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January 29, 2010

Invisible Men

The cost of war goes well beyond visible wounds and the tragic loss of life.  The cost of war can also include loss of identity, dramatic shifts in perceptions of the world, as well as the life-long and horrific invisible wounds of trauma.  In J.D. Salinger’s short stories, A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esme` – with Love and Squalor, Salinger brings the reader into the lives of two men who suffer from these invisible wounds.  Both men’s trauma is ignored by the adults who should be helping them to recognize and deal with the pain, and both men are moved by the innocence of children and how that contrasts with the innocence they left on the battlefield.

What was once called shell-shock is now identified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In the story A Perfect Day for Bananafish, we are introduced to Seymour Glass and we are told about his post-war experience through a phone call with his shallow wife, Muriel, and her probing mother.   Muriel’s mother expresses concern regarding Seymour’s mental stability and tells Muriel that her father has consulted a doctor on the subject.  Her mother says:

He told him everything.  At least he said he did – you know your father.  The trees.  That business with the window.  Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away.  What he did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda – Everything.

In a somewhat hopeful sign, Muriel follows up with her mother and asks about the doctor said.  Her mother tells her:

Well, in the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the army released him from the hospital – my word of honor.  He very definitely told your father there was a chance – a very great chance, he said – that Seymour may completely lose control of himself.

Tragically, Muriel is far more interested in fashion, gossip, and the color of her toes to take interest in her husband’s mental health.

In the second story, For Esme – with Love and Squalor, the focus is on Sergeant X who has also been damaged by war.  In the Sergeant’s case, his nervous system has been stressed and strained and he has been left to cope on his own.  At one point in the story, Sergeant X is being questioned by a fellow soldier, Clay, about whether he himself may have gone “temporarily insane” from the “shelling and all.”  The Sergeant replies, “You weren’t insane.  You were simply doing your duty.  You killed that pussycat in as manly a way as anybody could’ve under the circumstances.”   When Clay becomes confused, Sergeant X continues:

That cat was a spy.  You had to take a pot shot at it.  It was a very clever German midget dressed up in a cheap fur coat.  So there was absolutely nothing brutal, or cruel, or dirty, or even –

Sergeant X is showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as general psychological deterioration, and he is not only speaking to Clay, he is of course speaking to himself.  Afterward, Sergeant becomes sick and vomits in the wastebasket.  This is clearly a man struggling to come to terms with the things he has done, and the effects those things have had on his mind and his body.  It is now an internal battle, which he may fight for the rest of his life.

Sadly, in both Salinger stories the suffering of these men is either dismissed or ignored by their loved ones.  In A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Seymour’s wife, Muriel, sees his mental issues as a mere inconvenience, if she sees them at all. Muriel tells her mother she met a psychiatrist at the hotel where she is staying with Seymour.  She tells her mother the doctor inquired as to whether Seymour was sick.  Her mother asks why the man inquired, and Muriel replies, “I don’t know, mother.  I guess because he’s so pale and all.”  Continuing she says:

Anyway, after bingo he and his wife asked me if I wouldn’t like to join them for a drink.  So I did.  His wife was horrible.  You remember that awful dinner dress we saw in Bonwit’s window?  The one you said you’d have to have a tiny, tiny—

Muriel is entirely incapable, or unwilling, to focus on her own husband’s health, and instead she dwells only on the artifice around her.

In For Esme – with Love and Squalor, Sergeant X also has relatives who are far more concerned with themselves than helping him deal with the scars he must carry and the new way of life he must now face.  He receives a letter from his brother that says, “Now that the g.d. war is over and you probably have a lot of time over there, how about sending the kids a couple of bayonets or swastikas…”  After reading these words, the Sergeant cannot even bare to go on.  His brother callously asks for souvenirs, while the Sergeant deals with the ‘souvenirs’ he must learn how to cope with and bear. He tears the letter into pieces and throws it into the same wastebasket.  He is devastated that his brother thinks the war was finished for him.

Salinger follows with a description of the pain Sergeant X is going through, and how it feels to have his nervous system in the condition it is in.  He writes, “He ached from head to foot, all zones of pain seemingly interdependent.  He was rather like a Christmas tree whose lights, wired in series, must all go out if even one bulb is defective.”  Clearly, this is not a person who is capable of simply moving on from his trauma.

In both of these stories, the protagonist is confronted with a child who seems to be a catalyst for the way they choose to deal with their suffering.  In A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Seymour Glass meets a young girl on the beach.  He tells her an imaginative story about a fantasy fish which he calls ‘bananafish’.  The child does not meet this tall tale with doubt and suspicion.  She becomes a willing participant in the evolution of the story.  However, after the girl joins in, Seymour abruptly stops.  Salinger writes, “The young man suddenly picked up one of Sybil’s wet feet, which were drooping over the end of the float, and kissed the arch.  After that, Seymour says, “We’re going in now.”   Sybil protests but Seymour does not relent.   “‘Sorry’, he said, and pushed the float toward shore until Sybil got off it.  He carried it the rest of the way.  ‘Goodbye,’ said Sybil, and ran without regret in the direction of the hotel.”  Seymour knew he would never ‘run without regret’ again.  His innocence was lost.  His mind gravely wounded.  And so he took his own life.

In For Esme – with Love and Squalor, the man at the center of the story also has an encounter with a child.  Her name is Esme.  She is an oddly bright young girl whom the Sergeant meets at a café.  She promises to write him, and she not only honors this promise but she also sends her beloved father’s watch along with her letter.  When the Sergeant gets this letter, from someone who is giving him something quite meaningful, as opposed to asking for something quite meaningless, he is overcome by the gesture.  Unlike Seymour Glass, Sergeant X finds some hope through his meeting with a child.  Salinger ends the story by writing about the moments after Sergeant X reads Esme’s letter, “Then suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy.  You take a really sleepy man, Esme, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”  Sergeant X found his will again.  He is willing and wishing himself to be whole again.  This is a direct result of his interaction with a child who not only gives him a watch, but also gives him his a part of his life back.

As with most of J.D. Salinger’s characters in Nine Stories, Sergeant X and Seymour Glass are confronted by adults who are so immersed in themselves, who are so phony, so shallow, that they cannot or will not see the pain and suffering each man must walk through like thick mud every day.   These adult family members blissfully ignore the tragedy of war that has been inflicted on their loved ones.  And both of these men are also confronted with the purity, the honesty, and the innocence of childhood.  In one case the results are tragic, and in the other case we are left with the hope of healing and renewal.

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