“A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the first story in J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, begins with a woman named Muriel Glass, wife of Seymour Glass (of Salinger’s famed Glass family), who is on vacation at a Florida beach resort with Seymour. She is sitting in her hotel room – Room 507 – reading a “women’s pocket-size magazine, called ‘Sex is Fun – Or Hell’, and moving the button on her Saks blouse, when the long-distance call she has put through to New York finally comes through. She finishes lacquering a fingernail before picking the phone up; she is “a girl who for a ringing dropped exactly nothing.”
The woman on the line is her mother. “I’ve been worried to death about you,” the mother says. She starts off by asking why Muriel hasn’t phoned earlier, and then demands to know who drove to the hotel. Learning Seymour did the driving, she exclaims: “He drove? […] Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?” As the conversation continues, it quickly becomes clear that Muriel’s mother and father have grave doubts about the mental stability of their son-in-law.
More details follow. We learn that Seymour calls Muriel “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948”, that he sent her a book of poems from Germany by “the only great poet of the century” in his view, that he said “horrible things” to Muriel’s grandmother about her “plans for passing away.” Muriel’s mother tells Muriel that her father spoke to Dr. Sivetski about Seymour and was told “it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital.” She urges Muriel to come home immediately, but Muriel will have nothing of it: “This is the first vacation I’ve had in years, and I’m not going to pack everything and come home,” she tells her mother.
As the conversation continues, we learn that a psychiatrist in the hotel has actually spoken to Muriel about Seymour, after having noticed him playing piano in the hotel bar. It seems that even then Seymour’s behavior – and particularly his pale countenance – were enough to elicit concern. Still, Muriel seems decidedly unconcerned, and she grows more and more irritated with her mother’s agitation.
The conversation ends with the mother again pleading to her daughter to come home and perhaps reconsider things. “Your father said last night that he’d be more than willing to pay for it if you’d go away someplace by yourself and think things over,” she says. “You could take a lovely cruise.” Muriel refuses. “When I think of how you waited for that boy all through the war,” the mother replies. We learn that Seymour is currently lying on the beach and won’t take his bathrobe off, explaining that he doesn’t want people seeing his “tattoo” (when, in fact, as Muriel and her mother both know, he doesn’t have a tattoo). With that the chat comes to a close.
Next, we meet a young girl named Sybil Carpenter. She is staying at the hotel with her mother, and is scurrying across the beach when she happens upon Seymour. He is lying on his back, wrapped in the bathrobe, squinting in the sunlight. She asks him if he is returning to the water, to “see more glass”. The two have spoken before.
After explaining that he was waiting to go in the water with Sybil, Seymour remarks on the girl’s fine bathing suit. “If there’s one thing I like, it’s a blue bathing suit,” he says. “This is a yellow,” Sybil counters.
The young man and girl talk, and there is an easy rapport between them. Seymour is joking and jovial, and soon he rises to his feet and says they should go try to catch “a bananafish.” He removes his robe and walks with Sybil into the water. They talk about another girl at the hotel, Sharon Lipschutz, about the necessity of “olives and wax” to everyday life, and about this strange creature Seymour has mentioned – the bananafish. “This is a perfect day for bananafish,” Seymour notes as he carries Sybil on a rubber float into the water, advising her to keep her eyes peeled for any of them.
Seymour explains that bananafish have a tendency to swim into holes filled with bananas. While perfectly normal fish before entering the holes, once inside the bananafish become ravenous and devour all the bananas they can spot. The result: they grow too fat to escape from the hole. “They lead a very tragic life,” Seymour says.
Soon Sybil reports: “I just saw one.” Seymour plays along, asks how many bananas the fish had in his mouth.
Shortly thereafter, Sybil and Seymour get out of the water and part ways. Seymour returns to the hotel, and confronts a woman in the elevator for apparently having looked at his feet. “I happened to be looking at the floor,” the woman says. “If you want to look at my feet, say so,” Seymour snaps back. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”
When he reaches the fifth floor, he gets out and enters Room 507. There Muriel is lying on the bed, asleep. Seymour opens a piece of luggage, takes out an Ortgies caliber 7.65 from underneath a pile of clothes, and fires “a bullet through his right temple.”
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” put J. D. Salinger on the map. It was published in The New Yorker in 1948, and few short stories in the history of American letters have met with such immediate acclaim. To a modern reader, it is easy to miss what to 40’s readers was the story’s principal and disturbing undercurrent: post-traumatic stress disorder. The late 40’s were in large part a period of reaction to World War II, as exhibited in the burgeoning school of film noir, the influx of apocalyptic B-movies, and new waves in philosophy and literary theory.
“Bananafish”, with its unsettling mixture of the mundane and the tragic, the light-hearted and the cataclysmic, captured, in its straightforward, deceptively muted style and sensibility, the push-and-pull condition of returning WWII veterans (of which Salinger was one). The ending comes across as a complete shock, and Salinger refuses to linger on it. The very last phrase of the story is “fired a bullet through his right temple” – leaving readers speechless and denying them authorial intervention to interpret the event. The result is that a reader must backtrack in memory through the story to construct a logical framework that can guide him or her from the comic bounciness of the beginning to the sudden bloodshed at the end. Salinger’s decision to send such disparate tones careening into one another is a way of underlining the essential absurdity of war as it seeps into (and refuses to leave) peacetime life.
Salinger, in his devotion to linear time, in his restriction of the narrator’s voice to just the physical particulars of the scene – so that the short story plays out seemingly “in real time”, like a piece of documented and uninterpreted reality, even like a film – simulates the real-life effect of a suicide. It may come across as a surprise, but as soon as the event has taken place, one invariably sifts through the moments that preceded it in hopes of finding a reason. Indeed, when interpreted in this context, the story is full of indices to Seymour’s death wish: the mother’s mention of his “funny business” with the trees while driving suggests he has tried to crash into a tree before; his complaint about his tattoo and his comment that Sybil’s bathing suit is “blue” may not be bits of jokery but instead reflections of a hallucinatory and seriously deranged mind; the oft commented-upon pallor of his skin points to depression, as does his tendency to stay wrapped up in his bathrobe while on the beach; his talk with Muriel’s grandmother “about her plans for passing away” indicates an undue fascination with death; and so forth and so forth.
What is most telling, however, is the way in which Salinger implicitly posits Seymour as a sort of prophet, wise beyond his years and perhaps ahead of his time. His story of the bananafish could serve as a metaphor for humanity, particularly the postwar boom generation; surrounded by riches, we cannot help but consume and consume, regardless of the consequences. We are each trapped in our own banana-filled hole. Seymour, able to converse with a child (one should recall the traditional notion of the child as in some ways more wise than the adult, per Rousseau, Wordsworth, Miller, and many other writers and thinkers), is also able to see humanity’s plight for what it is, suggesting that through his madness he has at least managed to escape the “hole”. There is always that fine line between “madman” and “genius”, after all, a line which Salinger explores again in “Teddy”, the final entry in Nine Stories.
Of course, much of the writing on Seymour as “genius” in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is informed by the character’s larger backstory, as constructed by Salinger throughout his career. Seymour is one of the children of the Glass family – the same family that gave birth to Franny and Zooey, and which appears and reappears throughout Nine Stories – and, as we learn from other stories and books involving him, he is preternaturally gifted, a deep thinker and an inquisitive mind. In a humorous bit of self-reference, the first line spoken to Seymour in “Bananafish” is the following question from Sybil: “Are you going in the water, see more glass?”
Returning to the notion of the bananafish as metaphor for the fatally consumptive American, it is significant that Salinger devotes the entire first half of his story to Muriel’s conversation with her mother – a conversation in which materialism repeatedly rears its head. Muriel at one point refers to “that awful dinner dress”, and later discusses “the clothes of this year” with her mother: “Terrible,” Muriel calls them. “But out of this world. You see sequins – everything.” Seymour, by contrast, can’t even get the color of Sybil’s bathing suit right.
Consider also the paragraph that opens the story, and its insistent emphasis on such aspects of postwar America as advertising, women’s magazines, fashion, and cosmetics:
“There were ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel […] She used the time, though. She read an article in a women’s pocket-size magazine, called ‘Sex is Fun – Or Hell.’ She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.”
Intriguingly, Salinger closes his story with a similar focus on objects – only now the object in question is “an Ortgies caliber 7.65 automatic.” The society of commodities turns back on itself; the bananas kill the fish. Perhaps Seymour escapes, through his wisdom or his madness (or both). Or perhaps he’s just another fish trapped in the hole.