31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 7: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger

May 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Nine Stories

Nine_StoriesJ.D. Salinger is fated to be remembered for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, but people often forget that he was also an accomplished writer of short fiction. The pieces in Nine Stories, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker, are all strong; arguably the strongest of them is the opener, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which focuses on an ex-Army soldier, Seymour Glass, and his wife, Muriel, who are vacationing in Florida in 1948.

Told mostly in dialogue, the story is structured as a triptych. The first part involves a telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother back home in New York City. The second part features Seymour on the beach, interacting with a young girl named Sybil. The third part follows Seymour back to the hotel, where he first accuses a woman in the elevator of staring at his feet, then returns to his room and shoots himself in the head.

It becomes clear quite quickly that Seymour suffers from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother is characterized by the latter’s anxiety over Seymour’s mental state. Salinger refuses to become specific about Seymour’s condition, preferring rather to present things in an almost impressionistic manner. Muriel’s mother refers to incidents that have transpired since Seymour’s return from Germany: “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 …” There is also talk of Seymour’s pale complexion and a tattoo that he received while he was overseas.

Salinger leaves all this vague, but there is at least the suggestion that Seymour might have been incarcerated in a German concentration camp. At one point in their conversation, Muriel mentions encountering a psychiatrist in the hotel bar and talking briefly about Seymour. “I didn’t go into details very much,” Muriel tells her mother; in the context of Salinger’s tale, the reader takes the place of the psychiatrist, receiving the story piecemeal and putting things together on the basis of decontextualized remarks and inference.

The conversation between Muriel and her mother weaves the subject of Seymour’s mental state in among more material concerns: Muriel is worried about a repair to the couple’s car, which the mechanic has told her will cost $400; there is talk about a dress Muriel and her mother saw in the window of the New York department store Bonwit Teller & Co.; and Muriel frets about the inadequate state of her room and the quality of people now patronizing the hotel. “The people are awful this year,” she says. “You should see what sits next to us in the dining room. At the next table. They look as if they drove down in a truck.” The haughty dismissiveness of this comment identifies Muriel and her mother as people who care overly about appearances; when we first meet Muriel, she is tending minutely to the details of her physical countenance by repositioning a button on her Saks blouse (the brand name is significant), tweezing some stray hairs from a mole, and applying lacquer to her fingernails.

Seymour, too, seems to care about his appearance, albeit for entirely different reasons. He will not remove his terry-cloth bathrobe when he goes down to the beach; Muriel attributes this to self-consciousness about his pallor and his desire to cover up the tattoo she denies to her mother Seymour possesses. Seymour does shed the robe to go into the water in the company of Sybil, a young girl with whom he seems much more comfortable than with any of the adults he is linked to in the story. The interaction between Seymour and Sybil is an ironic mirror of the telephone conversation between Muriel and her mother (note, too, that Muriel’s mother treats her in a bluntly childlike manner). Seymour asks Sybil whether she has read Little Black Sambo (the once-popular children’s title, now considered a racist artifact of colonialism, locates the story in a particular historical moment), and suggests they search in the water for bananafish. “This is a perfect day for bananafish,” Seymour tells the little girl.

The tale that Seymour makes up about the fictional breed of fish has resonance with his own story, at least what we know of it:

Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas. … Naturally, after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole again.

The notion of a “very ordinary-looking fish” that swims into an unfamiliar environment and becomes trapped echoes the experience of soldiers in a foreign land. Some soldiers never make it out of the hole they have entered; those that do are often not the same. The impression Salinger gives is that the only way Seymour is able to confront his wartime experience is in the context of a relationship with a child, who clearly represents antebellum innocence, purity, hope, and the antithesis of wartime destruction.

In case the reader were in any doubt about this, Salinger emphasizes the debased manner in which Seymour views his surroundings following the departure of the girl. The rubber float, which the pair had used to play in the water, is now described as “slimy wet” and “cumbersome,” Seymour’s towel is “jammed” into his pocket, and he is pictured “plodd[ing] alone through the soft, hot sand toward the hotel.” His paranoid, aggressive encounter with the woman in the elevator only serves to accentuate Seymour’s disaffection: “If you want to look at my feet, say so … But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”

The final action in the story is shocking on one level, but on another it is sadly inevitable. Like the mythical bananafish, Seymour has entered a world that has altered him irrevocably. The “very ordinary-looking” man who went off to war has returned pale and thin, broken by what he has seen, and unable to successfully reintegrate himself into a quotidian world of car repairs, nail lacquer, and beach toys.

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