At nineteen, Jean (not his real name) is a talented art student, who happens to have a habit of making things up. After his mother dies and he moves back to New York City from Paris in 1939, he uses his creative gifts to both deal with his grief and fashion a new identity. He becomes a twenty-nine-year-old French widower, and is able to nab a gig teaching art at a Montreal correspondence art school. When he shows up for the job, he is sporting a three-week-old mustache and linen suit.
Having spent the second half of his boyhood in Paris, Jean is deeply in love with the French language, and speaks, writes, and reads fluently in French. Which reminds us, this guy loves to read. He claims he "bought a complete set of the Harvard Classics […] and rather perversely read all fifty volumes" over the course of a few months, reading in the evenings (4). And, as he casually mentions that he has subscriptions to "sixteen French-language newspapers and periodicals" (6).
Jean, if we can believe him, is an active guy, is not a loafer or a sleeper. He tells us that "In one month alone […] [he] completed eighteen oil paintings" (4). If that and the reading aren't enough he also manages to go to art school every day, have "eight teeth pulled" and create a new identity (4). (Don't worry, we discuss the significance of teeth in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.")
Jean's coffee consumption fuels this fire. He sees the world in pictures and stories, and spends massive amounts of time in his own head. He's also a smoker and uses his shirt pocket as an ashtray when necessary. He's a bundle of creative and nervous energy, due in part to his coffee consumption.
In the letter to Sister Irma that Jean doesn't send he claims to "live as an evil-minded monk" (68). At the beginning of the story Jean says he hopes the story is "ribald" (dirty jokes are "ribald"). With all due respect to monks everywhere, by "evil-minded monk" Jean might mean either a monk who masturbates, or a monk who thinks about sex. This is not exactly the most appropriate joke for Sister Irma. It also tells us how Jean is feeling at the time. In the other letter Jean tells her he's an "agnostic" (45, 68). This could add another layer of meaning to the idea of an "evil-minded monk." An agnostic monk, at least a Catholic one, would definitely be considered "evil-minded."
Jean is struggling to balance his urges with an intense spiritual journey, some seemingly contradictory spiritual beliefs, and a self-imposed isolation (even though there are people around him). This ties in with the fact that he is an artist. Critic John Russell describes Jean as a "striving-artist" ("Salinger, from Daumier to Smith." Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 4.1, 1963 ).
The striving-artist in a Salinger story, according to Russell, is continually growing and changing, and continually reaching for higher and higher peaks in art and in life. Russell says that one of Jean's problems is "the problem of the artist's responsibility to love things and people for their own (not his, and not art's) sake" (Russell 71). Jean's constant fluctuation between frustration and inspiration would seem to be part of this aspect.
Another problem is how to deal with the loss of his mother, and his extreme loneliness that comes from the loss. Grief is natural, but, too much grief can drive a person mad. Most readers and critics feel that Jean has really grown by the end of the story. We agree.
We think that Jean's epiphanies (intense moments of realization) in Montreal are a good way to get at deeper look at his struggle. "Setting" is a crucial aspect of these epiphanies, so take a look this section as well if this interests you.
Both Montreal epiphanies happen when Jean is looking "into the lighted display window of the orthopedic appliances shop" (58). The first epiphany so stuns Jean that he can't even write about it in his diary. It happens on a Thursday (his fifth day in Montreal) on the fourth day of his obsession with Sister Irma. Here's the moment:
Then something altogether hideous happened. The thought was forced on me that no matter how coolly or sensibly or gracefully I might one day learn to live my life, I would always at best be a visitor in a garden of enamel urinals and bedpans, with a sightless, wooden dummy-deity standing by in a marked-down rupture truss […]. The thought, certainly, couldn't have been endurable for more than a few seconds. (58)
As we discuss in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" this is similar to what happens in the "musical chairs" scene in New York City. This epiphany is an even more intense moment of loneliness. First, Jean is outside looking into the shop. The shop represents the ways the human body can break down, symbolizing sickness, disease, and the loss of bodily control. Notice how Jean focuses on bedpans and urinals. More importantly, he refers to this scene as a "garden" suggesting that it might be a flip side of the Biblical Garden of Eden.
He compares the mannequin to a deity (or idol). Keep in mind that one worships a deity by standing before it, just as Jean stands before the mannequin. He sees it as the blind god of all that can go wrong with the human body. This decay strikes him as a discounted ("marked-down") vision of humanity. This moment also alludes to World War II. Often, mannequins are missing body parts. When used in stories, they usually suggest the theme of literal or figurative amputation. In this case it's both.
Amputation goes back to the loss-of-control anxiety we've already noticed. If you are losing limbs, you probably aren't in control. When a world war is on, literal loss of limb is always a possibility. Salinger is gently weaving this issue into the story. Though not mentioned here, this could also allude to Jean's premature amputation from his mother.
Jean is caught in the middle. His grief holds him back from living in the world. At the same time he feels like a tourist in the world of grief; he doesn't even completely belong in this world. Worst of all, he feels like he will never be able to live in the world the way he did when his mother was alive. To make a long story short, Jean is feeling completely alienated by everyone and everything.
The second epiphany occurs the very next evening. It happens Friday evening, just after Jean gets the letter from the Mother Superior withdrawing Sister Irma from the classes. He's coming back to the school from his coffee and soup dinner, with plans to perfect a letter to the nun, and possibly visit her. Again, he is drawn to the display window of the orthopedic appliances shop. It's 9pm, and the sun is setting.
This time, there is a woman among the "garden of enamel urinals and bedpans" (58). She is removing the "marked-down rupture truss" from the dummy and replacing it with a "new" one (58, 83). When she notices Jean she gets confused and falls. He puts his hand against the glass to signify his desire to provide aid, but she ignores him. And then he has the epiphany.
It was just then that I had my Experience. Suddenly (and I say this, I believe, with all due self-consciousness), the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of my nose at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second. Blinded and very frightened – I had to put my hand on the glass to keep my balance. The thing lasted for no more than a few seconds. When I got my sight back, the girl had gone from the window, leaving behind her a shimmering field of exquisite, twice-blessed, enamel flowers. (83)
Can you picture this? Has anything like this ever happened to you? Some readers see this as a dream or a hallucination. Others argue that this is a genuinely mystical experience. Notice how different this is from the previous epiphany. The key is in the final lines. In the first epiphany Jean sees the products in the shop window as "a garden of enamel urinals and bedpans" – that is, a garden of foul and artificial objects whose only purpose is to hold the stinky waste of sick people, people he doesn't see as human. After this second epiphany with the sun, these receptacles of human waste are transformed into "a shimmering field of exquisite, twice-blessed, enamel flowers" (83).
Flowers are important in many religions, including Zen Buddhism. The lotus flower is particularly important in Buddhism, as this excerpt from an online article suggests:
The lotus (Sanskrit and Tibetan padma) is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and one of the most poignant representations of Buddhist teaching.The roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the heavily scented flower lies pristinely above the water, basking in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. (source)
After reading this we can begin to appreciate what Salinger is doing. There is definitely some irony going on here. The word "materialism" is the key. Materialism means an appreciation for things of the earth, things that we can experience directly with our senses. This is what depresses Jean in the previous epiphany. He saw the bedpans and urinals as direct representations of what some might call "the foul stench of humanity." His disgust is a rejection of himself, of humanity.
When he sees the images of bedpans and urinals superimposed with flowers, Jean seems to be reaching a balance between the spiritual and the material (unlike the article above which seems to forget that the human element is important). If someone needs a bedpan or a urinal, that someone must be alive (unlike Jean's mother). Therefore that person would be important and real, not just a used up body waiting to die. What do all humans have in common? Among other things, the need to get rid of bodily waste. Through the bedpans and urinals Jean realizes that he is connected to all other humans by this smelly fact.
Jean sees the "enamel flowers" as "twice-blessed." We think he's funny here. What blesses a urinal or a bedpan first? Yes, that right, bodily excretions. The second blessing seems here to have come from the woman in the window, who probably cleans them. This is all symbolic, because obviously these bedpans aren't used, and she's probably only cleaning them. The point is, she is human, and alive, and she lives among some of humanity's most basic symbols, the bedpan, and the urinal.
This epiphany helps Jean learn to live among other human beings, with all their flaws and imperfections, with the breakdowns of their bodies, and even with their deaths.