Literature Study GuidesNine StoriesDe Daumier Smiths Blue Period Summary

Nine Stories | Study Guide

J.D. Salinger

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Nine Stories | "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" | Summary

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Summary

After the death of his mother, the nameless 19-year-old narrator moves from Paris, where he spent the formative decade of his youth, to Manhattan. He shares a hotel room with his enterprising bon vivant stepfather, Bobby Agadganian, while the narrator attends art school, which he "loathes." He admits he is in mourning for his mother; however, the main emotions he expresses are irritation and contempt, especially for the bourgeois consumerism of the United States.

When he sees an advertisement for an instructor at a correspondence art school in Montreal, the narrator jumps at the chance to apply, working late into the night to produce an application letter many pages long, in which he lies about his name (calling himself Jean de Daumier-Smith), his age, his qualifications, and even his ancestry.

He is accepted at the school, Les Amis Des Vieux Maîtres ("friends of old masters") and arrives at the Montreal station, where his new boss, M. Yoshoto, greets him. All the way to the school, the narrator, as Jean de Daumier-Smith, embellishes the lies he has already told, including many anecdotes about his friendship with Pablo Picasso. Once at the school, he meets Mme. Yoshoto, the only other instructor, and notes a beautiful watercolor of a goose in flight, painted by M. Yoshoto.

Boarding with the Yoshotos proves to accentuate his loneliness; they rarely speak to him, and at night he is kept awake by a mysterious moaning sound coming from behind his bedroom wall. He doesn't like eating fish for breakfast or the lack of chairs in his room, but he is too proud to say so and insists everything is fine.

M. Yoshoto assigns him four students. Three are crass Americans who cannot draw; the third, Sister Irma, is an uneducated nun who paints complex religious scenes on pieces of brown butcher paper. The narrator, touched by her natural talent, writes her a long, overly personal letter in which he twice inquires about her visiting hours and espouses his philosophical views. The convent terminates her enrollment at the school and requests a tuition refund, but not before the narrator experiences existential despair staring into the display window of a nearby orthopedic appliance shop.

Once he learns Sister Irma will not be attending the school anymore, he writes his other students, terminating them for having no talent, and he pens a sincere letter to Sister Irma about the nature of being an artist, which he never sends. He passes the orthopedic appliance shop again, and there is a woman in the display window arranging the displays. She is so surprised to see him, she falls down. The rising sun blinds him, shining in all the chamber pots like a field of "enamel flowers."

This strange experience gives the narrator a change of heart, and he reinstates his talentless students; shortly afterward, the school closes for lack of having a proper license, and the narrator returns to his life in New York City.

Analysis

"De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" was rejected by The New Yorker, which published many of J. D. Salinger's other stories, because he did not sufficiently flesh out the religious epiphany that happens in front of the orthopedic appliance store, in which bedpans suddenly morph into flowers. Critics note that this is one of the first times Salinger explores his interest in Vedanta, which is an ancient Hindu religion. However, the passage can be explained without any knowledge of Eastern philosophy.

Salinger wrote, "The sun came up and sped toward the bridge of [the narrator's] nose at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second." This is, quite literally, the speed of light, so in a way the narrator normalizes what he is about to experience. The sun shines into all the bedpans at once, illuminating these humble objects. They become the opposite of what they are designed to hold, flowers instead of fertilizer. By extension, the opposite of loneliness and despair—emotions the narrator has the first time he looks into the display window—are companionship and connection.

This epiphany marks a big change for the narrator, who, up until this point in the story, uses disingenuousness and contempt to distance himself from other people. He cuts himself off from enjoying even the company of his stepfather's companion, assuming her friendly interest in him is a sign of romantic desire. The lies he tells the Yoshotos virtually guarantees he will never have an authentic relationship with them. When his presence startles the woman in the orthopedic appliance display window, though, he realizes loneliness is an inevitable condition, and "everybody is a nun." Paradoxically, this realization allows him to view other people with compassion. Evidence of his change of heart lies in the fact that Bambi Kramer, one of the talentless students he reinstates at the school, is still writing to him many years later.

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