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Salinger’s Internal/External Observations

May 31, 2007

I have been a long time admirer of Salinger’s work, and benefited from this ten-year later re-examination of his short stories. I am impressed by how his work captures the slightly fractured psyche of modernism in the post war years, while still maintaining a freshness and relevance for a contemporary reader. In Nine Stories, I am interested in Salinger’s use of exterior detail and observation to capture a character. Often these stories offer just a glimpse into a small interaction between characters. Sometimes whole sections of the narrative are left up to the reader to fill in, but the way Salinger describes specific tics or mannerisms gives us insight into that character’s inner life. The descriptions of specific body language or behavior works almost like stage direction, but gives an intimately observed perspective to the characters.

In the story A Perfect Day for Bananafish Salinger opens the dialogue between the man on the beach and Sybil the little girl by describing his body movement. “The young man started, his right hand going to the lapels of his terry-cloth robe. He turned over on his stomach, letting a sausaged towel fall away from his eyes, and squinted up at Sybil” (11). The descriptions are specific. It specifies that he reached to the lapel of his terry-cloth robe with his right hand, yet the character is still only referred to as a young man. The generalness of certain elements are heightened by the inclusion of the specifics. Later while still talking to Sybil, Salinger describes the man as: “Lying prone now, he made two fists, set one on top of the other, and rested his chin on the top one” (12). This observation of body language seems very specific to this character. You can imagine the way he rests his head. It is nicely observed and brings the character to life while grounding him in specific mannerisms.

In Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut two women are having a conversation while getting increasingly intoxicated. The character Eloise is talking about how her deceased first husband used to make her laugh, while bringing up a story of a college friend’s antics to the character Mary Jane. The descriptions of movement and body language add to the intimately casual feeling of the events. “Mary Jane giggled. She was lying on her stomach on the couch, her chin on the armrest, facing Eloise. Her drink was on the floor within reach” (28). Once again Salinger is focusing on bodies and body placement.

Later in the story Eloise drunkenly goes up to her daughter Ramona’s room where she becomes irrationally upset at the girl for sleeping on the side of her bed to allow room for an imaginary friend. There is more going on in the story than the facts are letting the reader in on. Eloise’s actions can only hint at what might actually be going on in the character’s inner life.

Eloise went over to the light switch and flicked it off. But she stood for a long time in the doorway. Then, suddenly, she rushed, in the dark, over to the night table, banging her knee against the foot of the bed, but too full of purpose to feel pain. She picked up Ramona’s glasses and, holding them in her hands, pressed them against her cheek. Tears rolled down her face, wetting the lenses. “Poor Uncle Wiggly,” she said over and over again. Finally she put the glasses back on the night table, lenses down (37).

The way the actions are described takes on the structure of a list of events unfolding. The observations are all objective and external while giving only hints of the character’s internal life. There is an unresolved indefiniteness in most of Salinger’s writing that is underscored by the specific focus on exterior observations. Through the “Poor Uncle Wiggly” remark, the child’s glasses are linked to the woman’s lost life with her first husband. The descriptions of exterior behavior underscore the character’s disconnect between interior and exterior life.

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