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Nine Stories | "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor" | Summary

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Summary

The jovial Nameless Narrator (Staff Sergeant X) begins by telling the reader he just received an airmail invitation to attend a wedding in England on April 18th. Unfortunately, the date conflicts with plans his wife has already made. Instead, he decides to jot down "a few revealing notes on the bride" as he knew her six years ago.

In April of 1944 the Nameless Narrator is among a group of 60 men taking a specialized preinvasion training course in Devon, England. He has just finished the training course and has a few spare hours before embarking on a train to London. From there, he will be among those who storm the shores of Normandy on D-day.

While reading the bulletin board outside a church, he learns that a children's choir practice is underway and goes in to hear it. He is struck by the magnetic poise of a particular young girl with an excellent singing voice. Afterward, he goes to a tearoom. The same girl from the choir, accompanied by her younger brother and a governess, enters and sits near him.

The girl, 13-year-old Esmé, approaches his table and greets him with the observation, "I thought Americans despised tea." Eventually, she sits down. She refuses to tell him her full name because she has a title, and Americans are "impressed" by titles. She reveals her desire to become a jazz singer and the fact she lives with her aunt now that her mother is dead. Her father is also dead; he was killed in North Africa during the war. She wears her father's watch, which is much too large for her.

Esmé is precocious and competent, assuming care over Charles, whom she forces back into the café to kiss the narrator the way any mother would. Despite worrying she is a "cold" person, unlike her "sensual" mother, Esmé feels compassion toward the Nameless Narrator (Sergeant X), instinctively knowing he is about to head into combat. When she learns he is a writer, she requests he write a story exclusively for her, and he should "make it extremely squalid and moving."

The Nameless Narrator then skips to the "squalid" portion of the story, which takes place shortly after V-E day (Victory in Europe), in a small Bavarian town where some American soldiers remain stationed. To conceal his identity in the story, the Nameless Narrator refers to himself in third person as Staff Sergeant X. He is suffering from battle fatigue; his hands shake so badly he can barely light a cigarette.

Unable to join in the merriment of the other soldiers despite encouragement from Corporal Z (Clay), his companion since D-day, Staff Sergeant X listens dispassionately to Corporal Z's descriptions of his psychological condition, most of them gleaned from letters written to Corporal Z by his girlfriend, Loretta, a student of psychology. Once his friend leaves, Staff Sergeant X opens a package bearing many of his old APO (Army Post Office) addresses. Inside is a letter from Esmé, fulfilling a promise she made in the café to start a correspondence. The package contains her father's watch, which she wants him to keep through the duration of the war as "a lucky talisman." The watch crystal is broken; nevertheless, it provides the catalyst for the Staff Sergeant X's journey back to mental health.

Analysis

"For Esmé—With Love and Squalor" is J. D. Salinger's most famous story, one for which he achieved great critical acclaim. It touches on the issue of battle fatigue directly, a subject close to the heart of Americans in the years directly following World War II. It is also a fundamentally more tightly woven and positive story than many of Salinger's other works, featuring a narrator for whom alienation is just a temporary condition, brought on by combat trauma. Neurosis is so much not his natural state the Nameless Narrator refers to himself by another name, Staff Sergeant X, to mark the departure from his normal personality. In this way, he appears to reject the view of Corporal Z's girlfriend, Loretta, who writes her boyfriend, saying a nervous breakdown can only take place when the person having it is fundamentally unstable.

Nevertheless, the story touches on themes quite familiar in Salinger's writing—the journey from innocence to experience and the redemptive power of human connection. Before the war the narrator was self-conscious and introverted, clinging to the margins of the action and more comfortable with the written word. The narrator who begins the story can write a story and spend two weeks with his mother-in-law to please his wife; he can express gratitude to the people who love him without needing to escape from them. In this story, experience is not a trap or a prison but a source of contentment.

A big part of the transformation is the effect of Esmé's belated gift. The watch arrives with its crystal broken, but the Nameless Narrator (Staff Sergeant X) refuses to wind it up to see how deep the damage goes. This is because linear time has nothing to do with the Nameless Narrator's emotional and spiritual progression. What the watch represents is not time but connection; it was worn first by Esmé's father, and then by the girl herself. It is a gift of love and faith that binds the characters together.

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