In the story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” by J.D Salinger, a woman sits in her hotel room trying to get a phone call through while reading a magazine and painting her nails. The phone eventually rings, and the woman picks up after a while of letting it go off. The operator puts her through to the person she was trying to call, who is revealed to be her mother. They talk about a man named Seymour, (who, through dialogue, we can assume is the woman’s husband) and discuss his mental health with one another. The mother is immediately concerned, urging the woman, whose name is revealed to be Muriel, to come back home. Muriel dismisses her mother’s claims that Seymour is mentally unfit to live with her normally, citing Seymour’s driving as evidence that he is perfectly fine. Muriel’s mother is flustered at how unconcerned her daughter seems to be in a situation where, realistically, she should be worried as well. It’s revealed in their dialogue that Seymour used to be in the army, and that Muriel’s father had commented to her mother that it was a “perfect crime the army released him from the hospital.” Muriel’s mother continues to plead with her to come back home, but she is set on staying where she is, even if it means being with the (presumably) mentally unstable Seymour. Muriel hurriedly rushes through the rest of the conversation with her mother, giving a quick parting and then hanging up. The narrative shifts, and a young girl named Sybil is on the beach with her mother. She repeats the phrase “see more glass” to her mother, who ignores her and continues to lather her back with sun-tan oil. Sybil’s mother turns her lose and leaves to have a drink with a friend. Sybil immediately runs down the beach to a man lying on his back. She asks him “Are you going in the water, see more glass?” The man, presumably Seymour, tells her that he was waiting on her. Sybil tells Seymour that her father is coming in the next day on an airplane. Seymour states, anxiously, that he has been waiting hourly. Seymour confuses Sybil’s bathing suit to be blue, instead of yellow, its actual color. Sybil asks again whether or not Seymour is going to go in the water, to which he responds that he is considering it, and that he wants to get to know Sybil better. Sybil and Seymour talk for a bit more, specifically about a girl named Sharon Lipschutz, whom Sybil seems to be jealous of. After talking a bit more, Seymour promptly suggests that they go look for bananafish. Sybil asks what a bananafish is, to which Seymour responds, is a regular fish at first, until it finds a banana hole. When it enters the banana hole, it engages in extreme gluttony and ingests up to 78 bananas in a single moment. He tells Sybil that after this, the bananafish get a disease called the banana fever, and consequently die. Sybil then tells Seymour that she sees a bananafish with 6 bananas in its mouth. Seymour responds by kissing her foot and telling her that they need to return to shore. Sybil leaves as soon as they get to shore, and Seymour gathers his things and goes to the hotel. In the elevator, he mentions to a lady that she is looking at his feet. She denies this, and in response he calls her a “god-damned sneak,” which prompts her to leave the elevator car hurriedly. He takes the elevator to the fifth floor and enters his room, 507. He looks over to his luggage, from which he draws a pistol. He loads the magazine and cocks the firearm, and, sitting next to Muriel, shoots himself in the head.
I really enjoyed this piece, though it took reading it more than a few times to fully understand the plot line as well as the plethora of themes Salinger was going for. One of the main devices that stuck out for me was Salinger’s use of characterization. He primarily describes his main characters through use of heavy dialogue, it comprising of a large majority of the piece. Salinger uses very little narration, and what he does use almost has a similar effect to stage direction in plays, it describes the setting and action without offering much insight into any of the character’s thoughts or motivations.
Saying that however, at the same time, the narration he does use is descriptive enough that we are able to get a pretty clear picture of the characters’ actions, which (and this may be hard to believe) aids in our understanding of them. For example, in the opening paragraph of the story, Salinger introduces the character of Muriel by saying that while waiting to get a long distance phone call through,
She read an article in a women’s pocket size magazine, called “Sex is Fun or Hell.” She washed her comb and brush. She took a spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She took two out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole.
All actions indicating that the character was engaged in fairly mindless/mundane tasks while waiting, also including a description of her painting her nails. He goes on to say that Muriel,
…was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually since she had reached puberty.
Although this description is completely devoid of any real omniscience, the reader is able to get the sense right away that the character doesn’t have much depth to her.
There are a few other instances of this type of description in the story, but the bulk of our understanding of the characters comes from dialogue.
It is in the beginning of the story, after Muriel begins that phone conversation with her mother, that the main character in the story is introduced. Merely from the exchange of dialogue between Muriel and her mother, we learn that Muriel is in Florida with her husband, and that he is capable of being a threat to her (her mother asks incessantly if she is all right). We also learn that the husband was involved in a car accident involving trees.
“He did. And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”
“Did he try any funny business with the trees?”
“I said he drove very nicely, Mother. Now please. …….He was even trying not to look at the trees—you could tell. Did Daddy get the car fixed, incidentally?”
We also learn in this conversation between Muriel and her Mother that the character of her husband refers to Muriel as, “Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” (Therein confirming her superficiality), has seen a psychologist, said “Horrible things to Granny about her plans for passing away,” and has been in an Army hospital:
“Well, in the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital.”
Most importantly, we learn through this conversation that the main character is unstable, a fact which foreshadows the climax of the story.
“…There’s a chance—a very great chance,–that Seymour may completely lose control of himself.”
Many more exchanges of dialogue between Muriel and her mother during the phone conversation of the first scene of our piece offer insight into the character of Seymour, that it is so clear by the time he is actually introduced by Salinger, about mid-way through the piece, the reader has a good idea of the type of person he is (disturbed, probably suffering from PTSD/shellshock or some related condition brought about by the war).
Salinger furthers this dialogue-driven character analysis in the second part of the story when we actually meet Seymour and another main character: a little girl named Sybil. Through a multitude of exchanges between Seymour and Sybil, we learn that Seymour has developed a friendship with the child, whom he feels drawn to, presumably because of her innocence. We also learn through the dialogue between them, the significance of the title, and what the metaphor of the bananafish represents to him.
At the end of the story, it is the dialogue between Seymour and the lady in the elevator that sets up the ending of the piece, and helps the reader understand Seymour is a truly broken and tragic character.
“If you want to look at my feet, say so” said the young man. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”
“Let me out of here, please,” the woman said quickly to the girl operating the car.
With bare minimal narration, Salinger shows, through this conversation, that what the reader has suspected about Seymour is correct, and that things will probably not end very well.
The other thing that I really enjoyed about this piece was Salinger’s use of symbolism.
Salinger uses multiple pieces of symbolism in the story to convey his thematic intent. The most notable piece of symbolism, as I’m sure we’ve all gathered, are the bananafish. What do we know about the bananafish, and what can we deduce about them based on the example that Salinger gives us? One thing that is clear fact about the bananafish is that they are gluttons. They start out as ordinary fish, but after finding and swimming into a banana hole, become “like pigs,” eating as much as seventy-eight bananas in any one sitting. Though (and obviously) many reasonable claims can be made about the bananafish and what they represent to the piece, it may very well be said that Salinger is using this metaphor of gluttonous fish to represent the materialistic nature of the post-war society that surrounds Seymour’s character, and from which he is indirectly rebelling against. Seymour remarks to Sybil that the bananafish eventually get the “banana fever” and die. The story serves as a warning to her, I think, not to become one of the bananafish, as many people in this society do, and rather, maintain the innocence that she has as a young child (i.e don’t succumb to the materialistic conventions of society). When Sybil tells Seymour that she sees a bananafish with 6 bananas in its mouth, he kisses her foot and then ends his outing to look for the fish with her abruptly. We can interpret this action in some amount of ways. It may be that Seymour does not want to see the innocence of Sybil’s childhood corrupted by the ugliness of the adults, or bananafish, around her, and therefore, chooses to end the conversation after she affirms her awareness of them existing. He realizes that naturally, over time she will lose this childhood innocence and protection and become one of the bananafish, materialistic and greedy. This saddens him to the point that he believes that he just doesn’t want to live any longer, and so he kisses her foot as a way of saying goodbye to her, and knows full well that he will be taking his life later on. Another interpretation (though I believe this one to be less true) could be that when Sybil says that she has seen the bananafish, she is actually referring to Seymour himself, who feels guilty about his relationship with her. He doesn’t want to view himself in that light, which is a catalyst for his subsequent suicide.
Another symbol in the story are the names of the main characters. This is a stretch, but Sybil calls Seymour “see more glass,” which could be a way of saying that he sees more than his wife or the other shallow members of society. The last name of glass could be a reference to breaking under pressure, as he had been figuratively in the war. The little girl is named Sybil, which relates to female prophets, or sibyls, of ancient Greece who, purportedly, could see the future. Sybil is an innocent child, yet she is also wise, and it is Seymour’s connection to her that makes him feel the need to tragically end his life.
The color blue is symbolic in the story because of the sense of innocence that it conveys. Seymour wants to remain “innocent” of society, and so he wears blue swimming trunks and sees Sybil’s bathing suit as being blue, even though it is yellow. The water of the ocean that Seymour and Sybil swim in is also blue. It could go something like Water=Cleaning=Innocence of sin (think Baptism).
A last example of symbolism could be the use of sun and shade in the piece. An example is how Seymour prefers to stay covered up and protected from the sun, which could be interpreted as being symbolic for materialism. Muriel, who is arguably more of a personification of this materialistic and shallow greed, told her mother that she was badly sunburned in the beginning, indicating that she is much more affected by the sun than the pale Seymour. Sybil’s mother, who seemed to kind of ignore her and walk off for martinis without caring where her child goes, was applying sun-tan oil to her back. This could be an example of Sybil being directly exposed to this materialistic greed.
I believe the chronic tension here was Seymour’s mental illness, and Muriel’s complete lack of awareness of this. It’s clear right off the bat that something is wrong with Seymour, and that he needs help but isn’t receiving any. It’s emphasized more when we see how Muriel is completely unaware of the increasingly deteriorating mental state of her husband, something that ultimately can be considered to be one of the catalysts for Seymour’s eventual suicide. I also think another chronic tension could, instead of Muriel’s lack of awareness, be Muriel’s materialistic desires. As elaborated on earlier, clearly these desires influence much of the decisions she makes. In fact, her lack of awareness can probably be attributed to her materialistic lifestyle. The acute tension is probably going to be Seymour’s suicide.
Finally, this piece presents many different literary techniques I can learn from in the future. The amazing way in which Salinger is able to give life and character to these people with hardly any narrative at all is something that I could really strive to mimic, especially since the delivery of exposition and backstory in my attempted fiction pieces, is almost solely reliant on huge amounts of narrative monologue and then maybe a few lines of clunky, robotic dialogue here and there. He is able to give all of the details we need through his dialogue; the characters’ personalities are established smoothly and conversations between characters seem fluid and real (and they also give us just the right amount of hints as to what’s happening in the plot line). I could also learn how to incorporate this intricate sense of symbolism into my works. The bananafish can be interpreted in more ways than the one I described here, and the process of discovering what all of these otherwise unimportant elements mean to the story and how significant an impact they can really have on the piece and its interpretation was pretty breathtaking.
I have some questions here, and they need answers:
- What other symbolic meanings do you think can be attributed to the bananafish?
- Do you have any other interpretations for the three main characters? (what they represented, their purpose, demeanor)
- How would it have been different if Seymour had not killed himself? Or, what really would have changed if Muriel had chosen to heed her mother’s warnings, and left?