By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is one of J. D. Salinger’s best-known and most widely studied short stories. First published in the New Yorker in 1948, the story is a masterclass in how to reveal both character and plot through elliptical and suggestive dialogue, with the ‘action’ largely focusing on two scenes: one in a hotel room and the other on a beach. These two scenes are then brought together for the story’s tragic denouement.
Among other things, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ is a powerful depiction of alienation in the immediate post-war world of the late 1940s. The story is about a man, Seymour, who has returned from the war and feels disconnected from the world around him, including his wife.
‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’: plot summary
On a hot day in Florida, a young married woman named Muriel talks on the telephone to her mother. She is discussing her husband Seymour, who has become withdrawn since getting back from the war. We learn that Muriel and Seymour have gone to Florida on holiday.
Muriel’s mother is concerned by the fact that Seymour drove himself and his wife there in his unstable mental state. Indeed, Muriel’s mother believes the army should never have released Seymour from the army hospital because he is in danger of completely losing control. We learn that Seymour has recently crashed his father-in-law’s car. However, Muriel insists to her mother that Seymour is fine. Seymour has also asked Muriel to learn German, so she can read the German poems he sent her when he was stationed in Germany during the war. These poems, he claimed, were written by the greatest poet of the century.
Muriel tells her mother that a psychiatrist staying in the hotel had asked her the night before if her husband was all right, presumably because he looks so pale and unwell.
While Muriel and her mother talk over the phone, Seymour walks along the beach, where he meets Sybil, a young child who is staying in the same hotel as him. They talk in a way that is more suggestive of two adults flirting than a grown man and a young girl conversing, with Sybil implying that she is jealous that Seymour let another girl, Sharon Lipschutz, sit next to him as he played the piano in the hotel.
Seymour finally removes his robe, and goes down to the water with Sybil, pushing her out to sea on a float. He tells her about the bananafish, a greedy fish which feeds on bananas by squeezing into holes filled with them. This strange fish then gorges on the fruit, becoming trapped because it’s too fat to squeeze back out the hole again. The creature subsequently dies of banana fever. Sybil goes along with this tall tale, and even claims to have seen a bananafish in the water, with six bananas in its mouth.
Seymour gets back to the hotel, causing a scene in the elevator where he accuses a woman of looking at his feet. He arrives at his room where his wife is asleep, takes out a gun from his luggage, and shoots himself in the head.
‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’: analysis
‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ has been compared to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: another post-war fiction which focuses (in one of its plotlines or character arcs) on a soldier who has recently returned from the war and who struggles to adjust to post-war life.
Seymour Glass is Salinger’s own version of Septimus Smith, Woolf’s shell-shocked First World War veteran whose patient wife Lucrezia feels powerless to help her troubled husband, much as Muriel feels unable (though willing) to help Seymour. (Oddly enough, Seymour’s statement about Sharon Lipschutz, ‘mixing memory and desire’, is an allusion to another post-WWI modernist work which features shell-shocked soldiers: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.)
It is clear that Muriel’s mother is concerned for her daughter’s safety when in the company of her husband, and it’s also clear that Seymour has been acting erratically and even dangerously (such as crashing his father-in-law’s car). He also refuses to take his bathrobe off because he doesn’t want anyone to see his tattoo – even though, according to Muriel, he doesn’t have a tattoo.
He is evidently scarred by his war experiences. But it is Sybil for whom he takes off his robe, partly, perhaps, because such an act has none of the adult connotations it carries with his wife (with whom he is expected to perform his marital duties) and is instead a regression to childhood.
With this in mind, we might also compare ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ with another post-war story, albeit one that is, like Mrs Dalloway, about the aftermath of the First World War rather than the second. Ernest Hemingway’s 1925 story ‘Soldier’s Home’, in which a young man named Harold Krebs returns from fighting in the First World War and can no longer relate to the people in his hometown in Oklahoma.
The alienation of the war-scarred male character is not the only thing which unites these two stories: Seymour’s playful conversation (indeed, borderline flirtation) with Sybil recalls Krebs’ relationship with his younger sister (where he talks to her as though they are courting boyfriend and girlfriend rather than sisters).
Both male protagonists can only truly relate to women – or rather, girls – who are much younger than they are, and who are, indeed, still children. It is not that the adult males in either story wish to objectify the girls: indeed, the point is that the men are themselves children, who have retreated back into childhood to avoid the unbearable strain of adult life.
Indeed, the one character in ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ who seems to understand Seymour is the child, Sybil, whose very name summons the prophetesses of Greek mythology who made elliptical, but wise, pronouncements by scattering fragments of their prophecies which those who consulted them had to piece together themselves to discover their (potential) meanings. Salinger’s story is similarly full of elliptical statements and exchanges (‘elliptical’ meaning that parts of the meaning are left out, leaving us to deduce the full meaning for ourselves).
But how sibylline is Sibyl? Salinger’s child-characters are often the wisest, while the adults are too corrupted by the weight of the world and the realities of day-to-day living to be in touch with the true meaning of life. We might recall, in Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s disgust, when he visits his younger sister Phoebe’s school to say goodbye, upon finding that a swearword has been scrawled on the walls, corrupting the innocence of childhood.
For Holden, many adults are ‘phonies’ and childhood is a pure state which we leave behind at our peril, for then we are truly lost. There is something deeply Romantic, in the Wordsworthian sense, about Salinger’s view of children and childhood.
In this connection, Sybil’s breaking down of Seymour Glass’s name into three distinct syllables (sibylline syllables?) – ‘see more glass’ – is both a child’s immature play with the inherent but meaningless puns hiding within language and, at the same time, an almost metatextual revealing of Salinger’s own writerly technique: clearly he intends us, like Sybil, to liberate this cryptic statement from Seymour’s name as well.
This apparently nonsensical statement chimes with Seymour’s own attitude concerning the fictional ‘bananafish’, a creature reminiscent of children’s nonsense literature which he uses as a device to bond with Sybil in ways he cannot bond, in the adult world, with his own wife, with whom he can only now, it would seem, communicate in any meaningful sense in a language she literally cannot understand (that book of German poems).
And in other respects, there is a suggestion that Seymour views Sybil as a kind of mirror or reflection of himself: hence the punning potential of his full name which she liberates, ‘see more glass’, because he can see more of himself in the looking-glass that she represents than he can with anyone else, including his wife (whose name, Muriel, means ‘sparkling or shining sea’: an ironic touch given that she is the one person out of the three of them who doesn’t join them in the water: hers is one watery mirror in which he cannot locate himself). Observe how Seymour initially mistakes Sybil’s yellow bathing suit for a blue one, mirroring his own royal blue shorts.
But the yellow bananafish also recalls the yellow bathing suit Sibyl is wearing: ‘bananafish’ thus combines her yellow attire with her proximity to the sea. But if she is the bananafish, so is Seymour: he has been squeezed through the hole and is unable to make his way out again. For ‘banana fever’, read PTSD following his war experiences.