In this section we'll be focusing on two aspects of the ending – the mysterious phrase Jean scribbles in his diary after his second epiphany, and the actual ending of the story (i.e., paragraphs 86-88).
In this section we'll be focusing on Jean's mysterious diary entry (written after the sun attacks him). If you find this part of the ending confusing, you are not alone. This phrase resists interpretation, which might explain why so little has been written about this particular Salinger story.
This resistance to interpretation takes us back to our discussion of Zen Kōans in "What's Up With the Epigraph?" "Everybody is a nun" is something like a Zen Kōan, a mysterious phrase meant to be contemplated, and about which each reader will come to his or her own understanding.
Before we get to the phrase itself, we have to ask – what is a Catholic nun doing in the middle of a Zen Kōan? Well, this gets at the etymological meaning of the word "catholic." With a small "c," catholic means "universal." Jean makes it clear throughout that he doesn't adhere to any particular religion, but rather draws what he needs from a variety of religions. By borrowing from both Catholicism and Buddhism, the diary entry might be suggesting that all religions have the same basic principles.
Considering the fact that J.D. Salinger's initials are the same as Jean's, we can also try out a biographical approach. Salinger's mother was a Catholic, though she converted to Judaism before her son was born. This might explain Salinger's fascination with Catholic ideas; it seems natural that he would be intrigued by his mother's "secret past." Jean's mother's religion isn't mentioned, but if we imagine she is a former Catholic, Jean's attraction to the idea he has of Sister Irma becomes clear. Remember, Jean's primary struggle is with his mother's death, and how to live in the world without her. Naturally, Jean wants to reach out to his mother, to help her, to make sure she is OK, wherever she is. Of course, he can't do that, which makes him feel powerless.
If he can "help" Sister Irma, whom he links in his mind with his mother, he can allay the sense of powerlessness. As you know, it doesn't work out that way. He can't help Sister Irma until he gives up control and lets her follow her own path. By giving up what he feels is a responsibility to Sister Irma (i.e., to help her reach her potential as a painter), he can also give up feeling responsible for his mother's fate after death. In a sense, he is giving himself permission to live and be happy in the world, even though his mother is dead.
Although we can't take the entry literally – obviously, everybody is not a nun – we can look at the idea of a nun, and what a nun symbolizes. While this might be somewhat different for each person, we can probably agree the nun is a symbol of deep religiosity, of sacrifice, of celibacy, and chastity. Many human beings exhibit at least some of the qualities at some point in their lives. In addition to the other aspects of Jean's second epiphany (see his "Character Analysis"), Jean begins to see Sister Irma as just another human being. He sees her as being just like everybody else: a human being with her own plans, needs, and goals. (Jean also comes to see that her plans probably don't involve being a fine artist, or running away with him.)
Have you ever built a house of cards? No matter how artful your creation, all it takes is a bit of wind to knock everything to the ground. This is similar to the identity Jean creates for himself in order to get the job as an art teacher. It's like a house of cards, just waiting for a wind to come and blow it to pieces. The funny thing is, the school itself is also a card house, seemingly created just for the purpose of Jean's alter-ego, the twenty-nine-year-old widower from the south of France. When that identity no longer becomes necessary, the school also becomes an obvious fiction, at least in the eyes of the Canadian school regulators.
This is an intriguing from a structural standpoint, but in terms of the nature of Jean's change at the end of the story (assuming he has changed) is packed into the story's final two sentences:
Right or wrong, I never again got in touch with Sister Irma.(87)Occasionally, I still hear from Bambi Kramer, though. The last I heard, she'd branched over into designing her own Christmas cards. They'll be something to see, if she hasn't lost her touch. (88)
It appears that Jean has thrown over Sister Irma for that bathing-suit wearing Bambi Kramer, his former student. We know it was funny, but we felt terrible for Bambi when Jean was raking her work over the coals. Lucky for Jean, she apparently had a sense of humor, and saw through to his real identity. Jean learns that a person doesn't necessarily have to be an extraordinarily talented artist to be a great friend. He also learns that art is in the eye of the beholder. Many people might like Bambi's work, and he himself might acquire a taste for it. He learns that art doesn't have to be serious; it can be fun. And if art brings Bambi fulfillment, that's what she should do. Far be it for Jean (or any of us) to rain on Bambi's parade.
In Jean's "Character Analysis" we cite critic John Russell's claim that Jean's problem is "the problem of the artist's responsibility to love things and people for their own (not his, and not art's) sake." We think that the ending moment shows that Jean has come along way in that respect.
As to the issue of Sister Irma, we don't know whether Jean is "[r]ight or wrong" in never contacting Sister Irma. What do you think? What do you think of the ending as we've presented it here? Does it seem preachy, like it's trying to teach us something? Does this bother you? Do you agree with our interpretation?