Critics have often examined the underlying significance of religion in J.D. Salinger’s short fiction. This is entirely appropriate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because what little we know about Salinger’s biography suggests that he avidly followed a number of religious traditions. As a young man growing up in a mixed religious household, as a Jewish soldier in World War II, and as more than a dilettante in the area of alternative spiritualities including Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and even at one point, Dianetics, Salinger’s attention to religion seems tantamount to understanding his work. Moreover, there are both overt and covert references to Eastern and Western spiritualities in his fiction. The relevance of religious criticism has often predominated critical attention to Salinger’s 1957 novella Zooey.
Critical attention which has not centered on religion has often focused instead on elements of character or on the ephiphanic moment during the narrative’s climax. Seymour’s “Fat Lady” is one such primary target for debate. Furthermore, many psychoanalytic critics have investigated the relationship between Zooey and his mother Bessie. However, all of these critics may have missed an important corollary to Zooey, in Tennessee Williams’ popular 1944 drama, The Glass Menagerie. Apart from a mention in Gwynn and Blotner,  contending that Salinger fills a void left by post-war writers including Williams, and a brief, punning nudge to the play in Charles Poore’s New York Times Review of Franny and Zooey,  there is little mention of any connection between these two works of post WWII American fiction. While there are important differences as well, these works share more than a passing resemblance to one another. These similarities are most evident in the three main characters of each narrative. Other details of the stories mimic one another as well, as both employ elements of Romanticism and struggle with the idea of virtue. Both also deal with time and performativity in interesting ways in order to connect those elements thematically to the narratives. And ironically, both create some of the same mythic and symbolic connections.
“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.”