De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period
by J.D. Salinger
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
If you read what we wrote about teeth, you probably thought about the dentist chair at some point. So, we can already assume that chairs are linked to pain and anxiety. Before we hear about the dentist chair, we hear that Jean couldn't get a seat on the bus because it was so crowded. The companion moment is the whole musical chairs business. Let's have a look at it:
One afternoon, a week or so later, as I was coming out of the Ritz Hotel […] it seemed to me that all the seats from all the buses in New York had been unscrewed and taken out and set up in the street, where a monstrous game of Musical Chairs was in full swing. (4)
Next we learn how upset he is about having a hard time finding a bus seat, and how isolated and alone he feels. Like everything in the story, this is comic and tragic at the same time. The scene also ascribes much power to the imagination. Jean imagines the streets to be empty, and all of a sudden, he's alone. Isolation, the novel seems to argue, is a state of mind. At this point, Jean can only see his own pain. In his mind the rest of the world is a having a huge party, playing musical chairs in the streets.
We've all been there. But what does this have to do with chairs, beyond the fact that they are important for sitting on and experiencing dental work? In his essay titled "Salinger's "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," Mike Tierce argues that Jean likes chairs more than the average guy. Having a seat makes him feel secure. Not having one makes him feel insecure.
Yet, he bends over backwards to reassure the Yoshotos that he is fine with a chairless bedroom, even though, as we find out later that he desperately wants a chair. He thinks that by adopting cultural habits of the Yoshotos he can somehow belong with them. He isn't experimenting here to see if he wants a chair or not. Just before he goes to bed after his epiphany he seems to give up this self-denial. As a result, writing becomes easier for him. Check it out:
Before going to bed for the night, I wrote letters to my four just-expelled students, reinstating them. I said a mistake had been made in the administration department. Actually, the letters seemed to write themselves. It may have had something to do with the fact that, before sitting down to write, I'd brought a chair up from downstairs. (85)
Notice also that he is experiencing ease of being nice, too. If this all sounds a little preachy and silly to you, you could argue that sometimes chairs are just chairs. In this case, Salinger might be using the chair as a parody of too-too serious discussions of symbolism. Perhaps he's throwing the chair out there as bait, and watching gleefully when we take it.