Reader’s Guide – “Teddy”

Teddy swimming pool

Thanks to Brian McTague for contributing the bulk of this content for the “Teddy” Reader’s Guide.

Publication Details:

Published in The New Yorker January 31, 1953, pages 26-34, 36, 38, 40-41, 44-45.

Later published in Nine Stories, Little, Brown, 1953.

Character List:

Teddy McArdle – child genius, philosopher, and spiritual guru.  At ten years old he keeps a meticulous diary, has speaking engagements all over the country, and keeps up very sophisticated correspondence with academic and spiritual figures.

Mr. McArdle – Teddy’s father.  A radio actor.

Mrs. McArdle – Teddy’s mother.

Booper McArdle – Teddy’s surly younger sister

Bob Nicholson – a fellow passenger on the ship the McArdles are traveling on, he’s heard one of Teddy’s tapes and is fascinated with the boy.

Myron – a young boy on the ship to whom Booper is cruel.

Plot Synopsis:

Teddy, his parents, and his little sister are traveling by ship, returning from an engagement at Oxford and another at Edinburgh, where Teddy met with people to discuss spiritual and academic topics.  The story opens with Teddy in his family’s cabin, his father speaking crossly to him, and his mother languishing in bed.  Teddy updates his diary, noting many things he needs to do, including correspondence with several individuals, and things he can do to make his family happier.  In true Salinger style, Teddy is an exceptional child, and very intellectually advanced.  Unlike the other children in Salinger’s work, Teddy is also very spiritually advanced, having studied Vedantic thought.  He believes he is the reincarnation of an Indian man who had reached an advanced state of enlightenment, but had ceased to reach true enlightenment because of a woman.

Teddy encounters another passenger on the boat, a young academic named Bob, who had heard one of Teddy’s tapes.  Nicholson and Teddy have a very in-depth conversation about spirituality.  In this conversation, Teddy shares his own spiritual beliefs, and expresses the belief that a fear of death is silly.  When one dies it is meant to happen.  He (seemingly offhandedly) mentions that if his sister happened to push him into an empty pool and his head were to crack and he died right away that nobody should be sad because if it happened, it was supposed to happen.

Teddy leaves to go to his swimming listen, and Bob follows behind and from the stairway hears a high-pitched scream, described to be like the scream of a small girl child.

Teddy swimming pool

image borrowed from sodahead.com

Brian’s Comments:

The Controversy:

  • The Ending: What happens in the pool? Most critics agree that Teddy has died. But how? Suicide? Accident? Pushed by Booper? Or could it be Booper who has died? Or perhaps the scream is a playful one – one of the children has pushed the other into the water?
  • “When Salinger’s short story ‘Teddy’ was first published in 1953, arguments raged on campuses for months as to whether Teddy had or had not been murdered by his sister; some critics are still debating the point.” –Ernest Haverman, “The Search for the Mysterious J.D. Salinger.”
  • Salinger addresses the controversy in “Seymour: An Introduction” when the narrator, Buddy Glass, refers to his “exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a ‘gifted’ little boy aboard a transatlantic liner.”
  • Would you classify the story as “unsuccessful?” Why or why not?

Consumerism/American Life:

  • “Like so many of Salinger’s stories, “Teddy” opens with a slashing attack upon satiated, small-minded Americans—here upon Teddy’s parents.” –James Bryan, “A Reading of Salinger’s “Teddy.”
  • Consumerist mentality of the parents exemplified by their brand-name goods: Gladstone = suitcase, Leica = camera; clothing described in lavish detail.
  • Parents are shown as lazy: not out of bed at 10am; father flicks cigarette ashes “in the general direction of the night table…without raising his body;” he wants Teddy to get down from his suitcase but can’t even get out of bed to make him; Mrs. McArdle wants to see Booper but makes Teddy go find her instead of doing it herself.
  • Teddy shows no attachments to material goods or consumerist culture: he wears dirty sneakers, no socks, shorts that are too big for him, an old t-shirt with holes in it, “and an incongruously handsome, alligator belt” (probably bought by his parents to hold up his oversized shorts); he is need of a haircut (his parents & a ship attendant both tell him this); when his mother tells him to get a haircut he simply states “I haven’t any money”—he shows no shame or embarrassment; he seems concerned for his father’s camera but you get the sense it is more because his father is concerned for it—if it was damaged, his father would be upset and Teddy wouldn’t want that.
  • Nicholson is egotistical (even his smile is); he takes a vaguely authoritative voice—acts almost like a cop or investigator; pushes his own system of beliefs onto Teddy’s stories (using Judeo-Christian imagery to describe Teddy’s obviously non-Western beliefs).

Teddy’s Relationship With His Family

  • Father is brusque with Teddy to the point of plain meanness; he acts excessively macho, perhaps due to feelings of inadequacy when compared to his son; has a “narcissistically deep” voice ready to “out-male anyone in the same room with it;” tough guy phrases and behavior (“I’ll exquisite day you, buddy;” puts cigarette out on night table top); hints at how he could be violent (“I’d like to kick your goddamn head open”); jealous of Buddy’s relationship to his mother (she favors Buddy); he favors Booper (“leave the kid alone”).
  • Mother: some of her behavior seems somewhat sexualized (“Come give Mother a kiss. A nice, big one;” she is lounging in the nude {although covered} despite her proximity to Buddy; she gazes “sleepily at the backs of Teddy’s legs); she is not interested in his spiritual discussions (when he talks of the orange peels, she interrupts him to tell him to go find Booper); she is antagonistic to the father (tells Buddy to keep standing on the Gladstone; blithely tells Mr. McArdle that one day he will die of a tragic heart attack).
  • Parents concerned by Teddy not showing much emotion. “My mother and father don’t think a person’s human” if they don’t show emotion; he flat out says of his father: “He thinks I’m inhuman.” When asked by Nicholson if he loves his parents, he says he does but it’s more of an affinity for them; they are part of each other’s harmony.”
  • Booper: Teddy’s younger sister, by his own admission, doesn’t like him very much (probably also some jealously there; could be why the dad sides with her) although she is only 6; she doesn’t seem to like anyone very much (she’s quite cruel to the little boy Myron whose father died in Korea): “I hate you! I hate everybody in this ocean!” It does not seem to be a huge stretch that she could shove Teddy into an empty pool.

Understanding Teddy’s Attitude:

  • “Salinger depends on our understanding of Teddy’s attitude to make us understand that it is Teddy who dies” –Arthur Mizener, “The Love Song of J.D. Salinger.” So what is Teddy’s attitude?
  • Teddy appears relaxed, tranquil, enlightened, and whole. He is aware his past incarnations as well as his sister’s dislike for him. He serenely accepts that whatever will be will be.
  • Mahayana Buddhism: one of the two main branches of the religion (other is Theravada); originated in India; deals with the level of a person’s spiritual motivation; heightened awareness; one of three routes to enlightenment (the others being Hinayana and Vajrayana).
  • The orange peels Teddy watches fall into the ocean: illustrates Buddhist idea of impermanence as well as the belief of non-existence which teaches that physical existence is an illusion.
  • Structure of the story shows a strong Buddhist influence, according to Tony Magagna: “strict focus on the story’s present, with no sense of past or future, clearly reflects the Buddhist beliefs of impermanence and non-existence” (from “Buddhism in Teddy”); structure of Teddy himself resembles the 14th Dalai Lama—a teenaged boy—so from Buddhist perspective it is not entirely strange that such high, especially religious, esteem is given to a young boy; he does come across as a sort of teacher, especially when talking to Nicholson.
  • Teddy is the epitome of Buddhist ideals: no materialistic or narcissistic accoutrements or attachments (unlike most of the other characters).
  • Teddy is not an “apple eater”—he has “vomited up” all that “logic and intellectual stuff;” when pressed by Nicholson for how he would change the educational system, he says he would start with having the kids doing this.
  • Teddy does not seem to fear death—that would be “silly,” as he says; “All you do is get the heck out of your body when you die. My gosh, everybody’s done it thousands and thousands of times.”
  • His clairvoyance—knowing when people are going to die; seemingly knowing when he is going to die (“It will happen either today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen.”); describing the scene of his death at the pool to Nicholson.

Brian’s Paper:

J.D. Salinger’s enigmatic prodigy, Teddy, dies at the end of the story bearing his name. This has been, and will likely continue to be, debated for a long time. Close reading of Salinger’s text, and even closer reading of his mysterious young character, however, proves that Teddy indeed perishes. Salinger biographer Arthur Mizener puts it well in his essay “The Love Song of J.D. Salinger” when he suggests, “Salinger depends on our understanding of Teddy’s attitude to make us understand that it is Teddy who dies” (Mizener 87). This understanding of Teddy hinges in part on believing in him. Again, it is Salinger’s text, his careful, sensitive creation, which facilitates this.

Much of “Teddy” is ambiguous. It is, after all, the story of a preternaturally tranquil ten-year-old boy who is seemingly a clairvoyant Buddhist mystic. This would seem to call for a certain suspension of disbelief but from the beginning of the story, Salinger’s subtly discerning text proves this unnecessary. Teddy is written as a boy unconcerned by the trivialities of materialism: he dresses without thought, he is in need of a haircut, and he has no money. In contrast, as critic James Bryan notes, Salinger presents “a slashing attack upon satiated, small-minded Americans—here upon Teddy’s parents” (Bryan 353). All around Teddy in his family’s cabin aboard a luxury liner, his parents argue, threaten each other, and put Teddy in the middle of their petty mind games. They are lazy, hung over, and crass consumers (objects are called not by what they are but by their brand name, such as a suitcase being “the Gladstone”). The father is a hyper-macho, insecure lout who tells his wife “I’d like to kick your goddamn head open” (Salinger 257). The mother is overtly sexual in front of her young son, taunting and contrary to the father. Yet Teddy remains unperturbed by any of this. At one point, he simply gives his barking father “a look of inquiry, whole and pure” (Salinger 255). This is how Teddy is constructed: whole and pure, incapable of anything as treacherous as deceit or hate.

In one of the most telling moments of the story, Teddy serenely watches oranges peels fall into the ocean from a porthole of the ship. He nonchalantly begins to discuss the Buddhist notions of impermanence and non-existence. His father only makes fun of him while his mother outright ignores him. Soon after, as he readies to take leave of his parents in the cabin, he talks of his own impermanence: “After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances…I may be an orange peel” (Salinger 265). This is not just further proof of Teddy’s purity and enlightenment but also the first piece of evidence that he dies at the end of the story.

The most corroborating evidence of Teddy’s fate is his own prediction of his death. There are two places in the text that this happens. First, he cryptically writes in his journal “It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even” (Salinger 276-77). This could be about almost anything but given the ending of the story it must refer to his death. The second premonition comes when Teddy describes to Bob Nicholson during to their conversation how his death could occur that very day.

Acceptance of not only Teddy’s fate but of his spirituality and preternatural ability is further strengthened by this conversation with Nicholson, who is acquainted with some of the men who have studied the child. Nicholson accuses Teddy of having predicted the deaths of his colleagues. Teddy corrects his vaguely authoritative, self-important inquisitor: “I didn’t tell them when they were actually going to die…I could have, but I knew in their hearts they really didn’t want to know” (Salinger 294). It is a statement devoid of arrogance and conceit and, further, imbued with Teddy’s sensitivity and desire not to bring harm or worry to anyone. “It’s so silly,” he says to Nicholson during their lengthy discussion, “All you do is get the heck out of your body when you die. My gosh, everybody’s done it thousands and thousands of time” (Salinger 294). This indicates Teddy himself is not afraid to die, because he knows death is not truly the end. He believes in the Buddhist notion of reincarnation and in fact recalls one of his own past incarnations to Nicholson. He goes on to describe how he himself could die that very day when he goes for his swimming lesson. “I might walk up to the edge of (the pool), just to have a look at the bottom, for instance, and my sister might come up and sort of push me in. I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously” (Salinger 295). It is a chilling prophecy, yet delivered by Teddy in such a matter-of-fact way that it fits perfectly with the end of the story.

Teddy’s prophecies, his clairvoyance, are the reason his family has traveled to Europe, so doctors and academics could observe him. Despite any lingering doubts the reader may have about the subject of clairvoyance itself, Salinger presents Teddy as such a pure, honest soul that it is hard to not believe he possesses this ability. He is so sure of himself in the way he talks, especially in the conversation with Nicholson, but it is not an arrogant conviction. Salinger carefully sets up Teddy as the antithesis of his brash, materialistic parents and the egotistical pseudo-academic Nicholson that it is impossible to see the boy as anything but genuine. If, however, doubts about true clairvoyance remain, it is possible to at least believe that Teddy believes, or has made himself believe, in his abilities.

Teddy’s family life is certainly not optimal. His parents are at the very least angry with one another and vainly materialistic. At the worst, they are alcoholics, abusive to not only each another but to their two children as well. It is not unnatural for a young child to develop defense mechanisms for coping with this type of toxic environment. Teddy may have very well created his mystical Buddhist, clairvoyant persona for dealing with the anger and sadness his family life fosters. This does not discredit Teddy’s genuine and pure nature. He believes he is the persona he has created and because he is an honest, trustworthy character, the reader can believe it too.

Teddy’s hateful younger sister Booper is the final piece in the puzzle of the story’s end, of Teddy’s death. While Teddy may have developed a kind, tranquil and gifted persona for himself in defense against a harsh life, she may be simply lashing out at the world. Even if her behavior is the unwitting product of her parents’ angry dysfunction, this does not forgive her cruelty. Booper is malicious towards Myron, the boy whose father has died in the Korean War. She not only strikes his hand and calls him “the stupidest person in this ocean” (Salinger 269), but also tauntingly tells him if his mother dies he’ll be an orphan. There is a sense that Booper may be taking her jealousy and hatred of Teddy and their parents out on poor Myron whose only mistake seems to be having made Booper’s acquaintance. The last glimpse of the awful sister is after Teddy tells her to take their father’s camera back to their cabin and she yells, “I hate you! I hate everybody in this ocean!” (Salinger 271). This can certainly be read as uncensored child’s talk and not a murderous threat but it takes on a much more ominous tone when taken in context with the vision of his death Teddy shares with Nicholson a short while later. After describing the scene, he says “That could happen…(my sister) doesn’t like me very much” (Salinger 295).  He seems as accepting of her hatred as his fate.

After being grilled about his nature and powers by Nicholson, after making the prophecy of his death, Teddy leaves to meet Booper for their swimming lesson. Nicholson, in a flash of recognition and acceptance, suddenly rushes after Teddy. It’s as if Nicholson finally understands that Teddy and his abilities are genuine and the boy is about to die. Perhaps, even if he was still skeptical, like the reader unsure of the reality of clairvoyance, he realizes that something is amiss and something is going to go wrong—perhaps he thinks Teddy is going to try to kill himself or his sister. As Nicholson gets partially down the stairs to the pool, he hears “an all-piercing, sustained scream—clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls” (Salinger 302). The story abruptly ends on this disturbing, dangling precipice. Granted, on the surface, it is quite an ambiguous ending. The evidence, however, points to Teddy’s death at the hands of Booper. Teddy himself points out in his conversation with Nicholson, “The trouble is…most people don’t want to see things the way they are” (Salinger 291). Most people do not want to see a story’s ten-year-old protagonist die, but this is exactly what happens. Booper pushes Teddy into the empty pool, to his death.

The end of “Teddy,” of Teddy himself, however, need not be cause for sadness. Accepting the boy’s spiritual and supernatural abilities, taking him at his word, believing in him (or at least believing that he believes), does not allow for such an emotional response to death. “What would be so tragic about it, though?” Teddy asks Nicholson of his predicted death. “What’s there to be afraid of…I’d just be doing what I was supposed to do, that’s all” (Salinger 295). Perhaps this is why Salinger has written such a “non-ending” to the story. The end is not the end. It is a beginning. The end of “Teddy” is certainly the start of much debate. Salinger and his young mystical hero would want nothing less.

Works Cited:

Bryan, James:  ”A Reading of Salinger’s “Teddy”.  American Literature.  November 1968.  VOl 40, Issue 3, p 352
Kaufman, Anthony:  ”Along this road goes no one:  Salinger’s “Teddy” and the Failure of Love”.  Studies in Short Fiction, Spring, 1998. Vol 35, Issue 2, p 129
Wexelblatt, Robert:  ”Chekhov, Salinger, and Epictetus”  Midwest Quarterly:  A Journal of Contemporary Thought 28.1.  Autumn 1986.  p 50-76.
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2 Responses to “Reader’s Guide – “Teddy””

  1. Michael Lambert says:

    Teddy is ten. Both his mother and the narrator say so. Yet the date of his diary is 10/28/52 and he says “It will either happen today or February 14, 1955 when I am sixteen.”

    An indication of Teddy’s lack of concern about himself? However, he’s so precise about everything else this seems a troubling inconsistency.

  2. home page says:

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