“Just recently, by air mail, I received an invitation to a wedding that will take place in England on April 18th.” So begins “For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” one of the most beloved entries in Nine Stories. The narrator goes on to explain that the wedding is one he would very much like to attend, but his mother-in-law is looking forward to seeing him and his wife around that time, so he is obliged to skip it. He decides nonetheless to jot down “a few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago.” What follows is the story of his encounter with Esme…
The year is 1944, and the narrator is “among some sixty American enlisted men” stationed in Devon, England, training for the invasion of the continent. At the end of three weeks, the group of soldiers is scheduled to travel to London, where rumor has it they will “be assigned to infantry and airborne divisions mustered for the D Day landings.” The last day of the training, after packing his bags for the London trip, the narrator strolls through Devon and happens upon a church in the center of town. The bulletin board on the church’s façade catches his attention; at three-fifteen, there is to be a “children’s-choir practice” inside. The narrator thinks for a moment, then enters the church.
The practice is already underway, and the narrator, sitting in the pews, becomes entranced by one of the singing children – a girl of about thirteen, “with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house.” Her voice is the “sweetest-sounding” of the bunch, but she seems somewhat “bored with her own singing ability.”
Having been transfixed by this sight (and sound), the narrator exits the church as soon as the singing ends and the choir coach begins to lecture. He walks through town and steps into a mostly-empty “civilian tearoom,” there ordering tea and a piece of cinnamon toast. Shortly thereafter, the girl he had noticed in the church enters the tearoom, accompanied by an “efficient-looking woman” – apparently her governess – and a younger boy – apparently her brother. They take a seat a few tables down.
After some time, the girl notices that the narrator is staring in her direction. She gets up and approaches him. He notes her dress – “It seemed to be a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day” – and asks her, after she’s remarked that she “thought Americans despised tea”, if she’d like to join him.
She agrees, and the narrator and his newfound companion launch into a conversation that spans various subjects. The narrator explains that he saw the girl at choir practice; it turns out she already knew. The girl has plans to be a jazz singer on the radio; after making “heaps of money”, she will “retire and live on a ranch in Ohio.” She asks the narrator if he goes “to that secret Intelligence school on the hill.” He replies that he is visiting Devon for his health. “Really,” she quips, “I wasn’t quite born yesterday, you know.”
While her governess motions for her to return to their table, the girl, whose name we learn is Esme, throws around fancy words – “gregarious”, for instance – and asks the narrator if he is married. He is.
“I’m training myself to be more compassionate,” she says later. “My aunt says I’m a terribly cold person. […] I live with my aunt. She’s an extremely kind person. Since the death of my mother, she’s done everything within her power to make Charles and me feel adjusted.” She says her mother was “quite sensuous”, as though unsure of what the word means. After explaining that “Mother was an extremely intelligent person,” she says her father was a “genius” and “really needed more of an intellectual companion than Mother was.” We learn that the father of whom she speaks was killed in North Africa during the war.
Esme’s younger brother, Charles, comes to join the two. He plays at pulling the tablecloth and putting it over his face. Then he tells the narrator a joke. “What did one wall say to the other wall?” he asks. “Meet you at the corner!” Then he bursts into delirious laughter.
Esme asks the narrator what his job was before entering the Army. He answered that he would like to consider himself a professional short-story writer. When asked if he has been published, however, he wavers, trotting out a denouncement of American editors.
The narrator notices the “enormous-faced, chronographic-looking wristwatch” Esme is wearing. He asks her if it belonged to her father. She answers that it did. Then she says: “I’d be extremely flattered if you’d write a story exclusively for me sometime.” The narrator replies that he will if he can, but that he isn’t “terribly prolific.” “It doesn’t have to be terribly prolific!” Esme responds excitedly. She requests simply that the story not be “childish or silly,” and notes that she prefers “stories about squalor.”
Charles begins his wall joke again. The narrator, thinking he is humoring the boy, jumps in with the punchline. This, however, infuriates Charles, who storms off to his table. Shortly thereafter, it is time for Esme to leave as well. Before doing so, she asks: “Would you like me to write to you?” She adds: “I write extremely articulate letters.” The narrator answers that he’d love it, and gives her his information.
Later, Esme and Charles return to the tearoom. Esme explains that Charles wants to kiss the narrator goodbye. The narrator takes the opportunity to ask Charles, “What did one wall say to the other wall?” “Meet you at the corner!” Charles shouts, his face alight.
The story jumps ahead in time. “This is the squalid, or moving, part of the story,” the narrator notes, “and the scene changes.” It is now V-E Day, and the narrator is staying in a “civilian home” with several other soldiers in Bavaria, gaunt, shaken, recovering from a nervous breakdown and unable to sleep. He refers to himself as “Staff Sergeant X” and his friend – jeep partner and “constant companion from D Day straight through five campaigns of the war” – “Corporal Z.” We learn later that Z’s name is Earl; he remarks that X’s hand is shaking tremendously, and recalls how he looked “like a corpse” not too long ago. Evidently X’s situation was a grave one.
After talking with Clay about Loretta, his girl back home, X says he’d rather stay up in his room than join the festivities in town. After Clay’s departure, X turns his attention to a pile of unopened letters by his writing table. He is nauseous, having vomited just moments ago, and trembling uncontrollably, when he opens up a certain letter and indifferently begins to read it.
It’s from Esme. In her letter, she apologizes for not having written sooner, asks the narrator if he is well – betraying a good deal of worry – and asks him to “reply as speedily as possible.” Enclosed with the letter is her father’s wristwatch, and tagged on ad an addendum is a message from Charles: “HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO LOVE AND KISSES CHARLES.”
X sees that the wristwatch has been broken in transit. He sits for a while, then, “suddenly, almost ecstatically,” feels sleepy – the first time he has experienced that feeling, we can infer, in a long, long time.
Like “The Laughing Man”, “For Esme – with Love and Squalor” plays with the short-story form, introducing a conceit and then twisting it through the course of its twenty or so pages. The title, for one, is significant. It is as though the story itself were a letter to Esme, and thus both the writer and his writing of the tale become part and parcel of the fictional fabric. The reader is in effect eavesdropping on a relationship between two characters; the story is addressed to its own fictional construct, and at play is a loop which excludes the reader and binds the elements of the story together. A sense of reality and realism is heightened by the use of artifice as referent; the result is a self-closed system.
More than many of Salinger’s other works, “For Esme” lends itself quite readily to technical analysis. It is in fact something of a modernist piece: the use of X and Z as place-holder names in its latter half is not so dissimilar from Resnais’ use of the same trope in Last Year at Marienbad. Several years later; the jump from the traditional tearoom scene to the German home is introduced by the writer preemptively describing what he is about to write – the “squalid” part of his tale – thus wielding plot material as meta-commentary in a manner that would not be out of place in Tristram Shandy, that quintessential proto-modernist work. The fracturing of narrative and voices even recalls certain artistic reactions to either World War I or II, be they Picasso’s cubist experiments, Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, or the “nouveau roman” of French literature.
And yet, Salinger’s is in effect a pop modernism: “For Esme” is at its heart a love story, not about a romance but about the profoundly life-affirming relationship between a soldier and a young girl. Because of the difference in age, Salinger is able to eschew the typical romantic trappings of similar boy-girl narratives; he writes not of love at first sight, but of human connection, positing two lonely souls who, during the course of a few brief minutes in an English tearoom on a rainy Saturday afternoon, share a moment that neither will ever forget.
The jumps in time, the shifts in form, the modernist play of effects all serve to underline the importance of that moment in the face of time and history. Even after the brutality of successive war campaigns, a devastating nervous breakdown (again, as in “Bananafish,” Salinger emphasizes the mental suffering brought about by war), and the passage of months (even years, if one takes into account the story’s opening paragraphs, set six years after the tearoom rendez-vous), the conversation the narrator and Esme share retains its glow. When Eloise remembers more innocent times in “Uncle Wiggily”, she dissolves into tears; the memories cloud whatever might be satisfying about her current existence. When the narrator of “For Esme” dips into his past, on the other hand, he feels more at peace. He is finally able to sleep. He regains his “f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s.” In “For Esme”, memory is therapeutic, even cathartic. The letter from Esme, in all its simple, unfettered affection, serves to remind the narrator that life is worth living, despite the hardships and the heartache.
“You take a really sleepy man, Esme,” the narrator writes, equating himself with his alter-ego X and morphing his story-within-a-story into a direct address, “and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac – with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.” Esme’s own way of speaking closes the story, since it was she who referred to “faculties” in that manner. Thus, even as the narrator reasserts his own id – his own “I” – into the equation, he adopts Esme’s persona as well; the two characters are thus bound not just by narrative but by form.
In this way, when the story drifts toward the coldest kind of technical-minded modernism – in which, again, characters are referred to as X or Z – Esme reappears to invest the proceedings with warmth. Salinger is, at his heart, a humanist, and compassion bleeds through the formal trickery of “For Esme”; the story’s remarkable ability to invest its formal devices with real feeling is the key to its greatness. It is a work all the more devastating for having built up a wall of formalism by its final paragraphs (much like the secluded existence “Staff Sergeant X” leads in the hospital, and hinted at in Charles’ wall joke) only to strip that wall away, and reveal the beating and bleeding heart within.