Literature Study GuidesNine StoriesJust Before The War With The Eskimos Summary

Nine Stories | Study Guide

J.D. Salinger

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Nine Stories | "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" | Summary

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Summary

Ginnie Mannox and Selena Graff are two well-off Manhattan teenagers who attend the same private girls' school and have played tennis together for five consecutive Saturdays, despite the fact Ginnie thinks Selena is "a drip." Selena's contribution to the game is a can of fresh tennis balls each time; her father "makes them or something." However, because the balls cost Selena nothing, Ginnie is aggravated at being stuck with the entire cab fare and insists Selena refund her the money she owes her.

Selena grudgingly invites Ginnie into her apartment while she awakens her sick mother to get the cash, saying she is surprised at how "small" Ginnie is being. Ginnie is uncomfortable in making this demand, but she persists.

While she waits, critically examining the "cheesy" Graff furnishings, Selena's older brother, Franklin, enters the living room. He is bleeding from an accidentally self-inflicted razor cut. Franklin is world-weary but at the same time childlike and vulnerable, and Ginnie feels instantly drawn to him. Although she is nearly a decade younger, she begins mothering him about the cut. Her attraction does not fade, even when she learns her now-engaged sister, Joan, had rejected Franklin multiple times in the past. In turn, Franklin attempts to mother Ginnie, repeatedly insisting she take his leftover sandwich half or have some milk. Eventually, he foists the sandwich on her, and she puts it in her coat pocket.

Franklin's friend Eric arrives at the Graff apartment to accompany Franklin to a Jean Cocteau film, Beauty and the Beast. The two men served in an airplane manufacturing plant during the war together; because of a weak heart, Franklin was rejected from combat. Eric is in his 30s and has a number of stereotypically gay affectations.

Finally, Selena returns with the money. Ginnie surprises her, however, by insisting she changed her mind. She invites herself back over for that night, and an astonished Selena acquiesces. On the way outside, Ginnie begins to throw away the sandwich half but saves it in the same way she once saved a dead Easter chick at the bottom of her wastebasket.

Analysis

Although it has not been widely analyzed, "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" is one of J. D. Salinger's more life-affirming stories. This point may have been overlooked because some readers mistakenly believe Franklin Graff, not Ginnie Mannox, is the main character. Franklin, in fact, is a more typical Salinger character—sharp, cynical, and unconventional. He observes facetiously that passersby on the street outside his apartment window are on their way to yet another war, this time with the Eskimos, suggesting war is the only thing that "Goddam fools" can comprehend.

Ginnie, not Franklin, is the main character, however. She begins the story by acting aggressively and unkindly toward Selena Graff, a power move Salinger implies is bolstered by the Mannoxs' higher social status. She is aware of being "small" but justifies it with judgmental thoughts about the Graffs' expensive yet tasteless apartment.

Franklin's vulnerability—he is both literally and psychically wounded—touches her, however, and she reaches out to heal him, offering advice about how to care for his cut. Overly tall for her age, she is instinctively drawn to his outsider status; while she defends her sister Joan, she giggles at Franklin's contemptuous "big deal" at the news Joan is engaged to a lieutenant Navy commander. By the end of the story, she casts her lot with the Graffs, acknowledging the tennis balls are equal in value to money—she had initially mocked them with her family—and is ready to explore the world outside her narrow social experience.

The primary theme of the story is the redemptive power of human connection. There are definite religious undertones. Franklin is not satisfied until Ginnie takes a bite of the sandwich he offers, which could either represent the food of knowledge or a communion wafer. The final image in the story supports this reading—the sandwich becomes analogous to a dead Easter chick Ginnie saved in the past. In holding on to the dead chick, Ginnie preserves the hope of rebirth to a better self that is fulfilled by her connection to the Graffs.

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