The narrator of “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” begins by dedicating the tale to his stepfather, “Robert Agadganian, Jr.” – or “Bobby”, as everyone called him.
The narrator is a boy of nineteen, who has just returned to New York from Paris after nine years abroad, three months after the death of his mother. (She and her second husband, Bobby, moved to Paris shortly after the crash of ’29). The narrator feels lost and stifled in the Big Apple, chafing at what he perceives as strangers’ rudeness. He prays to be alone, and finds solace in a passion of his – painting.
Then, out of the blue, he happens upon a notice in a Quebec newspaper for a post at a correspondence art school in Montreal. The school is called Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres, and Monsieur I. Yoshoto, the directeur, is looking for qualified candidates to serve as an instructor during the summer session, to begin on July 10. Pricked with excitement, the narrator dashes off a long letter to Yoshoto, attaches samples of his work, and sends the materials in the mail. In the letter, he concocts a new identity for himself; his name is Jean de Daumier-Smith, and he is a great-nephew of Honore Daumier; he is twenty-nine, and has just left his “small estate in the South of France” following the death of his wife; his parents were close friends with Picasso; he has been painting since early childhood, but has never exhibited, per Picasso’s advice.
A few weeks later, the narrator hears back from the school. He has been accepted for the position. He packs his bags and heads off to Montreal, complete with “a double-breasted, beige gabardine suit, […] a Panama hat, […] and a reddish-brown mustache, aged three weeks.” The school is merely the second floor of a tenement building. “One large room and a tiny, boltless latrine,” the narrator recalls, “were all there was to Les Amis des Vieux Maitres itself.” As for personnel, the narrator quickly realizes he is the only employee, along with M. Yoshoto and his wife – referred to only as Mme. Yoshoto. The narrator puffs up his background story, throws in more lies – the philosophy being, the more extravagant the lie, the more convincing it is – and shacks up in the bare, chairless bedroom the Yoshotos offer him.
The next day, work begins. The narrator is dismayed to find that his duty is to translate Yoshoto’s corrections of students’ artwork from French to English. What is more, like “many a really good artist, M. Yoshoto taught drawing not a whit better than it’s taught by a so-so artist who has a nice flair for teaching.”
Somewhat crestfallen by what appears to be his job, the narrator wonders if perhaps Yoshoto knows he has been lying through his teeth and is punishing him with this demeaning work. The narrator’s solution is to keep on lying. He praises a picture of M. Yoshoto’s, of a goose in flight, and proudly announces that he knows “a very wealthy paralytic” in Paris who would pay “any price at all” for the work. M. Yoshoto responds that the picture belongs in fact to his cousin.
Shortly thereafter, the narrator is given some assignments of his own – students’ lessons, sent in by mail, that he needs to correct. He is struck by the ineptitude of the artwork sent in. His first student is a twenty-three year-old Toronto housewife named Bambi Kramer, who captions each picture with the words: “Forgive Them Their Trespasses.” His second is a fifty-six year-old “society photographer” named R. Howard Ridgefield, who draws lewd, sexually explicit pictures in the name of satire.
His heart sinking to new lows, the narrator opens up the third student’s envelope. Her name is Sister Irma, and she teaches “cooking and drawing” at a “convent elementary school” outside Toronto. As she explains in her questionnaire, which accompanies the artwork, she has had no formal training in drawing, and is only diving into it because she was asked to teach the class. She encloses six samples of her work – and the narrator immediately feels he has stumbled upon a true, and rare, talent. One piece in particular stands out to him – a “highly detailed depiction of Christ being carried to the sepulchre in Joseph of Arimathea’s garden.”
Bubbling with newfound enthusiasm, the narrator resists announcing his discovery to Yoshoto, for fear that Irma’s art might be taken away from him, and stashes away her envelope so that he may work on it on his own time that night – which he does, until four in the morning. He draws sketches for Irma to answer some of her specific questions about “running figures” and writes her “a long, almost endless letter.” In it, he explains that he “would not even be slightly startled if [she] developed into a genius before many years have gone by,” and advises that she purchase certain materials for her next works. He also asks her, in a prolonged P.S., if she finds “being a nun very satisfactory” and if she could let him know what her “visiting hours” are. He asks her to mail him all her previous work, and writes that the “days will be insufferable” until her envelope arrives.
Unfortunately, the envelope doesn’t arrive. A few days later, M. Yoshoto hands the narrator a letter from the convent. The letter informs Yoshoto that “Father Zimmermann, through circumstances outside his control, was forced to alter his decision to allow Sister Irma to study at Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres.” After staring at this letter for several minutes, the narrator dashes off letters to his other students, more or less expelling them from the school and telling them that they are untalented and should give up art. That evening, he writes a second letter to Sister Irma, inquiring if he by any chance he said something “obnoxious or irreverent” in his first letter. He follows that query by writing: “If you do not learn a few more rudiments of the profession, you will only be a very, very interesting artist the rest of your life instead of a great one. This is terrible, in my opinion. Do you realize how grave the situation is?”
More paragraphs of similarly hyperbolic prose follow. The narrator offers to lend his services “gratis for an indefinite period of time,” if money is the issue, and asks if he can visit the convent the next Saturday, “between 3 and 5 o’clock.”
He reserves a table at the Windsor Hotel, in town, and stumbles through night-time Montreal in a daze. He gives up his reservation at the Hotel, grabs food at a lunch bar instead, then, returning to Les Vieux Amis, stops at the window of the orthopedic appliances shop in the same building. There is “a live person” inside – “a hefty girl of about thirty, in a green, yellow and lavender chiffon dress,” lacing up a dummy’s truss. When she sees that the narrator is staring at her, the girl stumbles back in fear and confusion, loses her balance, and falls down. Then she resumes work. At that moment, the narrator has an “Experience” – what amounts to a sudden shift in consciousness. He writes: “the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of my nose at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second.” The “thing” lasts no more than several seconds. He backs away, heads upstairs to his room, and writes in his diary, in French: “I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everybody is a nun.”
He then writes letters to his other students, reinstating them. We jump ahead in time, to learn that “Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres closed down less than a week later, for being improperly licensed.”
It is a matter of some debate what exactly constitutes the narrator’s “Experience” in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” Salinger gives the moment much in the way of build-up, but keeps the event itself somewhat enigmatic. There seems to involve some sort of trick of the light, perhaps stemming from the orthopedic appliances shop, thereby accounting for the impression the narrator has of the sun racing along “at ninety-three million miles a second.” Perhaps the happening is not so much external as internal, a chemical jump in the narrator’s brain, a momentary flash, or panic attack, or dizzy spell.
Of course, these clinical explanations are beside the point. What Salinger is describing is, above all, an epiphany. It is significant that he frames the event in religious and spiritual terms – with his narrator’s references to St. Francis of Assissi, and his subsequent proclamation that “Everybody is a nun” – but it also important to recognize that Salinger does not tie the moment to any specific belief-set, scientific phenomenon, or concrete entity. He keeps it deliberately vague, stripping the typical “awakening” experienced by the protagonists of so many coming-of-age narratives into a single, barely describable instant.
That Sister Irma’s works are what to a large degree drive the narrator to his epiphany suggests again the religious nature of the moment. That said, the real key to understanding the passage lies in the way the narrator “sees” both Irma and the girl in the appliance store. In the case of the former, he never sees Irma at all, merely the results of her pen, pencil, and brush; everything she sends to him is precisely bordered, framed on rectangular pages and therefore confined by definite edges. Similarly, the girl in the appliance store is viewed through a rectangular frame – that of the storefront window. The narrator stares at her as though he were staring at a painting, focusing his eyes on the subject of a two-by-four tableau. The sentence “I was startled to see a live person” suggests that it is not so much the fact of seeing something in the store that startles the narrator, but that what he sees is live and moving.
In other words, he realizes, in a flash, that what he is looking at is not a painting, not a picture frozen in time – even if it may seem frozen in space (due to the makeshift “frame”). The dummy dressed by the girl is more his speed: static, unchanging, a fixed approximation of humanity by a pair of human hands. The narrator is better able to comprehend art and its boundaries than the messy, moving, fluttering thing that is life. Prior to his “epiphany,” he seems likewise unaware that his actions – even just the act of looking – can have physical, concrete consequences. He stares at the store employee as though at a dummy or painting, and is surprised to see her fall down as a result. Why should his eyes bring about this event?
The question leads him to realize, finally, that each person is his or her own agent. The question opens his eyes to human sovereignty, that is to say humanism. Unable to deal with the people in New York, he has shut himself off in the world of art; stuck in a correspondence school with only the school’s director and his wife, he has communicated with the outside world solely through letters for the past few weeks. Now, faced with a “live person” behind the glass, one who is affected by his gaze, he is able to step outside of himself for an instant. Therein lies the epiphany, the moment of self-discovery.
“Everybody is a nun,” the narrator scrambles off to write. Everybody should be allowed his or her own path. Just because he would like Sister Irma to devote herself to art does not mean she wants to or needs to. To her, the “situation” may indeed not be grave.” She is her own human being, and her destiny is therefore hers and hers alone to follow.