"Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut"
A woman named Mary Jane has just arrived at the house of her friend and old college roommate, Eloise. Neither of them ever graduated, the narrator tells us. Eloise left college mid-sophomore year “after she had been caught with a soldier in a closed elevator on the third floor of her residence hall.” Mary Jane left around the same time to marry an “aviation cadet.” (The marriage didn’t last long: the cadet “spent two of the three months Mary Jane [was] married to him in jail for stabbing an M.P.”)
Mary Jane and Eloise share gossip and reminisce about the old days, drinking highballs in the living room. We learn that Eloise’s husband is named Lew. Mary Jane asks Eloise how she is “getting along” with Lew’s mother. “Don’t be funny,” Eloise responds.
The alcohol flows, Eloise plays cop in a joking stick-up – “Don’t nobody move” – and the talk shifts to Akim Tamiroff, a movie actor whom Mary Jane claims to have seen last week in Lord & Taylor’s, and to former college roommates the two women have recently run into.
Ramona, Eloise’s daughter, arrives. Eloise beckons her over to speak to Mary Jane. Ramona has an imaginary friend, whom she calls Jimmy.
After an ellipsis, we find Eloise and Mary Jane deep in conversation about a man named Walt. We learn that Walt was a former love of Eloise, who tries to explain to Mary Jane just how funny he was. “Once,” she says, “I fell down. I used to wait for him at the bus stop, right outside the PX, and he showed up late once, just as the bus was pulling out. We started to run for it, and I fell and twisted my ankle. He said, ‘Poor Uncle Wiggily.’ He meant my ankle. Poor old Uncle Wiggily, he called it…”
Mary Jane asks if Lew has a sense of humor. Eloise shrugs: “I guess so. He laughs at cartoons and stuff.” It is clear that she is unhappy in her marriage, and the memories of Walt have stirred her in some profound way. She refers to his having been drafted when they were dating, and we learn later he was killed in World War II.
Mary Jane asks Eloise why she doesn’t tell Lew about Walt. Eloise responds that Lew is “too damn unintelligent,” before launching into a meditation on wives and their husbands, and the secrets that must lie dormant: “They wanna think you spent your whole life vomiting every time a boy came near you. […] Oh, you can tell them stuff. But never honestly.”
Ramona returns and tells the two women that Jimmy was just run over and killed outside. Eloise feels her forehead, decides she is feverish, and tells her to go upstairs and lie in bed. Later that evening, Eloise goes up to visit Ramona, who is sleeping on the side of her bed. Eloise asks why she isn’t in the center; Ramona explains that she needs to make room for “Mickey Mickeranno” – a new imaginary friend. Eloise snaps: “You get in the center of that bed. Go on.” Then she breaks down into tears, repeating “Poor Uncle Wiggily” over and over to herself.
She heads back downstairs and, sobbing, says to Mary Jane: “You remember our freshman year, and I had that brown-and-yellow dress I bought in Boise, and Miriam Ball told me nobody wore those kind of dresses in New York, and I cried all night? […] I was a nice girl […], wasn’t I?”
“Just Before the War With the Eskimos”
A young girl named Ginnie (short for Virginia) Mannox regularly plays tennis with a classmate, Selena Graff. One day after tennis, Ginnie decides to demand that Selena pay her back for all the cab rides she has been covering. “After all, taking the taxi home from the courts instead of the bus had been Selena’s idea,” the narrator notes.
Selena does not take kindly to the demand. “Don’t I always pay half?” she asks. When told no, she follows with the assertion that she always brings the tennis balls. “Your father makes them or something,” Ginnie says. “They don’t cost you anything.” So Selena tries to guilt-trip Ginnie, explaining that she only has thirty-five cents in her pocket and will have to go wake her “very ill” mother for the rest of the money. “Can’t it wait till Monday?” she asks. “No,” is Ginnie’s firm reply.
The cab pulls up at Selena’s place. Ginnie follows her into her apartment. Selena asks Ginnie to wait in the living room while she goes to get her mother. “I never in my life would’ve thought you could be so small about anything,” she says before leaving the room.
Ginnie, unfazed, sits and waits. Shortly thereafter a young man shouts from another end of the apartment, then appears. He is Selena’s brother, apparently on the look-out for a friend named Eric. He spots Ginnie and immediately asks: “Ever cut your finger? Right down to the bone and all?” He is staring at his finger, which he has just cut while looking in a razor-blade-filled wastebasket. When he learns Ginnie’s name, he realizes she is the sister of a girl he has long been pining after, a girl named Joan. He is clearly peeved by what seems to have been her rejection of his advances and calls her a “goddamn snob.” His true feelings for Joan can only be read between the lines; on the surface, he seems merely to despise her, nothing else, but when Ginnie remarks that Joan is now engaged, he seems perturbed. “Who to?” he asks. “Nobody you know,” Ginnie answers. “I pity him,” he says. After changing the subject and offering Ginnie the remaining half of a chicken sandwich in his room, he asks the name of the man Joan is marrying. “Dick Heffner” is the response. “He’s a lieutenant commander in the Navy.” Then, when Ginnie presses on about why Selena’s brother considers Joan a snob, he admits he has written her “eight goddamn letters,” not one of which she has answered.
The conversation continues. We learn that Selena’s brother spent the war in an airplane factory in Ohio because of heart problems. Then he says he has to go shave, and asks Ginnie to tell Eric, when he does arrive, that he will be ready shortly. He leaves, then reappears a moment later with the sandwich.
Ginnie, who in fact doesn’t want the sandwich, is trying to find a place to hide it or throw it away when Eric arrives. He is well-dressed, in his thirties, with “regular features.” He asks Ginnie if she has seen Franklin – apparently Selena’s brother’s name. She says he is shaving. Eric is furious over something that has just happened to him. As he tells Ginnie, he has been robbed by a poor, aspiring playwright; he had tried, as a “Good Samaritan,” to help the playwright by giving him shelter and introducing him to producers. After complimenting Ginnie’s polo coat, he explains that he is taking Franklin to see Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
Shortly thereafter, Selena reappears with the money. Ginnie tells her she no longer wants the money: “I’ve been thinking,” she says. “I mean you bring the tennis balls and all, all the time. I forgot about that.” Thus reconciled with her tennis partner, she exits the apartment, shouting “I’ll call you later!” Outside the building, she takes out the chicken sandwich Eric gave her, about to throw it away; then she decides otherwise and plops it back in her pocket.
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” is the only one of Salinger’s stories to ever have been made into a film. Ironically, the story is one of Salinger’s tightest and most minimal. Very little actually happens, but much can be read between the lines. At first, in the catty banter of his two middle-aged female protagonists, Salinger seems to be critiquing materialist American culture in much the same way he did in the beginning of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Mary Jane and Eloise gossip about former roommates, share a story about seeing a famous actor in a department store, and idle away their time with joking asides and overflowing highballs. Eloise even betrays a sneering and contemptuous attitude toward her maid. “She’s sitting on her big, black butt reading ‘The Robe’”, she says, revealing a racist streak (which Salinger may or may not be commenting on) and a disdain for those less privileged than she.
Quickly, however, Salinger moves to inject empathy into the proceedings. The talk shifts to Walt, the only boy Eloise seems to have ever truly loved. It becomes more and more evident that Eloise is unhappy in her marriage to Lew – a dunderheaded man for whom she has no respect – and that she pines for the days she spent with Walt. As in “Bananafish,” the war rears its head, having claimed Walt’s life. One is left to wonder whether Walt and Eloise would have married if Walt had survived, and whether the marriage would have maintained the charm and joy of their time together before the war, or whether it would have instead merely dissolved into coldness and apathy. In other words, were Lew and Eloise perhaps once in love? Did Lew once make Eloise laugh the way Walt did?
In focusing his ever-satirical but ever-compassionate gaze on the unhappily married housewife, Salinger begs the question of whether all marriages are inherently doomed. Eloise waxes nostalgic about her youth, but it is precisely because those days remain locked in the past that she is able to idealize them. Significantly, Lew never makes an appearance in the story, so we are unable to judge him for ourselves. The only characters who appear in the flesh are women: Eloise, Mary Jane, and Ramona (whose “male” friends – her beaus, as Mary Jane puts it – are imaginary).
Youth is glorified through the prism of memory; the resulting feeling is one of regret, longing, a sense of loss. It is not by chance that the next story in Nine Stories takes youth as not just its theme but its subject. From the yearnings of middle-aged housewives we shift abruptly to the far more lighthearted games and trifles of teenaged and twenty-something girls and boys.
Here too, the war is mentioned, and Franklin, in joking that another war is on its way, seems perhaps to even allude to the coming Korean War. “We’re going to fight the Eskimos next,” he says, lending the story its title. Geographically speaking, the inhabitants of what is now North Korea were not too far removed from the territories inhabited by Siberian Eskimos; on a more probable level, Franklin may be jumbling together the two races in a thoughtless (or racist) quip. Of course, it is not at all certain that Salinger intends a reference to the Korean War – which was still several years off when he published the story in 1948 – but, read in hindsight, Franklin’s implication that wars are forever coming and going, that just because World War II is over does not mean peace is here to stay, is prescient.
When compared to “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” the story of Ginnie and her bemused conversations with Franklin and Eric seems decidedly more upbeat. Still, heartache looms at the edges. It is clear that Franklin has feelings for Ginnie’s sister, and is pained to learn that she is in fact engaged. Ginnie, for her part, feels used and mistreated by Selena, who is visibly the more domineering of the two friends and even something of a bully; Ginnie is made to feel guilty for simply asking that Selena cover her share of the cab fare. That said, the cruelties and hardships these characters exhibit and suffer are tempered with the hopefulness that comes with youth; they are kids acting out with and against one another, and they have many years ahead of them to correct their past mistakes or fulfill their youthful longings.
Eloise, on the other hand, has no such recourse. She must resort to lashing out at her daughter – by implication a member of the next generation of prosperous but unhappily-married wives – and collapsing in tears by the side of her college friend. With no hope in her future, the warmth of memories constitutes her only means of escape.