Carrousel and the American West.” Western Humanities Review 17 (1963): 271-77.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. New York: Norton, 1979.

Eberhard Alsen (essay date March 2002)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Alsen, Eberhard. “New Light on the Nervous Breakdowns of Salinger's Sergeant X and Seymour Glass.” CLA Journal 45, no. 3 (March 2002): 379-87.

[In the following essay, Alsen links new biographical information regarding Salinger's experiences as a soldier in World War II with two of Salinger's short stories: “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”]

In her memoir Dream Catcher (2000), J. D. Salinger's daughter Margaret reveals some hitherto unknown information that sheds new light on J. D. Salinger's nervous breakdown at the end of World War II and on the nervous breakdowns of two of Salinger's fictional characters, Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and ex-sergeant Seymour Glass in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Remembering conversations with her father about World War II, Margaret Salinger says: “As a counter intelligence officer my father was one of the first soldiers to walk into a certain, just liberated, concentration camp. He told me the name, but I no longer remember.” She also quotes her father as saying, “You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils, no matter how long you live.”1


We know about Salinger's nervous breakdown from a letter that he wrote to Ernest Hemingway from Germany in 1945 (The two had met twice during the war). In this undated letter, Salinger writes that he has checked himself into “a General Hospital in Nurnberg” because he has been in “an almost constant state of despondency.” Two references in the letter suggest that it must have been written in May or June of 1945. Salinger mentions that a few arrests are still left to be made in his CIC section, and he also mentions that the commanding officer of his CIC detachment, Captain Appleton, has returned to the United States before the rest of the regiment. Salinger's regiment was shipped home on July 3, 1945.2

Salinger tries to downplay his nervous breakdown, and he makes fun of the psychiatrists asking him about his sex life and his childhood. However, he also expresses his fear that he may receive a psychiatric discharge from the Army. This suggests that his case must have been fairly severe (the Hemingway letter can be examined in the Princeton University Library).

Several biographers have assumed that Salinger's nervous breakdown was due to “combat fatigue” (traumatic stress disorder). For instance, Salinger's daughter Margaret notes that her father's regiment was involved in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, from the D-Day invasion through the battles of Cherbourg, Mortain, and the Hürtgen Forest, all the way to the Battle of the Bulge. And indeed, Colonel Gerden F. Johnson, one of the battalion commanders in Salinger's regiment, reports that during the Battle of Mortain in northern France, the carnage was so frightful that “there were many cases of combat fatigue even among our older men” (Johnson 163). But that was in July of 1944, and Salinger had his nervous breakdown in May of 1945, shortly after the end of the war.

It is unlikely that Salinger's nervous breakdown was due to “combat fatigue” because he was not a combat infantryman but a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps. Counter intelligence operatives were attached to division and battalion headquarters companies whose command posts were usually located quite a distance behind the lines. As a counter intelligence sergeant, Salinger had the task of interviewing prisoners of war and civilians in order to find out information about enemy troop strength, number of tanks, location of heavy artillery, supply depots, and so forth. He had a jeep at his disposal in order to quickly get to places where prisoners had been taken or where a village had been liberated. It is therefore safe to assume that Sergeant Salinger's nervous breakdown was not due to the stress of combat. It is more likely that it was due to what he witnessed at the concentration camp that he mentioned to his daughter.

That camp was probably the one near the village of Hurlach, Bavaria. It was discovered on April 27, 1945, by elements of the 493rd Field Artillery Battalion of the 12th Armored Division.3 Salinger could easily have gotten to the camp, if not on the day it was first discovered, then on one of the next two days, because on April 27, the command post of Salinger's regiment was in the village of Agawang, seventeen miles northwest of Hurlach, and two days later it was in the village of Winkl, only nine miles east of the camp (Johnson 391).

The Hurlach concentration camp was officially called “Kaufering Lager IV.” It was one of the eleven small camps of the Kaufering complex that was named after the small town seven miles north of Landsberg, where the first of the eleven camps was built. The over 22,000 prisoners in the Kaufering camps were mostly Jewish slave laborers from Poland, France, Hungary, and many other countries that had been overrun by the Nazis. These slave laborers were employed in building an underground aircraft factory that the Nazis had code-named “Ringeltaube” (wood pigeon). This factory was to consist of three gigantic, domed bunkers in which the jet fighter Messerschmitt 262 was to be produced at a rate of 900 planes a month. By the end of the war, the construction of two of the bunkers had been abandoned, and the construction of the third was about 70 percent completed.4

Kaufering Lager IV near Hurlach was an extermination camp. It was designated as the “Krankenlager” for the other Kaufering camps, but that name was a cynical euphemism because the sick prisoners received no medical attention and were simply allowed to die from their illnesses or from starvation. Between 4,000 to 5,000 prisoners died in the camp from the time the camp was opened in June 1944 and the time it was occupied by American troops in April 1945. American soldiers later found these bodies in two nearby mass graves. On the day before the Americans arrived, the SS guards evacuated some 3,000 prisoners by train and killed all those who were too weak or too sick to travel. The SS guards fled only four hours before the first GIs discovered the camp.5

In addition to being the only extermination camp in the Kaufering complex (the other ten were work camps), the Hurlach camp also has the distinction of being the only camp that the SS set on fire before they left it. Lt. Colonel Edward F. Seiller of the 12th Armored Division explains: “When one of our infantry battalions approached Kaufering Lager No. 4, someone at the camp (presumably the SS guards), herded the inmates into the barracks, nailed the doors shut, and set the barracks on fire.”6 Sergeant Robert T. Hartwig remembers that when he and another GI approached Hurlach in their jeep, they “knew [they] were near a camp because of the sickening odor of burning bodies”;7 and Corporal Pete Bramble reports that “the stench was terrible, especially the burning corpses.”8 This is also what Salinger remembers most about the camp.

The sights at the Hurlach camp were no less gruesome than the smell. In addition to 268 burned corpses, the GIs found close to a hundred bodies scattered over the camp, along a path to the railroad tracks, and in a nearby forest. Photos taken by Sergent Hartwig, Corporal Bramble, and other American soldiers show that the corpses were literally only skin and bones, and some probably weighed no more than 50 to 70 pounds. These horrifying photos can be found in Ken Bradstreet's combat history of the Twelfth Armored Division, entitled Hellcats, on the web site entitled The Twelfth Armored Division and the Liberation of Death Camps, and on the web site of the Simon Wiesenthal Multimedia Learning Center. Some of the photos show blackened bodies still smoldering in the ruins of the burned-down barracks. These pictures support the assumption that it was indeed at Hurlach that Salinger encountered the smell of burning flesh, which he said he would never be able to get out of his nostrils.

Salinger's response to what he witnessed at the concentration camp shows up only indirectly in his fiction. “A Girl I Knew” (1948) is the only story in which Salinger mentions the concentration camps. In that story, a CIC sergeant interviews civilians and prisoners of war in order to ferret out members of the SS, who not only committed atrocities at the concentration camps but were also infamous for massacres such as the shooting of 81 American prisoners of war during the Battle of the Bulge near Malmedy, Belgium. Aside from hunting for disguised SS-men, Salinger's narrator also has a personal agenda: Whenever he comes across Austrians, he asks them whether they know what happened to a Jewish girl from Vienna whom he knew before the war. He eventually learns from a Jewish doctor who had just returned from the Buchenwald concentration camp that the girl and her family “were burned to death in an incinerator.”9

Even though Salinger mentions nothing in his fiction about what he saw and smelled at the Hurlach concentration camp, the effect of this experience shows up in two stories. Like Sergeant Salinger, both Sergeant X in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and ex-sergeant Seymour Glass in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” served in the European Theater of Operations and suffered nervous breakdowns. But in both stories we are shown only the symptoms of their nervous breakdowns and must guess what the causes were. The two stories take on a new dimension if we assume that Sergeant X and Sergeant Seymour Glass shared Sergeant Salinger's concentration camp experience.

“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” (1950) is Salinger's most autobiographical story. It deals with the nervous breakdown of an unnamed Counter Intelligence sergeant at the end of World War II. At the beginning of the story, Sergeant X is being trained for the D-Day invasion at an Army base in a small town in the South of England. That town is modeled after Tiverton in Devonshire, where Sergeant Salinger himself was trained by the CIC. At the end of the war, Sergeant X is part of the army of occupation and is stationed in Gaufurt, Bavaria, the fictitious counterpart of the town of Weißenburg, south of Nürnberg, where Salinger interviewed Nazi civilians.10

Sergeant X's nervous breakdown is the main topic in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” but we do not find out what caused it, because the story skips from a few days before the D-Day invasion to a time “several weeks after V-E Day (Victory in Europe, May 7, 1945).”11 Sergeant X has just returned from a two-weeks' stay at an Army hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, where he has been treated for what the narrator calls a “nervous breakdown” rather than “combat fatigue” (“Esmé” [“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor”] 109). Whatever treatment Sergeant X received at the hospital did not help much because upon his return he says that he still feels as if his mind were about “to dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack” (“Esmé” 104). Moreover, he feels so nauseous most of the time that he keeps a wastebasket handy into which to vomit; also, his jeep driver, Corporal Clay, tells him, “[T]he goddam side of your face is jumping all over the place” (“Esmé” 109); and finally, the sergeant's hands shake so much that when he tries to write, his writing is “almost entirely illegible” (“Esmé” 105).

It is most likely that in describing the aftereffects of Sergeant X's nervous breakdown, Salinger was drawing on his personal experience. In his letter to Hemingway, he does not mention any of his symptoms except his “almost constant state of despondency.” However, there is definite evidence that he shared at least one of Sergeant X's afflictions, namely the uncontrollable trembling of his hands. Salinger's daughter Margaret examined the letters that her father wrote during the spring and summer of 1945 and reports that his handwriting became “something totally unrecognizable” (Dream Catcher 68).

The nervous breakdowns of Sergeant Salinger and Sergeant X illuminate one another. “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” illustrates the aftereffects of the nervous collapse, the feeling of vertigo, the nausea, the facial tic, and the trembling hands, and Salinger's visit to a concentration camp suggests that the cause of his and Sergeant X's nervous breakdowns was not the stress of battle but the atrocities they witnessed during the last days of the war.

Salinger's concentration camp experience also sheds new light on the suicide of Seymour Glass, the central character in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Seymour—An Introduction.” In “Seymour—An Introduction,” we learn that like Salinger, Seymour was also a sergeant in the Army,12 also served in the European Theater of Operations, and also wound up in Germany at the end of the war (“Seymour” [“Seymour—An Introduction”] 113). Moreover, in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” a psychiatrist says about Seymour that “it was a perfect crime that the Army released him from the hospital” because “there's a very great chance that Seymour may completely lose control of himself.”13 This comment suggests that Seymour was a patient in a psychiatric ward of an Army hospital.

No one who has written about the suicide of Seymour Glass nor has commented on the significance of the unusual length of time—almost three years—that he spent in an Army hospital. He killed himself on March 18, 1948,14 and Buddy mentions that Seymour returned from Germany on a commercial flight “a week or so” before his suicide (“Seymour” 134). That means Seymour did not come home to the United States until almost three years after the end of the war. Moreover, Buddy also says that Seymour spent “the last three years of his life both in and out of the Army, but mostly in, well in” (“Seymour” 114). In short, Seymour's mental illness was so severe that the Army psychiatrists did not simply release him with a psychiatric discharge—which is something that almost happened to Salinger—but they decided to keep him “well in,” that is, locked up in a psychiatric ward for close to three years.

Seymour's extended stay in an Army hospital raises the question of what it was that caused his nervous breakdown and mental illness. Unless we assume that Seymour and Sergeant X are the same person (which some critics have done), there is no information in Salinger's fiction so far about Seymour's war experiences. Seymour may have been a combat infantryman, and he may have been severely wounded. Or he may have been one of the few survivors of a massacre such as the one at Malmedy. But since none of this happened to Salinger, it makes more sense to assume that Seymour's nervous breakdown—like Salinger's—was not caused by “combat fatigue” but by the horrifying sights and smells of one of the many concentration camps.


There is a chance that we may still find out whether it was indeed their concentration camp experiences that explain why Sergeant X had a nervous breakdown and why ex-sergeant Seymour Glass became so despondent that he eventually killed himself. Although Salinger has said on more than one occasion that he does not plan to publish anymore during his lifetime (for instance in his phone call to New York Times reporter Lacey Fosburgh), his daughter Margaret said in a National Public Radio interview that her father “is writing every day,” that “he is planning to publish after his death,” and that he has “a large number of stories ready to go.”15


  1. Margaret Salinger, Dream Catcher (New York: Washington Square, 2000) 55. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Colonel Gerden F. Johnson, History of the Twelfth Infantry Regiment in World War II (Boston: Twelfth Infantry Regiment, 1947) 391. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Ken Bradstreet, ed., Hellcats [WW II Combat History of the Twelfth Armored Division] (Paducah, KY: Turner, 1987) 117-19.

  4. Anton Posset, “Deckname Ringeltaube,” Themenhefte Landsberger Zeitgeschichte 4 (1993): 18-24.

  5. Anton Posset, “Die amerikanische Armee entdeckt den Holocaust,” Themenhefte Landsberger Zeitgeschichte 2 (1993): 41.

  6. Colonel Edward Seiller, “Edward F. Seiller, 12th Armored Division,” The Twelfth Armored Division and the Liberation of Death Camps, 1.

  7. Bradstreet 118.

  8. Corporal A. G. Bramble, “A. G. ‘Pete’ Bramble, 12th Armored Division,” The Twelfth Armored Division and the Liberation of the Death Camps, 1.

  9. J. D. Salinger, “A Girl I Knew,” Good Housekeeping 128 (Feb. 1948): 196.

  10. J. D. Salinger, Letter to Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Baker Collection of Ernest Hemingway (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Library, n.d.).

  11. J. D. Salinger, “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” in Nine Stories [1953] (New York: Bantam, 1964) 103. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  12. J. D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; and Seymour—An Introduction [1963] (New York: Bantam, 1965) 171. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  13. J. D. Salinger, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in Nine Stories [1953] (New York: Bantam, 1964) 6.

  14. J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey [1961] (New York: 1964) 62.

  15. Margaret Salinger, “Margaret Salinger on J. D. Salinger,” The Connection, National Public Radio, WBUR, Boston 14 Sept. 2000. ‹›.


J. D. Salinger Long Fiction Analysis


J. D. Salinger American Literature Analysis