A Perfect Day For Bananafish By J.D. Salinger
"I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll see if we can catch a bananafish" (Salinger 7). A bananafish is a fictional creature created in the mind of Seymour Glass, a character in J.D Salinger's "A Perfect Day For Bananafish." They are much like any other fish but they swim into holes where bananas grow, and eat so many bananas that they cannot escape. "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" was published in 1948 in the New York Magazine ("A Perfect Day For Bananafish"). The story is set on the sunny beaches of Florida, soon after WWII in 1948, expressed when Muriel, another character in this short story says, "He calls me Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948" (Salinger 4). The year of 1948 is significant because at the time of publishing, Salinger had just arrived from the war.
J. D. Salinger is a well celebrated American writer famous for his novel The Catcher In The Rye and short stories compiled in Nine Stories. Born and raised in Manhattan, James David Salinger was drafted into the intelligence field of the military for WWII. Salinger was reported to have been traumatized by his experiences in an intelligence corps. According to his fellow service men, Salinger was always writing and was even caught in a picture, writing on a desk they found on the side of a road. Salinger is known for his magnificent writing and is still taught today by teachers all of over the country for his use of symbolism, irony, and more. In the short story, "A Perfect Day For Bananafish", Salinger supports the theme of the importance of communication through the use of symbolism, and imagery.
To begin with, in "A Perfect Day For Bananafish," the author uses symbolism such as Seymour's war souvenirs to support the theme of communication. Salinger expresses the importance of communication by the lack of it between Seymour and Muriel. According to Short Stories for Students, “Recently he has again asked her to read a book of German poems which he had sent her from overseas. Both the book and revolver are war souvenirs: perhaps they are connected in Seymour's mind” (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”). Seymour was obviously traumatized by the war, but it is evident that he keeps his emotions bottled up and hidden from Muriel; so bottled up that “Seymour may completely lose control of himself” (Salinger 4). This shows that communication can help relieve the pain and suffering that has been caused when he refuses to talk about his feelings. The fact that he kept those souvenirs symbolize that he has not gotten over what he endured in the war.
Another symbol is Sybil and her bathing suit. Seymour says that it is a blue bathing suit, when it is really yellow. Blue symbolizes peace, loyalty, and stability, while yellow is a symbol of innocence. Seymour’s admiration of a child’s innocence is shown in this statement in Short Stories for Students: “Seymour's apparently irrational statements about these things are his ironic recognition that the child's simple, sure mind, if more comfortable than his own,...
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Nine Stories is a compilation of short stories by the American writer J.D. Salinger, published in 1953. The stories, before appearing on the book, were first published in magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s and Information World Review, between 1948 and 1953. The collection includes some of Salinger’s most famous and acclaimed stories, like A Perfect Day for Bananafish. The major themes presented are different in each story but, in general, are the ones for which the author is mostly famous: outsiderness, death, criticism on the high-society lifestyle, pessimism regarding the human nature, and so on. In this article, the first of a series of posts about Nine Stories, we’ll discuss the book as a whole and its first short story.
Writing style in “Nine Stories”
All the stories in the book follow the characteristic style of Salinger’s early writing: concise and economical in its descriptions. Most of the times, we don’t know that much about the physical aspects of the protagonists or their surroundings. The narrator only describes what’s important for us to know.
Of course, the dialogues are very often the most important aspect of the narrative. They are either regular dialogues between characters talking to each other; internal dialogues, like monologues or in a “thinking-to-myself style” or they can even assume different formats like letters or diary entries. For example, the first story A Perfect day for Bananafishstarts with a phone call of a woman to her mother that sets the mood for the entire rest of the story. Also, in Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes practically the entire plot of the story consists in a conversation of two men over the phone. Whereas, in De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period the narrator shows us some letters that he sent (and didn’t sent) to his correspondent. In Teddy we see some entries of the protagonist diary that are very interesting to read.
The stories are not vey long. Most of them have a length of about, or even less than, 20 pages (taking the paperback edition as a reference). Additionally, the language and vocabulary used are rather familiar. Even so, J.D. Salinger is incredible at giving each character their own voice and manner of speaking. We have protagonists as distinct as a young art teacher (in De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period), a war veteran (in For Esmé – with Love and Squalor) and a “weird” kid (in Teddy), but the author manages to craft them all in a way that we believe them and believe what they are saying.
All of these aspects of the writing style contained in Nine Stories give each story individually and to the book as whole a very nice fluidity.
Major Themes in “Nine Stories”
The themes contained in the nine stories of the book are also ever-present in other works by J.D. Salinger. One of the examples is the war. Salinger himself fought in the World War II. It was an experience that traumatized him and had a major impact on him and his personality. So one should not be surprised by the fact that many of his stories make reference to the war, either directly or indirectly. Namely, Salinger talked a lot about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders that war veterans had to deal with in the post WWII period and, very sadly, still do nowadays.
The main example is found in For Esmé – with Love and Squalor. The protagonist of the story is an american soldier who is in England to finish some sort of military training. Also, Seymour, the protagonist of A Perfect Day for Bananafish,fought in the war a little before the time in which the story is happening. Both stories show the protagonists being disturbed, in some degree, by the experience of having been in a war. In addition to this, other stories make references to the war in a more subtle or indirect form.
Another very important theme is Death. In two of these stories the protagonists die abruptly in the last paragraph of the narrative. It’s so shocking that you don’t even know what to think after you finish reading. It’s very tragic, but it also real. Deaths in JD Salinger’s writings don’t need to be overfantasized or incremented. They happen just like in life. And we, the readers, sometimes have to face the perplexity of trying to understand them and carry that “what-just-happened-?” felling for a while. In the others stories, death may not be the central theme but it is almost always at least mentioned. It is often mentioned that some character’s parent are dead, for instance.
Salinger also comments on the values that are found in the the post-war American society. In stories like Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut and Teddy the author talks about appearances and how people to try too hard to keep them up or are too attached to looks and can be deceived by them; in Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes adultery is the main theme, just to say a few examples.
Other themes present in Nine Stories that are constant in Salinger’s work are the innocence and insightfulness of children. We see a lot of great children characters in the stories – like Sybil in the first story; Lionel in Down at the Dinghy and, of course, Teddy. We can also find the characteristic aspects of reclusion and outsiderness in some of the characters of Nine Stories.
“Nine Stories”: Plot and Analysis of the stories
A Perfect Day for Bananafish
One of the most known stories of J.D. Salinger. Before appearing on Nine Stories, the story was first published in 1948 in The New Yorker. It features Seymour Glass as the plot protagonist. The Glass family appears in other works by Salinger like Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction and Franny & Zooey.
The story begins with a woman named Muriel, who is on vacation in a hotel in Florida with her husband, talking to her mother over the phone. Her mother expresses concern about Seymour, Muriel’s husband. During the conversation we learn that Seymour was in the army and has been released from its hospital recently. It is implied that he suffers from psychiatric problems. Muriel’s mother warns her to be careful and to call her if Seymour starts to “act funny”. Muriel dismisses her mother’s warn and tells her not to worry about it.
Meanwhile, Seymour is down at the beach. A little girls called Sybil comes next to him while he is getting ready to swim. They have a conversation about many things, but, among them, Seymour tells Sybil about the tale of the “bananafish”, while carrying her to the sea."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." He edged the float and its passenger a foot closer to the horizon. "Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again. Can't fit through the door." "Not too far out," Sybil said. "What happens to them?" "What happens to who?" "The bananafish." "Oh, you mean after they eat so many bananas they can't get out of the banana hole?" "Yes," said Sybil. "Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die."
After they return to the shore, Sybil leaves and Seymour is, once again, alone.
Seymour goes back to his room. Muriel is sleeping on the bed. He, then, goes to his own luggage and grabs a pistol that was hidden under some pieces of his clothes. Seymour then shoots himself, committing suicide.
The tragic ending of this story leaves anyone speechless when they first read it. It’s only after the shock starts to fade away that we can think about what A Perfect Day for Bananafish is.
Although suicide is an action that is always disturbing, even in a a fictional short story, what is really perplexing about it are the motives for what someone would do it. After a person commits suicide, people around them can’t stop thinking “why did he/she do it?”. Well, in A Perfect Day for Bananafish that is also the case. Once we finish reading it, we star to look back for clues in the narrative that may give away some logic reason that led Seymour Glass to take his own life. And we find a lot of them.
In the first dialogue, the conversation over the phone between Muriel, Seymour’s wife, and her mother, we can find many indications that Seymour has been showing strange behavior for a while. The mother indicates concerns about him driving a car because he may do the “funny business with the trees”. She remembers that he said some “horrible things” to Muriel’s granny about her passing away. She also talks about how he shouldn’t have been released from the army’s hospital and may lose control of himself any minute. Muriel doesn’t seem too worried about it. Maybe she really can’t see any reasons for concern…or maybe she’s in denial.
What Salinger is talking about here is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a very common and underrated problem that war veterans have to face. It is known that Salinger himself was very traumatized by his experience in the army, and so did countless citizens in the post-World War II period, which was the time that Salinger was writing about. Seymour clearly has been struggling with psychiatric problems, to the extent that at the end of the narrative he shoots himself in the head. And that is the main theme in A Perfect Day for Bananafish.
But we can go into much more detail when talking a about this story and start to find a few more topics that Bananafish touches upon. For example, talking about the Seymour-Sybil interaction. The two characters seem to get along very well. Their conversation changes topics a lot, which is common in conversations with children, but its content is very innocent most of the time. Even though Seymour is dissatisfied with his life (as we learn through Muriel’s mother), he doesn’t seem to show this side of his personality around Sybil.
Here we see Salinger commenting on the innocence of children once again, since this topic is very present in other works by the author. We can even draw a parallel between in this sense between A Perfect Day for Bananafish and another Salinger classic, The Catcher in the Rye. Just like Holden Caufield seemed to hate almost anyone except for Phoebe, his little sister, Seymour Glass acts very aggressively towards everyone, but he doesn’t act that way around Sybil, and they are fond of each other. We can see this contrast very clearly in two scenes that happen successively. First when Seymour is returning Sybil to the shore, when he shows a sweet affection for her: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.
And the next scene when Seymour rants at a random woman very paranoically:"I see you're looking at my feet," he said to her when the car was in motion. "I beg your pardon?" said the woman. "I said I see you're looking at my feet." "I beg your pardon. I happened to be looking at the floor," said the woman, and faced the doors of the car. "If you want to look at my feet, say so," said the young man. "But don't be a Goddamned sneak about it." "Let me out here, please," the woman said quickly to the girl operating the car. The car doors opened and the woman got out without looking back.
But what usually grabs the reader’s attention is when Seymour talks cryptically about the “bananafish” (see the dialogue in the “Plot Summary” above). Nobody can be sure about what were Salinger’s intentions or the real meaning behind the bananafish tale. But many interpret it as an anti-materialistic symbol: the fish that eat too many bananas would be like people that search restlessly for the material pleasure in the world. This obstinacy for the fleeting amusements in life would eventually lead us to a some kind of death, maybe a spiritual one.
In this short story we really can see Salinger’s critical view on the subject of this materialistic search in a few subtle moments. In the first scene, the two women go out of topic a couple of times to gossip and talk about clothes. Also, Mrs. Carpenter, Sybil’s mother, is a symbol of this futile way of living: she leaves her child daughter to run free on the beach, where she finds the companion of Seymour, while she goes to the bar drink martinis. So the theory of the bananafish being a symbol of people’s materialism is a consistent one.
But I’d also like to point out that I think the fact of the “Bananafish” being in the title of the story is very significative and so it is important to try to understand the parallel that J.D. Salinger was trying to make between the Bananafish tale and Seymour’s story. As the title, “A Perfect Day For Bananafish, suggests, Seymour has some kind of link with the bananafish. It could be a simple reference to the plot of the story in which Seymour and Sybil go to the sea, talking about bananafish, and Sybil says that she thinks she saw one of these creatures:"Miss Carpenter. Please. I know my business," the young man said. "You just keep your eyes open for any bananafish. This is a perfect day for bananafish." "I don't see any." Sybil said. "That's understandable. Their habits are very peculiar." He kept pushing the float. The water was not quite up to his chest. "They lead a very tragic life" (...) With her hand, when the float was level again, she wiped away a flat, wet band of hair from her eyes, and reported, "I just saw one." "Saw what, my love?" "A bananafish." "My God, no!" said the young man. "Did he have any bananas in his mouth?" "Yes," said Sybil. "Six."
However, taking into consideration that bananafish die after they eat too many bananas, we can say that they are some sort of representation of Seymour himself, who also dies at the end of the story. Again, it’s not so obvious what the link is supposed to be. But my interpretation is that in relation to Seymour, more than that theory previously discussed about the anti-materialism, the bananafish seem to symbolically represent depression.
When we look at the dialogue between Seymour and Sybil once again, we find a few points that give the foundation to that interpretation."They're very ordinary looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs."
That sentence said by Seymour is a very good representation of what may happen to people suffering from depression: they behave certain way in front of others, trying to hide their problems, but once they are alone or hit the bottom, they act very differently. Of course, we can’t say for sure that this is the case with Seymour since he seems to act “funny” around some people (e.g. Muriel’s mother, the woman who he thought was looking at his feet), while not around others (e.g. Muriel herself, Sybil). But even so, that can may be a loose portrayal of someone with depression.
Once the bananafish are at their hole, they start to eat bananas crazily, until they can’t take it anymore and die. Similarly, depression is a disease that consumes and drain all energy out of a person suffering from it. Little by little, people start to go deeper and deeper into their melancholy until they break. And that’s what happens to Seymour in the end.
Conclusion and final thoughts
It’s incredible how Salinger in such a short-length story, with only a couple of dialogues, can talk about so much. Although the main theme in A Perfect Day For Bananafish is clearly the post-traumatic stress disorder that war veterans like Seymour have to face, there are many other elements and meaningful details to consider and to interpret when reading the story. Perfect opening for Nine Stories.
What about you? What did you think about “Nine Stories”? What are your interpretations on “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”? Let’s discuss it in the comments section below!