J.D. Salinger, God rest his soul, wrote more than just the incredible coming to age novel, The Catcher in the Rye. He wrote many short stories, and many related to a central group of characters. I’m taking a UCLA Extension class called Putting Dialogue to Work. The first assignment requires that we read the Salinger story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”
Although the story is in the American Realism genre, I LOVED it. I think it is because my grandfather was a WWII veteran, and from him, I came closer to understanding what a veteran might feel while trying to reinstitute himself into society.
Here was my assessment of the story:
Muriel comes across as shallow and indifferent. She hadn’t been able to get her call through for 2.5 hours, but when the phone finally rings, she doesn’t bother to rush for it. Her call seems habitual rather than motivated by any sort of conscious desire or need to communicate.
She paints her nails while she talks. I inferred that she probably spent more attention on that than the actual conversation.
She takes her rings off, probably including her wedding ring, to hang around the hotel room.
Despite her mother’s concern, Muriel behaves like any teenage girl. I can envision her rolling her eyes to look at her brain as her mother voices her concerns. Muriel is so far removed from reality that she feel invincible. She has, “It can’t happen to me syndrome.”
I was taken by the following dialogue between Muriel and her mother:
“When I think of how you waited for that boy all through the war-I mean when you think of all those crazy little wives who–”
“Mother,” said the girl, “we’d better hang up. Seymour may come in any minute.”
The fact that Muriel cuts her mother off in mid thought here makes me suspicious that Muriel didn’t wait for that boy, at least… not entirely. The fact that Muriel cuts her mother off with the statement that Seymour may come inside makes me almost certain of her infidelity.
She got paranoid all of a sudden.
If she wasn’t guilty, she wouldn’t have any reason to hide that statement from Seymour.
Then there’s this:
“He won’t take his bathrobe off? Why not?”
“I don’t know. I guess because he’s so pale.”
“My goodness, he needs the sun. Can’t you make him?
“You know Seymour,” said the girl, and crossed her legs again. “He says he doesn’t want a lot of fools looking at his tattoo.”
“He doesn’t have any tattoo! Did he get one in the Army?”
“No, Mother. No, dear,” said the girl, and stood up. “Listen, I’ll call you tomorrow, maybe.”
I believe that the tattoo is a code word between the couple for a scar. Perhaps a debilitating scar. An obvious war wound? At this point, I was suspicious that he had become infertile, and that it was obvious when he wore the bathing suit. He didn’t want anyone to see, or stare.
I also noted that he was lying on his stomach on the beach.
The conversation he has with Sybil makes him appear reflective. He is not saying what he thinks. I am certain that he wants to teach Sybil something.
He says the following about his wife:
“The lady?” the young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. “That’s hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser’s. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room.” Lying prone now, he made two fists, set one on top of the other, and rested his chin on the top one. “Ask me something else, Sybil,” he said.
He tells Sybil to ask him something else. He doesn’t want to talk about ‘the lady.’ He doesn’t correct Sybil and say ‘my wife.’ He begins by degrading her choices… dying her hair mink, then probably thinks better of it as he’s in the presence of a child who doesn’t understand, and decides to make up something charitable to say about his wife (albeit, a lie), “making dolls for poor children.”
At this point, I am convinced that Muriel stays with Seymour because it is taboo to get a divorce. They have talked about it, but since Seymour can’ t sexually function (I am really inferring here… but I am allowed to, right?) she has possibly warned him that she will stray or has already. Hence, Spiritual Tramp 1948. She doesn’t have a spiritual connection to Seymour anymore.
Seymour will go out in the water with the little girl because the little girl doesn’ t know enough about life yet to notice his ‘tattoo.’
Seymour kisses Sybil’s feet. That is a sign of love between two people. It also has sexual undertones… Sybil protests and then immediately shrugs it off. I bet that Seymour was saying goodbye to the innocence of love in that gesture. He wanted a final taste of purity, I guess. He certainly wasn’t getting any tenderness from his wife. I don’t think he meant the gesture sexually, but more as a symbol, a parting goodbye to innocence.
The discussion of the Bananafish makes me think he was talking about killing others in the war, and got trapped by it. It changed him, and he wound up dying. First, by getting injured. Then, by recognizing that he was emotionally cut-off. Finally, physically.
The scene in the elevator made me suspect that the lady was staring at scars on his feet. I suspected they were shrapnel scars, and extension of his tattoo. I suspect he got injured all over the front of his body.
I think the father’s comment about the hospital releasing him too soon is garbage. They released him because at the time, there wasn’t anything emotionally wrong, and his surface wounds had healed. It wasn’t until he got home, and he discovers the distance between he and his wife was irreparable, that he begins to get suicidal.
Muriel knows this and feels personally responsible on some level, which is why she tolerates him, I think. She is trying to avoid confronting the issue by losing herself in material things. Or she never cared in the first place and feels invincible. Either one would work in the story, I think.
Seymour is so sensitive about his feet because they have scars on them that are to him the indelible symbol of what is wrong in life.
I felt soooooooo bad for Seymour.
However, I lost a little respect for him in his final act, even though I could understand his motivation behind it.
Oh yea, forgot to mention TWIN BEDS! What young, hot couple, even in the late 40’s sleeps in twin beds??? (That was not something my ancestors did, lol)
Just more evidence that these two were separated entirely as a couple.
End of assessment.
I hope, if you read this post and haven’t read the story, that you will click on the link to the story and read it.
That said, one of our exercises was to go to a public place and record an actual correspondence verbatim.
The Salinger story goes well with this exercise because the story uses dialogue to imply so much about the characters.
I decided to go to my local Starbucks. The following conversation occurred… and here is my transcription:
The girl sauntered into the Starbucks, hips thrust out like she’d owned the place. She brushed off the gentleman pondering the pastries as she squeezed between him and the display case. She slammed her hips into the counter to stop moving and smacked the granite with her right palm.
The lady behind the counter jolted, almost spilling the three-shot tall Americano she’d filled with boiling water.
“Hey Taylor, how’s it going?” The girl brushed her hair out of her face.
The lady shuffled to the register. “Pretty good, thanks.” She smiled.
“Ya, me, too. I had such a busy day. Can you believe it? It went like so fast.” The girl exchanged her balance from the left to the right.
The lady squinted and leaned forward. “Goodness, is that you, Eve? You look so different.”
“Ya! I got my hair done today. I got it dyed like a totally different color.” The girl made almost as much noise speaking as she did smacking her gum.
“I like it.”
“Can you believe it? My dad has, like, the stomach flu. It’s so gross. He can’t eat anything.”
“Ugh. I’m sorry.” The lady glanced at the man by the display case. He’d folded his arms across his chest, and had begun tapping his foot. She turned back to the girl, “Were you going to get something?”
“I actually came here to get him a mocha, but I don’t think he’ll be able to keep it down.” She twirled the end of her hair around her middle finger. The bubble of gum she blew escaped entanglement by millimeters. “Is it that different, Taylor, my hair?”
“No, no. At first, I didn’t recognize you. You have a different color hair and haircut from yesterday. Sorry.” The lady blushed. “When you walked in I was thinking, ‘who is this strange person talking to me?'” The lady made an attempt at a social giggle, but gave up half-way through. “But I really like it. It works with your coloring.”
The girl smiled and rocked her hips. “Oh, ha ha ha.” Her laughter sounded as genuine as the lady’s. “I’ll like just get a grande for me, k?”
The lady went to work on the mocha in silence. She kept her eyes down, focused on the machinery or the coffee at all times.
The girl stood at the reception bar, watching the lady’s every move. She thrummed her fingers on the counter. ” So, how long have you been here?”
“Since 4:30.” The lady began steaming the milk. “You wanted 2%, right?”
“Yeah. Were you here this morning at all?”
The girl slapped her wrist on the counter again. “Well, like Lindsey never showed up and Brooke was here all by herself. Anyway, she like called me at 10:30 and asked me to cover for Lindsey. I remember writing it down in my application that I can’t work until after noon.”
“Did they call you, too?”
The lady shook her head.
“Well, who knows why Brooke called me. I’m never up at 10:30. What was I going to do? Drop everything to run and save Brooke? I mean, I had a hair appointment at 1230. And I was in my pajamas. So I told her, Brooke, I’m in my pajamas. Then she said that it would help even if I came in for an hour, so I was like, you want me to get dressed just to come up there? And she said that it would help, and I said that she needs to call earlier. I can’t just change my life because Lindsey doesn’t show up to work when she’s scheduled.”
“Does anyone even know if she’s alive?” the lady asked.
“Lindsey. I haven’t seen her in a few days.”
“I don’t know.” The girl threw her hands up. ” But can you believe it? Brooke like got totally mad at me! When I came in after my hair appointment, she wouldn’t talk to me. I had to get James to take my order.” She cracked her gum. “Thank God you’ re here.”
The lady kept her eyes low and set the cup on the counter, splashing a little over the sip hole in the process. ” Yea, well here you go, one grande mocha.”
End of conversation.
What struck me most was how empty the whole discourse was. It made me feel empty just to write it down.
Although I know I would never put this sort of dialogue in my personal writing (My writing is much too fantastical/paranormal for the mundane), this exercise taught me a lot:
1. There is a lot left unsaid.
2. The state of the world is not healthy.
3. I would like to do something about #2.