Adulthood and Everything in It

A Presentation by Benjamin Arthur, Vera Caldwell, and Olivia Barnes

Summary part 1: Benjamin
“A Perfect Day for A Bananafish,” by J.D. Salinger, begins with a call from one of the story’s main characters, Muriel’s, mom. Muriel is on a vacation with her newly-wedded husband, Seymour, and her mother is concerned about her daughter’s safety. The two talk over the phone of Muriel’s father, her situation at the hotel, and their concerns for one another. The conversation ends with Muriel assuring that her mom that she’s fine, and with her mom begrudgingly accepting.

Summary part 2: Vera
A little girl named Sybil Carpenter runs off down the beach and finds Seymour, Muriel’s husband, after her mother puts sun tan oil on her. They go into the water together, and he tells her about bananafish, which are fish that swim into holes with a lot of bananas in them, eat all of the bananas, become trapped in the hole, and die. They also have an exchange about Sharon Lipschutz, another little girl who Sybil saw sitting next to Seymour while he was playing the piano. Sybil believes that Seymour should have pushed her off, but Seymour finds such an action to be impolite and also points out that, unlike Sybil, she has not been cruel to a dog belonging to another customer at the hotel. Sybil says that she has seen a bananafish, and Seymour decides that it’s time to leave the water. Sybil says goodbye and runs down the beach, and Seymour leaves as well.

Summary part 3: Olivia
After a meandering conversation on the beach, Seymour and Sybil wade into the water. Once they are in the water, the young man describes to Sybil what a bananafish is, giving the reader a glimpse of his insanity, and after Sybil is convinced she sees one, the fellowship dissolves quickly. Exiting the water, Sybil runs back to her mother in the hotel, and after a small period of time, Seymour follows. Once he is back in his room, Seymour demonstrates his insanity one last time, by taking, loading, and killing himself with his pistol.

Analysis 1: Benjamin

This story was engaging, and kept me invested in it the whole time. The author’s use of concrete details when describing the point of view of the characters, and speed at which the plot progressed made it very enjoyable to read. Specifically, when the two worked hand and hand to progress the story. One example is when, Muriel, a main character, was talking with her mom about her husband, Seymour. They discuss his mental state and her mom brings up that, during their last doctor visit, the doctor said that Seymour was on the verge of completely losing control. They also discuss how Seymour was in the army, what he did to Muriel’s grandma’s chair, and how he is generally unstable. Their points of view, her mother being worried for Muriel, and Muriel reassuring herself and her mom that Seymour will be perfectly fine, lead to very important information about Seymour that give his actions later in the story much more clarity. Seymour is mentally unstable, likely due to his time in the army, and that explains his previous actions, as well as his future ones.

JD Salinger is very adept at conveying information through details and recollections that his characters have. We were not explicitly told that Seymour was mentally unstable, or that Muriel didn’t feel the need to talk to the physiatrist in the hotel in case Seymour went insane, or that Muriel gradually became nervous and unsure of herself during the course of her call with her mother. We were just told that Seymour had done strange things and that her mom was worried, there was randomly a physiatrist in the hotel with his wife, and that Muriel just went to grab a smoke and crossed her legs. Little, almost unnoticeable details like that make the reader feel rewarded for discovering them, and that keeps them engaged. That is a great technique in writing, and I applaud Salinger’s use of it, it’s definitely a technique to mimic in our own writing. Along with that, meaningful and not extra dialogue as portrayed by Muriel and her mother’s conversation, and descriptive wording for insight into characters as to show and not tell, portrayed by Muriel’s actions and recollections during the call.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Seymour plan to do on vacation?
  2. Do Muriel and Seymour legitimately talk that often?
  3. Why would Seymour spend his nights on vacation playing piano instead of being with his wife in the bar?

Analysis 2: Vera

The first element examined is characterization. This is an incredibly vital part of this story because it plays such a big role in the premise, which is that Seymour doesn’t identify with adulthood like the people around him do. The beginning of the story takes a look at Seymour’s wife, Muriel:

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 the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

From both of these quotations, we can tell that this Muriel is wealthy, feminine, and above it all. After we are introduced to her, we learn about her family, including her husband, through a phone call with her mother. This section introduces the mother as being concerned, as she constantly asks her daughter if she is all right and would like to come home. The reasons for her concern become more and more evident as you read on-

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

“All right, all right. He calls me Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948,” the girl said, and giggled.

“It isn’t funny, Muriel. It isn’t funny at all. It’s horrible. It’s sad, actually.”

“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital–my word of honor. He very definitely told your father there’s a chance–a very great chance, he said–that Seymour may completely lose control of himself.”

We hear a little bit about Seymour Glass’ lack of proficiency at driving- he seems to have driven Muriel’s parents’ car into some trees at some point. This indicates that Seymour is not a reliable person. Note, however, that Muriel does mention Seymour’s offer to pay for the car. This conversation then reveals that Seymour calls Muriel ‘Miss Spiritual Tramp of 1948’ and that Muriel finds this funny. We are now sure that Seymour is an unusual man. However, only towards the end of the conversation do we learn that Seymour is considered mentally ill or unstable by Muriel’s parents and that some sort of incident involving the army may be connected with this. We also learn a little more about Muriel and her relationship with her mother when Muriel mentions being badly sunburned as an excuse not to come home and then flippantly dismisses her mother’s concerns by saying ‘I’ll live.’ Muriel comes off as detached from the people around her.

We also learn about a somewhat different side of Seymour. When Muriel describes the drive to the hotel, she explains that he did a good job of driving and ‘was even trying not to look at the trees.’ He spends a lot of his time at the hotel playing the piano and that, at the time the phone call is taking place, he is sitting out on the beach and is refusing to take off his bathrobe. The two reasons discussed for this are his paleness and that ‘he doesn’t want a lot of fools looking at his tattoo.’ In the middle of the conversation, Muriel asks her mother to locate a book of German poetry Seymour gave to her. She explains that he’d told her that they were written by ‘the only great poet of the century’ and that she should have bought a translation or just learned German. From these pieces of information, we learn that Seymour is shy, studious, well-intentioned, and just plain eccentric. Rather than think of him as a raving lunatic, we see him as more of an all-around odd person. These details make him come off as more likeable than Muriel’s mother feels he is.

This conversation also displays some elitism on the part of Muriel and her mother-

“The people are awful this year. 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.”

“Well, it’s that way all over.”

As well as this comment about the less fashionable/poorer people staying with them at the resort, Muriel also passes judgement about the wife of the psychiatrist she met at the resort based on an ugly dress she was wearing. These comments give us context for Seymour’s frustration with them

Next, we get to meet our little girl, Sybil, as well as Seymour himself.

She was wearing a canary-yellow two-piece bathing suit, one piece of which she would not actually be needing for another nine or ten years.

Stopping only to sink a foot in a soggy, collapsed castle, she was soon out of the area reserved for guests of the hotel.

Sybil is a cheerful girl whose carefree lack of self-awareness is a world away from Muriel’s personality. She is the consummate small child, not yet as empathetic and polite as an older person but with crystal clear perception and honesty many adults lack.

When Sybil finds Seymour waiting on the beach, we get a good sense of his mannerisms and personality. He has been expecting Sybil’s father ‘hourly’ and is seriously considering/giving plenty of thought to going in the water.

“That’s a fine bathing suit you have on. If there’s one thing I like, it’s a blue bathing suit.” (pg6)

Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. “This is a yellow,” she said. “This is a yellow.”

“It is? Come a little closer.” Sybil took a step forward. “You’re absolutely right. What a fool I am.”

“Are you going in the water?” Sybil said.

How could one confuse the colors blue and yellow, seeing as they are so different? We don’t know why Seymour made this mistake. There are two very important things to notice in this passage. Seymour doesn’t provide an excuse for not knowing what the colors were. There’s nothing about him being underslept and confusing the words or even being colorblind. He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself. Second, Sybil is not concerned. The main thing she’s been asking him throughout this exchange is whether they are going in the water or not, and that continues to be the focus. She doesn’t think that Seymour is crazy or weird. If this exchange had occurred between Seymour and one of Muriel’s friends, the wearer of the bathing suit would have found Muriel immediately, told her that Seymour needed to be put in a mental hospital, and lectured her about taking care of herself and remaining safe, all because he had confused the colors blue and yellow and failed to explain himself. Seymour doesn’t have any freedom from judgement with other adults, but he does with children.

He let go of her ankles, drew in his hands, and laid the side of his face on his right forearm. “Well,” he said, “you know how those things happen, Sybil. I was sitting there, playing. And you were nowhere in sight. And Sharon Lipschutz came over and sat down next to me. I couldn’t push her off, could I?”

We get a sense of Seymour’s kindness through this passage. He doesn’t ‘push anyone off’ out of loyalty to anyone else, instead opting to be nice to them because they haven’t done him any harm. We have this passage, which makes this point to an even greater extent-

“Do you like Sharon Lipschutz?” Sybil asked.

“Yes. Yes, I do,” said the young man. “What I like particularly about her is that she never does anything mean to little dogs in the lobby of the hotel. That little toy bull that belongs to that lady from Canada, for instance. You probably won’t believe this, but some little girls like to poke that little dog with balloon sticks. Sharon doesn’t. She’s never mean or unkind. That’s why I like her so much.”

Seymour has a strong ethical sense as well. Apparently, Sybil poked a small dog in the lobby of the hotel, and Seymour is willing to let her know that he doesn’t like that she did that. Note, however, that he only mentions it once and doesn’t continue to bring it up after he knows that he’s made his point. He doesn’t even tell Sybil’s mother because he knows that he has made an impression and that that’s enough to teach her a lesson.

After Seymour and Sybil leave the beach and go their separate ways, Seymour gets angry at a woman who he thinks is looking at his feet. This scene changes the mood in order to transition from carefree swimming at the beach to what will happen at the end of the story. In terms of characterization, we also get a sense of Seymour’s frustration with the world.

“If you want to look at my feet, say so,” said the young man. “But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.”

Seymour doesn’t understand why people don’t come right out and say what they’re doing. He also has a poor grasp of the pleasantries that keep many adults who are at odds from constantly fighting and that obscure people’s real feelings and motivations.

At the end of the story, he puts a pistol to his temple and we feel sorry for him. Note the transformation in our perception from the beginning of the story-we’re wary of him but intrigued when we hear the phone conversation, but now we understand his plight and how expectations of adulthood can stifle more unusual people and make them feel terrible enough for something like this to happen. The stakes are raised from ostracization to death here.

Through dialogue as well as thoughtful description, Salinger is able to make these characters come alive and feel like people we might be able to recognize in our own lives. Many a talented writer has followed the oft-said advice to ‘show, not tell,’ and this shows in Salinger’s work. He never comes out and says that Seymour is misunderstood, for instance. You have to interact with the text, visualize this story yourself, and realize it on your own. Seymour’s portrayal changes as you go through the story, and the reader has to keep track of this information and understand it themselves.

Another way that Salinger conveys character in this piece is through exquisite usage of dialogue. This had to happen to some extent out of necessity because half of his story is a phone conversation, but it’s an excellent device that makes a story stand out. We learn about Seymour bit by bit through what’s brought up in the phone conversation and through his interactions with Sybil. From the way he speaks and from the way others speak about him, you get the information needed to draw conclusions. Speech is often easier to remember than long descriptions of setting or appearance, especially if this speech resembles real life enough that we can connect to it and believe that it could actually be said. What follows are two examples of great pieces of dialogue and a quick explanation of what can be imitated in each of them.

“It isn’t funny, Muriel. It isn’t funny at all. It’s horrible. It’s sad, actually. When I think how–“

Salinger gives his characters complete sentences, but ones that don’t feel forced and flow together. He does this by making them short to improve clarity and adds interruptions where characters cut each other off (as happens intentionally or unintentionally in real life). If you give characters long, winding sentences without punctuation, it is less effective even if that is how many people talk in real life.

“Well,” he said, “you know how those things happen, Sybil. I was sitting there, playing. And you were nowhere in sight. And Sharon Lipschutz came over and sat down next to me. I couldn’t push her off, could I?”

By making these sentences choppy and by using the word ‘and’ effectively but sparingly, Salinger crafts a recounting of a memory in a way that feels realistic but is easily readable.

The second craft element I analyze here is significant detail. Since this category is broad enough to encompass some of the other craft elements, including characterization, I chose specific phrases within the story that contribute in other ways. Consider the details discussed previously significant.

The girl increased the angle between the receiver and her ear.

The first significant detail that we get in this story is that Muriel is at odds with her mother. This detail is significant because it sets up the tension between these two characters over Seymour. Muriel’s mother is anxious about her daughter’s safety because she believes Seymour is dangerous, and Muriel is less concerned and seems to find him entertaining. These are both judgements that the characters make about Seymour, which are vital to the plot and meaningfulness of the story. The reason that this detail was used was to create tension before Seymour’s existence, much less mental state, was revealed. This makes those events feel less sudden.

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

We learn that something happened involving Seymour, a car, and some trees, which contributes to the story because we think of him as irresponsible after hearing that he wrecked a car. This is one of the pieces of information about Seymour that isn’t quite characterization but is important enough to be evidence we have to grapple with as we evaluate his personality.

“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital–my word of honor.”

Seymour was in the army and in a hospital, presumably for reasons concerning his mental health. This statement does two things to advance the plot. First, it gives us the impression that there are a lot of people around Seymour who are concerned about him. This gives us a feeling that Seymour is stifled, especially later when we meet him. We feel sorry for him because people want to put him in a hospital and think that he is hurting his wife. Second, it conveys the dramatic nature of Muriel’s mother, which the rest of this phone call does as well-her constant ‘are you okay’s and offers to take Muriel home juxtaposed with Muriel’s indifference and reassurances suggest that she is overly worried. Also, since Seymour doesn’t like living in the adult world, the idea of him in the military, which is incredibly ordered and has the prospect of death looming over its soldiers, makes us feel for him.

The next significant detail that doesn’t have to do with worry about Muriel’s well-being is that Seymour spends a lot of his time playing piano. This was already mentioned under characterization, but I put it under significant detail as well because it is mentioned again when Sybil complains about Sharon Lipschutz and it gives us a somewhat poetic sense of Seymour’s personality and role in the world. Pianists are looked at in awe but can also be apart from the rest of society, especially when they are playing. First, piano players sit on a bench behind a piano, so they are separated by this large instrument from other people. Second, good pianists (and we get the feeling that Seymour is one, especially having learned about his studious nature through the book of German poetry) have so much knowledge and expertise that people often feel disconnected from them. Sharon Lipschutz sat next to him on the piano bench. If you wanted to take this idea even further, you could say that, being a young child, she was able to become closer to him because she didn’t know of the social constructs that dictate that people with talent should be put on a pedestal.

“See more glass,” said Sybil Carpenter, who was staying at the hotel with her mother. “Did you see more glass?”

This detail is not incredibly significant to the plot, but I thought I’d bring it up. It took me a while to realize that she’s saying ‘Seymour Glass’ and isn’t just being weird. It also shows that she didn’t stumble upon him by coincidence and that she presumably likes him.

Seymour’s answer to Sybil’s inquiry about the location of Muriel-

“Where’s the lady?” Sybil said.

“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.”

This exchange reveals the resentment Seymour feels toward his wife. These words feel biting when you read them. Seymour’s rejection of the high society, overly self-obsessed, and incredibly mature life his wife and their social circle and family lead is essentially the main conflict, and this dialogue perfectly conveys this resentment.

“Ah, Sharon Lipschutz,” said the young man. “How that name comes up. Mixing memory and desire.”

This line is significant because it directly shows Seymour’s longing to be in the company of children rather than adults. This helps us understand the tension between the adult world he is forced to live in and the world of children he feels more comfortable in.

The next significant detail is the description of the bananafish themselves:

“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…Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die.”

The actual bananafish are important to the story because they can be interpreted as a metaphor. The bananafish, swimming into the banana hole, look normal, but act rashly and greedily. Their inability to escape from the banana hole is their downfall. This could be interpreted as a reflection upon the other adults in Seymour’s life and their materialistic and superficial personalities.

He plodded alone through the soft, hot sand toward the hotel.

This sentence, especially the use of the words ‘plodded’ and ‘alone,’ marks the transition from happily frolicking on the beach to the moments before Seymour’s suicide.

The room smelled of new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover.

Before the final moments of this story and of Seymour’s life, one of the last things we are reminded of is the wealth and superficiality of his wife and how there’s no barrier between those things and him. This drives home an important point this story is making, which is that Seymour can’t escape from these horrors of adulthood.

Salinger uses detail sparingly, only including what is absolutely needed to set the scene and advance the plot. There are no flowery descriptions of the water in the summertime or of the paintings on the wall of the hotel room. Part of the reason for this is that he is conveying most things in this story through dialogue, so the details had to give for that reason. This sparing and precise use of detail is incredibly important for writers to keep in mind, especially because talented writers are talented at description and it can be easy to overuse that talent. The idea of planning out what details to include and what each of them will mean as you write is something that is interesting and important to contemplate.

Class discussion questions:

  1. How does the use of dialogue contribute to characterization?
  2. What do you think is the most significant detail in this piece?

Analysis 3: Olivia

The first technique tracked is scene v.s. summary. Because this story was partially an action filled story, there were very little summarizations, but it did contains significant scenes, that were necessary to make the story effective.

Where the first scene took place, in Muriel and Seymour’s bedroom, also happened to be where the ending scene was located. In the beginning scene, Muriel waits for the telephone line to be available, and while she is waiting, she does many acts that frame her character.

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 the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole.

In the midst of those acts, Muriel is summarized in a significant way.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

Muriel is displayed, in both this scene and summarization, with a very rich, arrogant personality which is demonstrated a second time later in the story.

After a phone call with Muriel and her mother, the character Sybil is introduced. Sybil is a very defined character, because she is one of the only characters in this story, to interact with Muriel’s husband, Seymour and we learned much about Seymours behavior from Sybil and Seymour’s interactions. We are able to visualize Sybil’s youth by the first scene in which she was in.

Mrs. Carpenter was putting sun-tan oil on Sybil’s shoulders, spreading it down over the delicate, winglike blades of her back. Sybil was… wearing a canary-yellow two-piece bathing suit, one piece of which she would not actually be needing for another nine or ten years.

Because, Sybil is so young, her role in the story seems unnecessary, but the importance of the character of Sybil is shown in later scenes. After Sybil is allowed to go to the beach, she finds Seymour resting near the water. Because Sybil is young, the conversation between Seymour and Sybil is one of little depth, but Seymour’s insanity, which was referenced to during the Muriel’s phone conversation, is shown as he describes the imaginary bananafish to Sybil.

“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.”

You might wonder how that signifies Seymour’s insanity, but when Sybil claims she sees a bananafish, Seymour begins to behave oddly. Sybil acts in this story as a gateway to Seymours unusual behavior.

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.

Later, after Sybil runs back to the hotel from disapproval of her feet being kissed, Seymour has a argument with a lady on an elevator, claiming she was looking at his feet. Again showing parts of his queer behavior that tie to his insanity.

“I have two normal feet and I can’t see the slightest God-damned reason why anybody should stare at them,” said the young man.

The insanity of Seymour was completed in the final scene of the story, when he enters his room, looks at his sleeping wife on one of the hotel beds, and promptly kills himself.

He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his temple.

Sybil’s belief of bananafish almost seems as if it leads directly to the suicide of Seymour as he kills himself almost immediately after Sybil claims she spotted a bananafish and his actions become more and more unusual.

The second technique that is tracked in, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, was flashbacks and the opinions expressed about Seymour. Both of these occurred often throughout the phone call. When Muriel first picked up the phone her mother questioned if she was alright. The reason for this questioning was because Muriel’s mother was worried if Seymour had been able to maintain self control. Several of the questions Muriel’s mother asks signify that she is suspicious of Seymour’s behaviors.

“Who drove?”

“He did,” said the girl.“And don’t get excited. He drove very nicely. I was amazed.”

“Did he try any of that funny business with the trees?”

The last question asked of Muriel’s mother suggests that Seymour, while driving, would act strangely around the trees, perhaps crashing into them, perhaps swerving towards them demonstrating splinters of his insanity. Although Muriel’s mother is worried about Seymour acting in insane ways, Muriel is convinced that there is nothing to fear. Aligning perfectly with her arrogant personality shown above.

“Mother, I’m not afraid of Seymour.”

Although a major question is, Why is Seymour insane?, the answer is shown by the flashback through the eyes of Muriel’s mother.

“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital–my word of honor.”

The mother subtly indicates in the quote directly above that because Seymour was released from the Army hospital too soon, perhaps his madness or insanity comes from the a war in which he participated in.

The importance of flashbacks and opinions in this story are evident because they lead us into the history and introduction of Seymour’s insanity.

discussion questions:

  1. Why does the author create such a long phone call between Muriel and her mother as opposed to providing a summary of what took place over the phone call?
  2. How does the author introduce the unusual – insane – actions of Seymour?

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