J.D. Salinger Essay, Research Paper A recurring theme in J. D. Salinger’s stories concerns people who don’t fit in with the traditional American culture. Salinger’s most successful tales are of those who cannot adjust to the real world. His main characters are super-intelligent humans who must choose between the phony real world (American culture) and a morally pure, “nice” world.
J.D. Salinger Essay, Research Paper
A recurring theme in J. D. Salinger’s stories concerns people who don’t fit in with the traditional American culture. Salinger’s most successful tales are of those who cannot adjust to the real world. His main characters are super-intelligent humans who must choose between the phony real world (American culture) and a morally pure, “nice” world. Salinger’s “misfit hero[es]” (Levine 498), unlike the rest of society, are caught in the struggle between a superficial world and a conscious morality. In the aftermath of World War II, America was desperate for a homogenous society. Different was definitely not better. “The 50s were a period of supreme disillusionment” (Fifties 514). Those who did not fit the mold were shunned, treated as pariahs in the land of opportunity. “The 50s were a period of supreme disillusionment”-Warren French In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass and his new wife Muriel are vacationing at a posh Florida hotel. Salinger uses a telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother to provide background information Seymour, who has caused discomfort to a great number of people (Salinger 81). Seymour drives his father-in-law’s car into a tree and accuses other guests at the hotel of staring at a nonexistent tattoo on his back. Muriel brushes these incidents off; she seems amused by Seymour’s actions. Muriel is the one person who remain calm in the midst of Seymour’s antics, replying to her worried mother “You know Seymour” (Nine 10). Society sees Seymour as a childish adult, going to extremes to get attention (Salinger 82). He prefers the world of children (nice) to that of adults (phony). As the Matron of Honor in Raise High the Roof beam, Carpenters bluntly puts it “…you lead an absolutely freakish life like that when you’re a kid, and so naturally you never learn to grow up. You never learn to relate to normal people or anything” (59). The Matron of Honor and Muriel’s mother, both equally intolerant of people who are different, represent the real world. Like the rest of Salinger’s nonconformists, Seymour sees children as innocent and truly good (Heiserman 496). Seymour’s realization that he is not and can never be a true guru of Buddhism leads to his suicide. By getting married, he cannot transcend the temptations of flesh, and is therefore unable to be considered a real guru. Seymour’s situation mirrors Salinger’s scorn for those who engage in premarital sex (Salinger 58). He would not even allow his characters to do more than kiss, a rarity in his era. Seymour is interested in the company of four-year old Sybil Carpenter, a child he believes he can save from becoming a “phony” (Catcher 127). While swimming with the young girl, Seymour tells a tale of fish that swim into holes filled with bananas. These bananafish then gorge themselves on the fruit and, too fat to swim out of the holes, die of banana fever. Some critics misinterpret the author’s intention in acquainting Sybil and the reader with bananafish. Seymour is not a bananafish; it is the phonies of the world who are guilty of bingeing themselves with meaningless material objects until they become so superficial they are beyond hope of ever attaining spiritual purity (Fifties 515). These people are intentional bananafishes. They are also the inhabitants of the phony world.Seymour, on the other hand, has temporarily lost sight of his religion and is tricked into becoming a “glutton…[with an] insatiable appetite…for attention” (Salinger 84). Even though Seymour knows he is beyond salvation, he still believes he can rescue Sybil. When she admits she saw a bananafish with six bananas in its mouth, Seymour realizes that she is already on the path toward becoming a superficial bananafish. In a few years Sybil will be like her mother, interested only in how another woman has her scarf tied. Three of Salinger’s short stories, “Down at the Dinghy,” “For Esme -with Love and Squalor,” and “Franny and Zooey,” written in the middle of his career, are products of Salinger’s belief that those unfortunate souls who aren’t “seers” could learn to live in this wasteland without becoming contaminated by the moral decay common in our society (Dictionary 436). Salinger still thought, like Seymour, that society could be saved, if only it could see that there is more to people than their appearance. In “Down at the Dinghy,” Seymour’s sister Boo-Boo coerces her young son Lionel to accept the reality of imperfection in the real world instead of letting him withdraw inside himself (Dictionary 438). Lionel, at an early age, refuses to compromise between corrupt reality and pure spirituality. Instead, he has chosen to imitate the decision of many misfit heroes and hide in privacy (Levine 499). In Franny and Zooey, the youngest Glass child Franny has a nervous breakdown. Influenced by Seymour’s interest in eastern philosophy, she is frustrated with the superficial world around her. In the second half of the book, Zooey explains to his younger sister Franny that they and the rest of the Glass family are the problem, not the rest of the world. They are different because they’re two oldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy religiously enlightened them: “We’re freaks, that’s all. Those two bastards got us early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all. We’re the Tattooed Lady, and we’re never going to have a minute’s peace, the rest of our lives, till everybody else is tattooed, too” (Franny 139). As Zooey says, “the only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment” (Franny 198). The Chief in “The Laughing Man” has the same task as Boo-Boo; he must force the children to face the harsh realities of life. By ending the life of the boy’s hero, the Laughing Man, the Chief pulls them out of a fantasy world, which he has learned, can only end painfully. Although they are hurt at first, he knows the pain will not last. “The Laughing Man” is placed before “Down at the Dinghy” in Nine Stories because Boo-Boo has progressed farther than the Chief. While Boo-Boo helps her son for his own sake, the Chief abruptly jars the boys into reality after a woman breaks his heart (Dictionary 438). “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” is the only Salinger story in which a character actually achieves enlightenment. De Daumier-Smith jumps from the lowest pit of despair to illumination. He is blinded by the glare of the sun off a store window “at the rate of ninety-three billion miles a second” (Nine 164). Unfortunately for him, he is not ready
To make the final leap and returns to his phony world and the all-American hobby of girl watching (Dictionary 438). “Teddy,” the last story in the collection, shows the state of mind of a person who is ready to leave this world behind. Teddy is emotionless, not part of our world, and can accept his journey to the next level (Dictionary 439). Teddy is a true guru; someone Salinger wishes members of our society could accept and strive to be like. Teddy’s last incarnation, however, is much like that of Seymour (Dictionary 437) in that he “met a lady, and…sort of stopped meditating” (Nine 188). “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” is another story of the “nice versus phony world” (Salinger 38). The death of Eloise’s boyfriend, Walt Glass, due to a lack of caution, shows the universe’s indifference to man’s definition of good and evil (Salinger 42). “Things go wrong because people do not take the trouble to do them right” (Salinger 42). Eloise’s daughter Ramona, like Raymond Ford of “The Inverted Forest,” shows that intelligent and creative people are usually handicapped in one way or another. Attractive idiots do well in this superficial world while the ugly geniuses are brushed aside and forced to withdraw into themselves (Salinger 43). One of Salinger’s most famous nonconformists, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, is balanced on the “crazy cliff” of adolescence. He is in the middle of childhood, which means good, innocence, and love; and adulthood, which equals phoniness and a world devoid of love (Heiserman 497). Holden tries to hang onto his childhood for as long as possible, but eventually chooses the “real” world (Dictionary 436). Salinger’s teenage protagonist realizes that he must become responsible and fit into society (Wiener 21). Holden’s dream of becoming a hermit in a little cabin in the West foreshadows Salinger’s residence in New England (Dictionary 436). Yet his dream also symbolizes the old American dream of westward expansion and a new life. The loneliness which usually ensues after moving to a farm in the Great Plains, however, hits Holden while still in New York City (Wiener 24). The Catcher in the Rye is another Salinger story dealing with the antipathy of society towards adolescent crises. As Gary A. Wiener points out, the story takes place in “December (a perfect symbol for the callousness and coldness of society in general)” (n. pag.).One of the problems posed for a nonconformist artist is whether he should be a sellout and please the public for easy money or pass it up and work for his own sake (Salinger 57). This is the main issue in “The Varioni Brothers,” the story in which the misfit hero first appeared (Levine 498). This was also a problem for Holden’s older brother D.B., who “used to be just a regular writer” (Catcher 1), but is now “out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute” (Catcher 2). Writing is the common method of communication for Salinger’s heroes. Joe Varioni is a writer, Raymond Ford is a poet, and Seymour and Teddy keep diaries. Writing is a symbol of the artist’s honesty and creativity, while the spoken word is not trustworthy (Levine 499). In the case of Seymour, his brother Buddy as narrator of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, attempts to resurrect his dead brother through a thorough description of his life and philosophies. Salinger writes that we can’t live without love. In Salinger’s writings, only children and adults influenced by children are capable of loving; those who can’t love are prostitutes and phonies (Heiserman 497). In “The Long Debut of Lois Taggett” and “Once a Week Won’t Kill you,” characters spend a lot of time at the movies. These frustrated Americans go to the movies to avoid the responsibility of a mature life (Salinger 50). D.B. Caulfield writes screenplays for Hollywood, which Holden considers to be a sellout. Although he takes Sally Hayes to the theater to see the Lunts, Holden says “[i]f there’s one thing [he] hate[s], it’s the movies” (Catcher 2). During Salinger’s era it was difficult to retain integrity and stay alive (Fifties 514). The people of the 50s were driven to death or seclusion for not compromising their vision, such as Czech leader Jan Masaryk and Charles DeGaulle (Fifties 516). Salinger, popular during this period of conformity, wrote of people who, like Seymour Glass, refused to compromise with squalor (Fifties 515). They would rather be destroyed by the world (Salinger 58).
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, Inc., 1945. French, Warren. “The Age of Salinger.” The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama n.p.: Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 12. Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Company, 1980. _____. “J.D. Salinger.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. 1978 ed. _____. J.D. Salinger Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1963. Heiserman, Arthur and James E. Miller, Jr. “J.D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff.” Western Humanities Review Spring 1956, 129-37. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 12. Detroit, MI.:Gale Research Company, 1980. Kermode, Frank. “Fit Audience.” The Spectator 30 May 1958, 705-06. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 12. Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Company, 1980. Levine, Paul. “J.D. Salinger: The Development of the Misfit Hero.” Twentieth Century Literature October 1958, 92-9. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 12. Detroit, MI.: Gale Research Company, 1980. _____. Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, Inc., 1955. _____. Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, Inc., 1948. _____. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, Inc., 1955. Wiener, Gary A. “From Huck to Holden to Bromden: The Nonconformist in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Studies in the Humanities vol. 7 no. 2, 1979, 21-6.
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