Nine Stories | Study Guide

J.D. Salinger

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Nine Stories | "Teddy" | Summary

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Summary

Mr. McArdle, the father of 10-year-old Theodore "Teddy" McArdle, repeatedly asks his son to stop standing on his brand-new Gladstone bag, while Mrs. McArdle sarcastically needles her husband. The family is on board an ocean liner headed from Europe back to the United States. The two adults are lying in bed; Teddy uses the suitcase to better his view out of the cabin's porthole.

Teddy interrupts his parents' bickering to tell his mother one of the passengers heard a tape of him speaking before the Leidekker examining group and was curious to learn more about what he has to say. His mother expresses vague interest. His father finds something else to be outraged by: Teddy has let Booper McArdle, his six-year-old sister, take Mr. McArdle's camera out on deck.

Teddy leaves the cabin and has a brief encounter with one of the ship's ensigns. His cold, precise manner of speaking seems even less childlike when he is away from his parents. He finds his sister and sees she has not carried the camera safely by its strap the way he showed her; it is lying neglected on its side. After sending her down to his parents' cabin, he finds his assigned deck chair and begins writing in his journal. The entry concludes, "It will either happen today or February 14, 1955 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even."

The man Teddy mentioned to his mother, Bob Nicholson, approaches him just after he finishes the diary entry. Nicholson is a professor specializing in education. The two discuss Teddy's views on reincarnation, his concept of love, and the fact that he upset some members of the Leidekker group by making predictions about when they would die. Teddy attempts to explain his philosophic views, including his belief that a preoccupation with logic and materialism prevents people from seeing things "the way they are." He explains if he were to die in a few minutes because his sister pushed him into a swimming pool drained of water, it would not be tragic but simply part of the natural order of things.

Teddy excuses himself to attend his swimming lesson. A fraction of a moment too late, Nicholson runs after him. As Nicholson descends the final flight of stairs, he hears a young girl's piercing scream.

Analysis

The story "Teddy" is an exploration of Eastern mysticism, particularly the Vedantic theory of reincarnation. Teddy is an old soul, having passed through multiple lives and almost attained a state of holiness in his last incarnation. In his present life, he had his first mystical experience at the age of six, when he "saw that [his sister] was God and the milk was God" and "all she was doing was pouring God into God." He is able to foretell the moment people will die and caused a great deal of upset by revealing too much when goaded by researchers in the Leidekker group.

Generally speaking, he treats people around him with forbearance and tolerance, but there is one limit to his enlightened state; he cannot understand human emotions, which are grounded in people's love of a particular body and a particular life. When his mother asks for a kiss, for instance, he avoids her, saying absently that he is tired.

The end of the story is controversial. Some have suggested Teddy is not a true mystic but a troubled child who pretends to be enlightened to get attention and ends up killing himself by jumping into the empty pool. That is a provocative analysis. However, a close reading of the story does not really support it. Teddy clearly alludes to his own death in his final journal entry, and he foretells exactly how he will die to Bob Nicholson—something the reader knows he has the ability to do, judging from the horrified reactions of the Leidekker group. In addition, his final words to his parents are prophetic: "After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances."

The question remains, why does Booper McArdle scream when, as Teddy describes the incident, she deliberately pushes him in? The answer lies in unenlightened people's attachment to particular things. Booper is too young to comprehend the consequence of pushing him in the pool, that he will "really" die. Her "all-piercing, sustained scream" is the appropriate human reaction.

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