Nine Stories begins and ends with death (or at least the suggestion of death). While “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Teddy” are the most clearly morbid of the book’s entries, death pops up again and again in various guises throughout. Eloise’s true love, Walt, was killed in World War II, in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” The Laughing Man dies, as do his adversaries and his best friend, Black Wing. Esme’s father has died, as has the narrator’s mother in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” Death creeps around the edges of the stories, rarely taking central stage but appearing frequently enough that it casts a pall over the proceedings. As in Teddy’s references to cicadas and Seymour’s story of the bananafish, Salinger seems to be commenting on the fragility of all life.
Nine Stories can be interpreted as a collective burst of reaction to World War II, in which Salinger fought. Though the stories were written in different years and only later compiled, they each address life after the war in some way. In certain cases, Salinger fixes his gaze on concrete effects of the war, such as post-traumatic stress disorder in “Bananafish” and perhaps “For Esme,” and the death of loved ones in “Uncle Wiggily.” In other cases, Salinger seeks to offer a vision of a post-bellum America, in which the “war” is still a frequent reference-point and topic of conversation, in which every character knows someone who fought or served, in which allusions to the war encroach on even the most seemingly frivolous and innocent discussions – as in “Just Before the War With the Eskimos.” The title of that story underlines Salinger’s approach – namely, to talk about the war not by facing it head-on, but by refracting it through jokes and passing asides, through human foibles and spikes of affection.
Genius and Madness
Salinger’s oeuvre is filled with “geniuses.” The Glass family is chock-full of them. In [Nine Stories], Salinger peers into the dark side of genius, exploring the fuzzy boundaries between madness and wisdom. Seymour and Teddy begin and end the book on similar notes; these are young men (the first a war veteran, the second a ten year-old boy) who see the world differently than their peers, who focus their attention on small details – orange peels, a woman seemingly looking at Seymour’s feet – and appear to reflect a larger-scale vision of humanity. Of course, one could be forgiven for interpreting both characters as lunatics: Seymour concocts a wild story about imaginary creatures, mistakes the color of Sybil’s bathing suit, and screams at a woman in an elevator, while Teddy rambles about reincarnation, meditation, and rails against logic. That, Salinger seems to argue, is the point. It’s a fine line that separates the kind of vision or mind-frame one could identify as genius from the kind of madness that can lead to an impromptu suicide.
In “The Laughing Man” and “For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” Salinger toys with storytelling form, offering a meta-commentary within the tales on his own actions as a writer. “For Esme” shifts from a sort of introductory abstract to a traditional narrative to a separate narrative that seems to answer a strand within the earlier narrative, then closing with a direct address to Esme – which in turn echoes the story’s title. “The Laughing Man” uses a story-within-the-story device to serve as counterpoint to the main action: the Chief’s fantastical tales assume the emotionality hidden between the lines of the narrator’s own account of Mary Hudson. In both of these cases, as in Salinger’s more conventionally told stories, the limits of narrative perspective and awareness create tension. Salinger is an ironist, and he uses discrepancies in narrative voice and gaps in imparted information to imbue his tales with bittersweet, bemused affection.
In “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” a memory brings about sadness; in “For Esme,” a memory brings about joy. In the case of the former, Eloise yells at her daughter for her sleeping position after dipping into the past, then addresses her sleeping friend Mary Jane; her world is asleep, but not she. In the case of the latter, the narrator is finally able to sleep after retreating from the harsh present to the warmer past – a time in which he had all his “faculties” intact – so that memory is associated with a soporific, albeit in the most positive way. Several entries in [Nine Stories] explicitly take the form of recollections, and the idea of memory guides and shapes the storytelling. Interestingly, when the narrator of “The Laughing Man” wades back into his past, he brings with him none of his present-day knowledge or understanding; the memory blots out the present, so that all that remains is the past – which is to say, a child’s vision of the world.
Love in Nine Stories is often depicted in oblique and indirect ways, as in “The Laughing Man,” in which the Chief’s love for Mary Hudson is viewed from a distance. One is tempted to use the word “love” to describe certain relationships or emotions in the book that have nothing to do with romance or eroticism. What Esme and the narrator of “For Esme” share could be justifiably called love, as could the feelings of the nineteen year-old art instructor for Sister Irma. In neither case are we speaking of corporal love, but rather of a kind of human connection, fascination, and affection that transcends the ordinary boundaries.
Nine Stories is filled with young people, as are most of Salinger’s works. Children, in particular, figure large: Sybil in “Bananafish,” Ramona in “Uncle Wiggily,” Ginnie and Selena in “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” the narrator of “The Laughing Man,” Lionel in “Down at the Dinghy,” and of course Esme and Teddy (not to mention their respective siblings, Charles and Booper). Salinger suggests that children can be simultaneously wise and foolish; he wavers from a Wordsworth-like view of the sagacious child (think Teddy) to a more ironic and comical depiction of the uncomprehending youth (think the protagonist of “The Laughing Man”). Just as wisdom and madness can coexist within the same mind, so can wisdom and foolishness or lack of understanding – or, should I say, childishness.
Nine Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Nine Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
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...
Boo Boo attempts to reach out to her son Lionel on his turf, to play a game by his rules, and must share in a kind of imaginary landscape Lionel has established in order to do so. Boo Boo must show patience and understanding to do this. The story...
When he described the size of it on Esmé's arm, I thought it served to emphasize her fragility, that she really was a little girl, in contrast to her confident verbal demeanor. And, then when she sent it to him, this keep-sake of her father,...