J.D. Salinger’s post-World War II story collection, Nine Stories, is haunted by the ghosts of violence and destruction from the war, and equally troubled by the new era of consumerism in which it has emerged. The heroes of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esmé -- With Love and Squalor” are desperate to connect with their worlds in meaningful ways, but find their efforts blocked at every turn. “Bananafish” and “For Esmé” engage with three major problems of the postwar hero, all of which impede the hero’s progress toward spiritual fulfillment and connection with the people around him. Repressed traumatic memory of the war, loss of innocence and an accompanying increased sexuality, and materialism all prevent Salinger’s narrator from relating to the world. In particular, postwar trauma manifests itself as the encroachment of violence into the ordinary world, while even young children in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” are violated by burgeoning sexuality. In both stories, the banal demands of materialistic characters invade the protagonist’s world, emphasizing his utter isolation and lack of meaningful communication. Ultimately, both stories suffer from a breakdown in language; the stories themselves ask if meaningful communication is possible in a world dominated by violence, corruption, and a cheapening of life and death. By Salinger’s reckoning, this question is a spiritual one; the protagonists of both stories are struggling to find communication and moral worth in a world seemly devoid of it. While “Bananafish” leaves its reader haunted by this unanswered question, “For Esmé” attempts to unite society and spirituality in an ultimately hopeful way. The healing that occurs at the end of “For Esmé” is not in spite of the forces of violence and materialism, but rather, is reconciled with them. In this way, the Zen koan that leaves an unanswered question as an epigraph for Nine Stories, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, and that hovers at the end of “Bananafish”, finds its resolution in “For Esmé.”
I hope this little taste of what my paper was about will get you interested in reading the two stories "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "For Esme -- With Love and Squalor", both of which can be found in the collection Nine Stories. May Salinger, deeply troubled by fame throughout his life, find rest beyond it.