J.D. Salinger Essay Essay, Research Paper
Salinger’s children, as they appear in various novels and short stories, portray the ills of modern society through their innocence and spirituality, their honesty and sometimes, erratic behaviour. They are often as fragile and odd as they are intelligent and endearing, and the obscenities of life tend to overwhelm them at times. My intention is to show how Salinger uses the same technique over and over in his work. That is the use of children with all the innocence and idealism of youth, to depict the falseness of modern society. Through these children and young adults, from Holden and Franny, to little Esme, Ramona and Teddy, along with others, Salinger tells a tale of the human condition that is witty and humourous, but at the same time often tragic.
Holden Cauflield who is the main character in Catcher in the Rye and Franny Glass of Franny and Zooey are similar characters is many ways. They are of a similar age and are very sensitive to what they call the ‘phoniness’ of the world around them. An example is when Holden goes to a bar called Ernie’s which was run by Ernie, some big hotshot piano player. Holden describes him as being, “a terrific snob and he won’t hardly even talk to you unless you’re a big shot or a celebrity,” every time he would finish a song, “old Ernie turned around on his stool and gave this very phony, humble bow. Like as if he was a helluva humble guy.”
Franny describes what she calls a “Wally Campbell” type of person. “they’re going to pull up a chair and straddle in backward and start bragging in a terribly quiet, casual voice–or name dropping in a terribly quiet casual voice. There’s an unwritten law that people in a certain social or financial bracket can name-drop as much as they like as long as they say something terribly disparaging about the person as soon as they’ve dropped his name”
Salinger makes us like these young characters. They become dear to us even though they are oddballs to say the least. Franny with her constant repetition of the Jesus prayer, and Holden with his strange adventures in New York City. But both are sensitive and appear to be struggling with life and Salinger emphasises their sensitivity by contrasting them with insensitivity. In Franny’s case it’s her self-centred boy friend, Lane, who likes nothing better than to talk about himself, and in Holden’s case the traditions and hypocrisy of elite private schools and New England society. His school motto was “Since1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear thinking young men.” Holden’s views are as follows, “Strictly for the birds. They don’t do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school.” He speaks of a wealthy alumnus of Pencey named Ossenburger who made his fortune in the undertaking business. When he donated a large sum of money to the school, he appeared on campus and was treated like royalty. Holden found this hypocritical and refers to him as a phoney saying, “I can just see the big phoney bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.”
Could Salinger have used adults as effectively? I think that his use of the young makes a better impact because of their fresh outlook and the frank innocence of the words they use. Their lack of sophistication gives belief to their distaste for hypocrisy, for isn’t sophistication itself a form of hypocrisy?
This use of children in his work continues through most of Salinger’s short stories. The children aren’t always the main characters here, but are still integral in making his point. In A Perfect Day for Banana Fish, Seymour’s last happy moments are spent with a young child on the beach. It is this interaction with the young girl that gives us our only insight into Seymour’s character. Throughout the story she is the only one he talks to except the lady in the elevator just before he dies. Through these conversations and the playfulness between them, Seymour gives us the impression that he is a sweet, caring man. The innocence of this little girl deeply contrasts the character of Seymour’s wife who we know by Seymour’s sarcasm is shallow and artificial, “The lady She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hair dresser’s. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room.”
Another one of Salinger’s short stories, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut uses the same technique, but in this case it’s the relationship between a daughter and her mother. This relationship is anything but good. Because of a past tragedy Eloise, the mother, has become an ineffectual and cold mother to her young daughter Ramona. Ramona is not really typical of most of Salinger’s other children. She is withdrawn, short sighted and given to nose picking but she is an innocent child, and a victim of her mother’s depressing life-style. She is a woman who has known personal disappointment and hasn’t been able to rise above it. Her life is false and her pass time is gossip and drinking. We only get a glimpse of the girl she once was at the end of the story, when she staggers into Ramona’s bedroom and weeps over her bed. “She picked up Ramona’s glasses and, holding them in both hands, pressed them against her cheek. Tears rolled down her face, wetting the lenses. “Poor Uncle Wiggily” she said over and over again.” This shows Salinger’s technique once again, of the use of a child to maximise the impact of his writing.
Esm , in For Esm with Love and Squalor, is one of my favourite Salinger children. She makes an impression on Sergeant X early in the war when they first meet. Although only 13, she tries to be very grown-up. She uses adult type language. When asked to sit down she says “Thank you. Perhaps just for a fraction of a moment” and later “Usually I’m not terribly gregarious.” Esm is very protective of her younger brother Charles, and although her long conversation with Sergeant X is amusing, it is also moving. Her parting words to the Sergeant are ” I hope you return from the war with your faculties intact”. As it turns out, he doesn’t. Sergeant X ends up in a bad mental state after the war, and is seriously concerned about his recovery. What seems to save him is a package from Esm that contains a letter and her father’s watch. This link with a child he met only briefly, provides the strength he needs to get well. It reminds him of the goodness and compassion that still exists in the world all through the words of a child.
Teddy is another very interesting character. He is a child prodigy and mystic, and the subject of scientific studies and has an unusual relationship with his parents and pretty well everyone else of normal intelligence. Salinger seems to use him to portray the pointlessness of life. Whether Salinger is a believer in eastern religions or not, I don’t know, but Teddy follows this philosophy. He believes that you live again and again, reincarnated until your soul is finally mature enough to die. Unlike westerners who believe that death is the worst thing that could possibly happen in ones life, Teddy believes this to be false. He says in one of his interviews about death, “It’s silly I could go downstairs to the pool, and there might not be any water in it What might happen, though, I might walk up to the edge of it, just to have a look at the bottom, for instance, and my sister might come up and sort of push me in I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously That could happen, all right. What would be so tragic about it, though? What’s there to be afraid of, I mean? I’d just be doing what I was supposed to do, that’s all, wouldn’t I?” Only later do we realise that this is exactly how Teddy dies. Again Salinger brings all these views and ideas of death and religion to light through a child as opposed to some sort of priest or Buddhist monk.
These are not the only children Salinger used in his work, but they were the ones who most appealed to me, and better yet provided strong characteristics which backed my thesis. He uses the children as his spokespersons to the problems and harsh reality of modern society. I believe that this quote from The Catcher in the Rye is an appropriate summation, and an illustration of the innocence of children, and the fleeting nature of that innocence which Holden brings to light. Perhaps falling off the cliff is symbolic of loss of innocence. “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around, nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”