"For Esme with Love and Squalor"

J.D. Salinger's short story “For Esme: with Love and Squalor” begins with a man invited to a wedding. His first person narration reveals that he has a wife, and they are unable to attend the wedding in order to see his mother in law. Then, suddenly, the story shifts. The man begins to tell the story of how he met the bride, six years earlier. The short introductory paragraph is one of the only chances in the short story where we see into the main character’s personal life. The story uses the man’s short meeting with Esme, and turns it into the main event. Through creating a vague image of the main character, and giving him very little dialogue, Salinger dehumanizes the central figure in his story’s plot and puts the reader in his position.

The story centers around an unnamed man who we are told at the beginning of the story is a member of the army. As he recalls the tale of meeting the girl whose wedding he has been invited to, the reader gets a sense of nostalgia from his memories about that time in his life. He first sees Esme when listening to her choir sing while on military service in London. The man and the reader immediately get a sense of the importance of this girl. “Her voice was distinctly separate from the other children's voices, and not just because she was seated nearest me. It had the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.” Through the eyes of the main character, we see his fascination with the 13 year old girl singing nearest to him. Salinger takes an interesting perspective on the events and puts the reader into the story, submerging them into an unknown man’s life. After the concert he wanders into the church tearoom, where the main stage for the story is set.

Once again, he spots the girl he had seen singing from across the room and tells her what a lovely voice she has. Esme introduces herself and the man is surprised to learn how mature she is for her age. As the two talk, a pattern of dialogue begins to occur. “As security-minded as the next one, I replied that I was visiting Devonshire for my health. "Really," she said, "I wasn't quite bom yesterday, you know." I said I'd bet she hadn't been, at that. I drank my tea for a moment. I was getting a trifle posture-conscious and I sat up somewhat straighter in my seat.” Salinger makes sure that the conversation is not centered on the main character, but rather completely on Esme. The narrator rarely ever responds in quotations to what Esme is saying, and once he does it is simply “No, thank you” and “I’m glad”. The only speaking he does with her is prefacing his words with “I said” and not putting himself into the dialogue. Salinger uses this style to put the reader into his conversation with Esme, and to create a connection between Esme and the reader.

As the conversation between Esme and the main character progresses, the main character tells her more about himself. When she asks forwardly what he did before the army, he stumbles slightly before answering that he is a short story writer. Through provoking questions from Esme, the main character is unraveled and his emotions are laid out. “‘I purely came over because I thought you looked extremely lonely. You have an extremely sensitive face.’ I said she was right, that I had been feeling lonely, and that I was very glad she'd come over.” Through his descriptions of scenery and people, it is not hard to tell that he is an inquisitive man. In his chat with Esme, Salinger displays this deftly. He uses her questioning to pry him open to emotion. Although this may be a fact we as readers could have inferred, it is the first time in the story where he adds how he is feeling. This literary guidance combined with the lack of speaking on his part not only makes it easier to sympathize with all parties, but to slide ourselves more easily into his shoes.

In the last portion of the story, the setting is changed dramatically. After finishing their discussion, and the main character leaves the tea room reflecting, the story shifts once again. The narration switches starkly to third person, leaving the reader lost in the story. The main character, now referred to as Sergeant X, is sitting in his bunker in Bavaria several months after his encounter with Esme. “Staff Sergeant X was in his room on the second floor of the civilian home in which he and nine other American soldiers had been quartered, even before the armistice.” The man we once saw in England is now a traumatized nervous wreck. He talks to his bunkmate Clay (referred to as Corporal Z by the narrator) coldly, and shakes too badly to write his letters. The switch from unidentified first person narration and Sergeant X is about the distance from the reader. The shmoop editorial team at Shmoop.com describes the effect taht the narritive swith has on the story: ““This shift creates something of a sense of alienation and distance – we were used to knowing everything our narrator was thinking, and feeling like we were having a conversation with him, but all of a sudden, we're kind of out in the cold.” The man that the reader has become accustomed to and grown to know has been changed by the war in the form in Sergeant X. The switch between the two leaves the reader feeling isolated from the character that we once knew, as well as the story.

Finally, Sergeant X receives a letter back from Esme. The story ends with a short note from Esme telling Sergeant X how she looks back fondly at their talk together in London. The reader can infer that this note saved Sergeant X’s life, yet remembering the beginning of the story, Sergeant X decides against going to her wedding. The story wraps up in a perfect cycle, completing his main character’s development and furthering the symbolism. Salinger displays a perfect example of how narration and dialogue style can change the perspective of a story. The story written completely in third person narration would have completely different context, and the emotional connection to the characters would not be nearly as poignant. For Esme: with Love creates a deep connection with it’s protagonist by putting the reader in his position.

Works Cited for Analytical Essay:

Salinger, J.D. "For Esmé - with Love and Squalor." Nine Stories. Boston: Bantam, 1964. 38-48. Print.

Shmoop Editorial Team. "For Esmé with Love and Squalor Narrator Point of View."Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 15 Jan. 2015. <http://www.shmoop.com/for-esme-with-love-and-squalor/narrator-point-of-view.html>.

Comments (5)

Liam Hart (Student 2017)
Liam Hart

I'm familiar with the concept of using a generic character to get reader empathy, but the idea of using a narrative shift to indicate a change in that character is really interesting! I feel like I might have to try that sometime.

I like the use of "we" as a shorthand for the audience in an essay about literature.

Ella Donesky (Student 2017)
Ella Donesky

Your perspective is very unique and brings new analysis to observations on point of view! I read this story recently, and I now understand why I felt so connected with the central character.

Michaela Peterson (Student 2017)
Michaela Peterson

1) I had never heard of this story before. It seems really interesting. 2) I like the way you pulled out bits of the story in the analysis, which gave the reader more to think about.

Nyla Moore (Student 2017)
Nyla Moore

Before reading this paper, I didn't know about his book at all. Once reading this, I am now very interested in reading it. One technique I would use is making the reader feel like the main character.

Otter Jung-Allen (Student 2017)
Otter Jung-Allen
  1. I did not know that an author could dehumanize a protagonist to the point of such immersion. As in, I did not realize that an author could ever make the audience feel so empathetic and make the character so vague that they would feel like they were that character. Very interesting!

  2. Polished sentences! Every word was important, all the grammar read very well.