De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period
by J.D. Salinger
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The following moment in "Blue Period" strikes us as peculiar:
Three late afternoons a week I spent in a dentist's chair, where, within a period of a few months, I had eight teeth extracted, three of them front ones. (4)
Unless Jean was also fitted with false teeth, this would have striking implications for his appearance, though he never mentions the tooth issue again. This is one of the moments that makes some readers think the story itself is a dream. In 1953, when this story was published, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) had been around for quite some time, and would have been part of the literary diet of a young intellectual like Salinger. Click here to see what Freud had to say about dreams of teeth being pulled. According to Freud these dreams indicate repressed sexuality, and express anxiety over masturbation. Freud belittles the "popular belief" that such dreams indicate anxiety over "the death of a connection." Salinger is probably playing with both of these ideas, once again blending humor and sadness.
Freud aside, we look at some other interpretations of the losing-teeth dream. Since these interpretations seem rather commonsensical, Salinger was probably aware of at least some of these. Even if he wasn't we can use them to get at some possible deeper meanings in the story.
Apparently, losing teeth is extremely common in dreams. According to the Dream Moods website (ask your teacher before using this as a source), these kind of dreams usually indicate a feeling of powerlessness and insecurity in some aspect of your life. We can see how this would apply to Jean – the death of his mother has left him feeling powerless.
Looking at this moment as a dream helps us open up symbolic possibilities, which some readers and critics will roundly reject. Some might suggest that such a reading causes us to neglect the obvious, literal meaning of the scene. If we get too caught up in the symbolism, we might not see the real implications of the scene. If his dental work is for real, then on top of losing his mother, being a smart, artsy kid, leaving Paris, and being friendless – Jean doesn't have any front teeth. A literal look at this moment makes all of our empathy bells ring.
Whether you take it symbolically or literally, a quick look at lost teeth gives us more insight into Jean. Before we move onto another body part, we want to ask you a question: is it significant that Jean's dentist and the priest for whom Sister Irma is substitute teaching are both named Zimmerman?