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Nine Stories | Themes


Because they are arranged chronologically, the stories chart J. D. Salinger's progression from themes of alienation and inauthenticity, the same themes that dominate Catcher in the Rye, to themes of connection and oneness with the universe, paralleling the author's growing interest in Vedanta, an ancient Eastern religion. At both ends of the spectrum, Salinger rejects materialism. But the early stories deal with class-consciousness, while the later ones focus on individual enlightenment.


Alienation is the state of being isolated from a social group to which a person should naturally belong. It is the natural state of most of Salinger's characters. Some, like Seymour Glass in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," are at odds with the compromising state of adulthood, which deprives people of the ability to freely imagine possibilities. Others, like the Chief in "The Laughing Man" and Franklin in "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," are alienated by their feeling unfit for the social class toward which they aspire, or, in Eloise Wengler's case, into which they have married. The narrator in "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" feels an acute sense of alienation when he first sees the empty display of orthopedic appliances; working for a correspondence art school, detached from his students, he is alienated from art itself.

Mirrors and Disguise

The themes of alienation, concealment, and disguise run through Nine Stories as a whole. The Laughing Man literally wears a mask to cover up his deformities; other characters, like the narrator of "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," pretend to be someone they are not in order to disguise their fear and insecurity. Boo Boo Tannenbaum, the mother in "Down at the Dinghy," pretends to be an admiral. Lee, in "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes," pretends to be a trustworthy friend.

In addition to masking themselves or hiding their identities, characters in Nine Stories also sometimes mirror each other, especially when Salinger uses a framing narrative device. The Laughing Man and the Chief are a good example of characters who mirror each other. So are Staff Sergeant X and the narrator in "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor." In the latter story, the mirror extends outside the frame of the story; Salinger, like the narrator, was a staff sergeant who stormed the beaches of Normandy and experienced battle fatigue as a result.

Innocence and Experience

Many of the stories in Nine Stories chart a progression from a state of innocence to experience. This allegory comes from the Book of Genesis in the Bible but was elaborated on by poets such as John Milton and William Blake. Human beings are born in a state of innocence, but once they eat from the tree of knowledge, they fall to a corrupted state. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is a good example. Before the war, Muriel and Seymour stayed at the Florida hotel in a state of innocence. The second trip is marked by experience—Seymour has been corrupted by the war, which leaves him traumatized and alienated, and Muriel has been corrupted by society. In a fallen state, they no longer have compassion for each other; each resents and trivializes the other, and they can no longer connect.

For Salinger, children represent uncorrupted innocence. Eloise, in "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," resents her daughter's innocence, characterized by Ramona's series of imaginary friends. When she moves her daughter forcibly to the center of the bed, she tries to propel Ramona into the adult world of suffering and unfulfilled expectations. By contrast, Boo Boo Tannenbaum in "Down at the Dinghy" seeks to preserve her son Lionel's state of innocence as long as possible.


Death means several different things to Salinger. There is the living death of characters like Eloise, who have lost the capacity to feel love and joy ("Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut"). There is the death of innocence. And there is literal death. Both the first and last stories in the collection end with sudden, unexpected deaths of the central characters. These deaths themselves are very different from each other. Seymour kills himself out of desperation because there is no other way out of the materialistic, superficial world he cannot stand. Teddy dies when he has reached the final stage of mystical fulfillment, and he goes to be with God. Like opposing bookends, these two deaths—one spiritually void, the other the joyful culmination of many incarnations—chart the book's progression toward enlightenment.


The later stories, especially "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor," "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," and "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes" contain epiphanic moments, or moments in which a particular catalyst brings a character to a new realization about the nature of life. The most dramatic epiphany comes when the narrator of "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" realizes that loneliness is the ultimate form of connection. The narrator in "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor" has a similar epiphany when he views the stopped watch as a means of reconnecting the broken pieces of his psyche. Perhaps even Lee in "Pretty Mouth and Green my Eyes" has an epiphany—albeit not a productive one—when he realizes his careless actions have severed two important bonds. Or perhaps his not having an epiphany is Salinger's point.

In the final story, Teddy explains the main thing holding people back from enlightenment is their insistence on logic. If they "vomit up" the categories and names that are so important to them, they will come closer to God. In promoting connection and acceptance, the epiphanies in Salinger bring characters a step closer to their own redemption.

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