By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Down at the Dinghy’ is a short story by J. D. Salinger, originally published in 1949. As in some of Salinger’s other stories, notably ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, ‘Down at the Dinghy’ involves an adult speaking to a child. However, in this case the theme of the story – which remains largely in the background until the end of the story – is anti-Semitism.
The story is about a young boy who runs from home and goes down to the nearby lake, where he gets into a dinghy and refuses to speak to his mother. ‘Down at the Dinghy’ also involves the conversation between two of the family’s servants, one of whom has made derogatory remarks about the father of the family (as well as his son). Before we offer an analysis of the story’s meaning, it might be worth recapping the plot.
‘Down at the Dinghy’: plot summary
One warm October, two servants, Sandra and Mrs Snell, are discussing a four-year-old boy named Lionel, who is the son of the family for whom they work. Sandra is worried that Lionel is going to tell his mother about something he overheard Sandra say: some disparaging anti-Semitic remarks about Lionel’s father. Mrs Snell tries to reassure her.
The lady of the house, Mrs Tannenbaum (known as ‘Boo Boo’), comes in asking for some pickles, which she hopes to use to lure Lionel from out of the boat in which he has taken refuge. They discuss Lionel’s habit of running away from home and having to be brought back.
Down at the lake, Boo Boo finds Lionel in a dinghy about to cast off into the water. He refuses to allow her to board his boat, so she tells him she’s an admiral in order to try to persuade him to change his mind. But he doesn’t believe her and refuses to tell her why he’s running away.
He picks up a pair of underwater goggles with his feet and throws them overboard; Boo Boo is annoyed by this, telling him they belonged to his uncle. She then offers to throw him a key chain which is like his father’s, and when she does so, Lionel also throws them into the water, before bursting into tears.
Lionel eventually opens up to his mother, telling Boo Boo that he overheard Sandra talking to ‘Mrs Smell’ (sic) and calling Lionel’s father a ‘kike’, a word which the young Lionel confuses with ‘kite’. Boo Boo suggests they drive into town and buy some pickles and eat them together before collecting Lionel’s father from the railway station.
The three of them can then go for a ride in the boat. Lionel agrees to this, and the two of them race back towards the house. Lionel wins.
‘Down at the Dinghy’: analysis
Of all of Salinger’s stories, ‘Down at the Dinghy’ is probably the most autobiographical. Salinger was half-Jewish, and had encountered anti-Semitism both when growing up in the United States and during the Second World War, where Salinger had seen a Nazi concentration camp and had thus witnessed by where extreme anti-Semitism could horrifically lead.
What’s more, there’s a strong suggestion that Lionel is a partly autobiographical portrait: Lionel is seen wearing a T-shirt with a picture of ‘Jerome the Ostrich’ playing the violin on the front. Salinger, whose first name was Jerome, was known for running away as a young child, like Lionel: in other words, he had behaved ostrich-like by metaphorically burying his head in the sand whenever life became too much.
Perhaps these autobiographical origins partly explain why ‘Down at the Dinghy’ is widely regarded by critics as one of Salinger’s weaker stories, with little of the subtle accumulation of elliptical detail which makes a story like ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ or ‘Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes’ more layered and sophisticated.
Nevertheless, the story does contain some key characteristics of Salinger’s fiction, such as a focus on childhood innocence (and a suggestion that this should be protected as borderline sacrosanct). A key theme of ‘Down at the Dinghy’ is not only the anti-Semitism witnessed or overheard by Lionel but his misconstruing of what the ethnic slur he has heard actually means.
It is at once both ironic and deeply appropriate that he should confuse the word with ‘kite’, a child’s toy, because it shows both his innocence and the first piercing of that innocence with adult prejudice (after all, he’s nevertheless aware that the word has not been used as a compliment).
And Sandra and Mrs Snell (whose name, similarly, he mangles into the childlike word ‘smell’) show prejudice to be in full force in the years immediately following the end of the war.
A key piece of symbolism in ‘Down at the Dinghy’ is the underwater goggles which Lionel jettisons during his conversation (or would-be conversation) with his mother. In throwing them out of the boat, Lionel is signalling his rejection of the adult world which they embody (they belonged to his uncle), but in using goggles as his symbol, Salinger is also suggesting that Lionel wishes to reject the adult way of viewing the world, specifically.
The same goes for the keys, which are similarly associated specifically with Lionel’s older, adult relatives: the key chain, Boo Boo tells her son, is ‘Just like Daddy’s.’
Symbolically, attaining adulthood was represented by a key: one was given ‘the key to the door’ when one turned twenty-one, and so on. In tossing the keys quite literally overboard, Lionel is once again rejecting adult responsibility – and corruption – in favour of remaining in the innocent republic of childhood.
We cannot know whether Boo Boo lets her son win the race back up to the house at the end of ‘Down at the Dinghy’ (and one wonders if we’re meant to hear a faint pun on that word, ‘race’), but symbolically his victory signals another triumph over the world of his parents and, by extension, the adult world.