First published in The New Yorker on March 19, 1949. Later collected and published in Nine Stories.
Unnamed narrator – A nine year old boy from New York City and member of the Comanche Club, who seems to idolize “The Chief.”
John Gedsudski – “The Chief” of the Comanches, and a law student at NYU.
Mary Hudson – John’s girlfriend, she is very beautiful, athletic and attended Wellesley College.
“The Laughing Man” is told by a nine-year-old living in New York City in 1928. He is a member of a Comanche Club troop. The narrator tells the story of his Scout leader, “The Chief,” a young law student at New York University. The Chief is physically unattractive, but the troop seems to hold him in high regard. He is widely respected by his troop for his athletic strength and storytelling ability.
Every day, after the troop has completed its activities, the Chief gathers the boys for the next episode in an ongoing story he tells them about the Laughing Man. The Chief’s story-within-a-story describes The Laughing Man was the child of wealthy missionaries, and was kidnapped by bandits in China. The bandits torture left him with a grotesquely deformed face and he was shunned and obliged to wear a sheer red mask made of poppy petals. Despite this deformity, the laughing man was possessed of the ability to outsmart the bandits and eventually kept them captive in a mausoleum. Through acts of artifice and bravery, the laughing man amassed a fortune and lived with four companions, a wolf, a dwarf, a giant and a lovely Eurasian girl. The narrator summarizes the Chief’s installments of The Laughing Man’s escapades, presenting him as a sort of hero crossing “the Chinese-Paris” border to commit acts of heroic larceny and tweaking his nose at his archenemy “Marcel Dufarge, the internationally famous detective and witty consumptive.” (90)
When The Chief begins seeing a beautiful young woman, Mary Hudson, a student who attended Wellesley College, Mary begins to join the all boys group. Unwilling to break the aura of machismo he has built up with his troop, the Chief introduces her into the boys’ baseball games as an “associate coach.”
One day the Chief presents an installment where the laughing man is taken prisoner by his arch-rival, and through deception and betrayal, bound to a tree and in mortal danger. Immediately after, the Chief brings the troop to a baseball field. Mary Hudson arrives. The Chief and Mary have a conversation out of earshot of the boys, and both are obviously upset. Why John and Mary are distraught is ambiguous, as their conversation occurs away from the story’s narrator. However, Salinger gives some subtle hints in the form of baby carriages, including one the narrator nearly trips over.
In the final installment of his Laughing Man story, the Chief brutally kills off the character and the narrator returns home, evidently disturbed by the story and the anxieties he feels about the chief’s relationship.
“For Esme – With Love and Squalor” was published in The New Yorker on April 8, 1950. It was later collected in Nine Stories (1953)
Staff Sergeant X (also The Narrator)
Narrator of the story, who has suffered shell shock and is telling us the story of a special child he met right before his unit participated in the D Day landings, as well as the dark period he suffered after battle. The story is split parts, and in one part the narration is first person, in the other it is third person. The third person narration is the point in the story where the narrator is referred to as “Staff Sergeant X.”
The young girl who has a conversation with Sergeant X the day before he goes into battle, and subsequently sends him a letter that reaches him once the battle is over. In the beginning of the story, we are told that Esme is getting married, and that she invited Sergeant X to the ceremony, even though she only met him once.
Esme’s little brother, a source of comic relief in the story and the focus on many critical studies along with the two main characters.
Corporal Z (Clay)
Sergeant X’s roommate after the battle. Some critics say he is the foil to Sergeant X’s character, and others say he represents the “squalor” from the title. He is crass and crude, and very much a caricature of a young, toughened Army grunt.
Esme and Charles’ governess. She has a small role in the story, mainly as a not-very-good governess who allows the children to sit with and talk to Sergeant X.
Staff Sergeant X’s Wife
Sergeant X’s mother-in-law. Mentioned at the beginning of the story.
Salinger: A Biography by Paul Alexander tells us:
“As soon as The New Yorker published ‘For Esme – With Love and Squalor,’ Salinger began to hear from readers. On April 20, he wrote to Lobrano from Westport to tell him that he had already gotten more letters about ‘For Esme’ than he head for any story he had published.”
Hamish Hamilton (a British publisher) wanted to publish a collection of Salinger’s stories. Salinger was reluctant. He ended up publishing Nine Stories (not with Hamilton), but “two months after Little, Brown published Nine Stories, Hamish Hamilton released the book in England. There was, however, one major difference between the American and British versions. Hamilton felt strongly that the generic name Nine Stories would have been the worst possible title to put on the book and he somehow convinced Saligner to let him use as the title for the collection “For Esme – With Love and Squalor,” the story that was perhaps Salinger’s most famous in England if not the United States as well. To the public, Hamilton also finessed the fact that the book was a collection of stories by emphasizing in the advertising copy the idea that For Esme was the next book from the author of The Catcher in the Rye. Hamilton wanted to downplay the truth, since story collections never sell as well as novels.”
Hamilton put the book out in 1953. It did not do well financially, but was well-received critically. Later the same year, Hamilton sold the book to Ace Books – a mass market publisher. They did not usually deal with “real literature.” Hamilton thought it was a good financial decision. Ace published the book with an inappropriate picture of an older, sexy blond girl on the cover. Hamilton didn’t consult Salinger before the sale, and Salinger was truly angry. Salinger never spoke to him again.
The story opens with a first person narrator informing the reader that he received an invitation for an English wedding that will take place April 18th. He expresses a desire to go to the wedding, but tells the reader that his mother-in-law (Mother Grencher) is coming to visit, so he can’t. He says that he has “jotted down a few revealing notes on the bride as I knew her almost six years ago.”
The narrator then tells us that in April of 1944 he was stationed in Devon, England. We learn that he is American, that he was an enlisted man, and that he was part of a “rather specialized pre-Invasion training course.” His unit trained for three weeks, and then they were scheduled to be a part the “D Day Landings.” On this last night before the deployment, the narrator had already packed his bags, so he gets on his outdoor things and walks into town.
Once in town, he stops at a church where schoolchildren are having choir practice. He notices one child in particular, who has a clearer and nicer voice than the other children. She is around thirteen years old, and is a very pretty child. After the song ends, the narrator goes to a tearoom. Soon after, the pretty young girl from choir practice comes into the tearoom with a governess and a little boy.
The girl eventually approaches the narrator, and he asks her to join him. The conversation that takes place is witty and delightful, and the narrator is obviously very impressed by his companion’s intelligence. The girl, named Esme, tells the narrator about her aspirations, her past, her family, and we learn that her father has died in the war.
Esme’s brother Charles comes over and tells the narrator a joke, “What did one wall say to the other wall? Meet you at the corner!” Charles is very amused by his joke and laughs uproariously.
The narrator notices the large wristwatch that Esme is wearing. It belonged to her father. She, having learned that the narrator was a “professional short-story writer” before the war, tells the narrator that she wishes he would write a story for her – and that she prefers “stories about squalor.”
Charles tells his joke again, and the narrator finishes the punch line. Charles gets angry and stomps away, and soon it is time for the children to leave the tea house. Before she goes, Esme asks the narrator if he wants for her to write to him, because she writes “extremely articulate letters.” The narrator gives her his rank and name so she can write to him. She tells him she’ll write to him first so that he doesn’t feel “compromised” in any way. Charles and Esme come back into the tea room because Charles wants to kiss the narrator goodbye. The narrator asks Charles “What did one wall say to the other wall?” and Charles happily replies, “Meet you at the corner!”
The narration shifts and we have the first person narrator telling us that “this is the squalid, or moving, part of the story, and the scene changes.” The narration shifts to a third person narrator and the setting of the story shifts to Gaufurt, Bavaria “several weeks after V-E Day.”
Staff Sergeant X, possibly recovering from a nervous breakdown and suffering shell shock. He is not able to sleep, he is chain-smoking, his gums are bleeding, and he is generally in ill health. His friend Clay, whom he refers to as “Corporal Z” talks to him about his girlfriend Loretta, and tries to get X to come to some parties in town. X declines, and stays in his room alone. He finds a pile of mail that he had not yet opened, and opens a letter that is from Esme.
In the letter Esme apologizes for her delay in writing, and asks him to “reply as soon as possible.” She sends her father’s wristwatch in the package, and at the end of the letter Charles has added “HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO HELLO LOVE AND KISSES CHARLES.”