For Esmé with Love and Squalor
by J.D. Salinger
For Esmé with Love and Squalor Section 1 Summary
(Note: Salinger didn't divide this story into sections. This Unofficial Section 1 is the part of the story located in Devon, England.)
- The narrator tells us about a wedding invitation he received recently. Unfortunately, practical matters make his attendance impossible – it's in England (he's in America), and to make matters worse, his mother-in-law is visiting.
- Instead of actually attending the wedding, the narrator offers his readers (presumably also including the groom, who he doesn't know) some thoughts on the bride, who he met six years ago. Here, the rest of the story moves back in time to the date of this auspicious meeting.
- Back in 1944, the narrator is a soldier in World War II. He's an American soldier temporarily stationed in Devon, England for a special intelligence (read: spy) course run by the British army.
- The narrator's fellow soldiers aren't very social; they generally keep to themselves. As a result, the narrator has a lot of alone time, which he spends wandering around town and the countryside.
- On the last day of the course, the narrator is all set to go – he's packed all his belongings, and has nothing to do. He decides to go into town.
- Walking through the village, the narrator notices a children's choir practice occurring at the local church and stops to watch.
- The choir is excellent; one girl, who looks about thirteen, is particularly excellent. Her voice is beautiful, but she seems not to even care, and keeps hiding yawns throughout practice.
- When the hymn is over, the choir director critiques the performance, and the narrator leaves.
- The narrator ponders stopping at the Red Cross recreation room, a hangout for soldiers, but it's too crowded for his tastes. Instead, he stops in at a tearoom (what we'd call a coffee shop) for civilians.
- The narrator settles in at the tearoom and orders tea and cinnamon toast. While he's rereading some rather pedestrian old letters from his wife and mother-in-law, the talented choir member shows up, accompanied by a child that's apparently her younger brother, and their governess.
- The party chooses a table not far from the narrator's own. The little boy makes some typical little boy trouble and irritates the governess until his sister intervenes and restores the peace.
- The girl notices the narrator watching them, and offers him a smile. Before he knows it, she's standing at his table, chatting to him.
- As the narrator and the girl, who is interestingly poised and distinguished for someone her age, converse about various and sundry matters, the narrator notices that she's wearing a man's watch, which looks absurdly big on her tiny wrist.
- The girl nonchalantly mentions that she wants to be a professional jazz singer and make loads of money when she grows up, and that she wants to move to America (specifically, to a ranch in Ohio, a rather odd choice). She professes to be something of an expert on Americans – the narrator is the eleventh one she's met.
- The governess makes some annoyed motions, implying that the girl should stop bothering the narrator. The girl blithely ignores these motions, and turns her back to her governess and brother.
- The girl, unsurprisingly, turns out to be unusually bright. She guesses correctly that the narrator is in town to attend the supposedly secret military intelligence school, though he, of course, denies it.
- Apparently without malice, the girl comments that the narrator is unusually intelligent – for an American. She explains that most of the American soldiers she's seen don't always act properly; one of them even threw a whisky bottle through her aunt's window.
- The narrator defends his compatriots, even though he can understand the girl's perspective.
- In an interesting conversational leap, the girl apologizes for not looking her best – her hair is wet from the rain, and isn't as wavy as it usually is. She's obviously somewhat self-conscious, despite her confident exterior.
- Comically out of the blue, the girl asks the narrator if he's "very deeply in love" with his wife (35), then apologizes (kind of) if she's being too personal.
- The narrator responds that he'll tell her if her questions are too personal; notably, he doesn't actually answer the question.
- The narrator is a little troubled by the girl's enormous wristwatch – it doesn't seem to belong on her at all. He wonders idly if she might wear it around her waist instead.
- The girl admits that she's usually not so talkative, but that she came over to chat with him because he looked so very lonely, and because he has a "sensitive" face. She gravely admits that she's trying to be more compassionate, since others have told her she's very cold.
- The girl mentions her family for the first time – she lives with a kind aunt, and her mother, is apparently dead. She asks the narrator if he finds her cold, and he reassures her that she is not.
- Finally, our two characters introduce themselves: the girl's first name is Esmé, but she won't tell the narrator her full name, since she's an aristocrat, and Americans, she thinks, are often intimidated by noble titles.
- At this moment, Esmé's little brother arrives to tell her that Miss Megley, the governess, demands that she come back and finish her tea. After saying what he came to say, he sits down between the narrator and Esmé. He's a handsome little boy with huge green eyes.
- Inexplicably, the boy asks the narrator an odd and hilarious question: "Why do people in films kiss sideways?" (45).
- The narrator admirably keeps his cool, and answers to the best of his ability, saying that actors' noses are too big for them to kiss straight on.
- Esmé informs the narrator that the little boy's name is Charles, and that he's considered rather brilliant.
- In response, Charles acts somewhat un-brilliantly, denying that his eyes are green (he says they're orange), and twisting himself into contortions under the table.
- Esmé excuses her brother by telling the narrator that he really misses their father, who was killed ("s-l-a-i-n") in the war in North Africa.
- We hear a little more about Esmé and Charles' parents. Apparently, Charles takes after their mother, while Esmé looks just like their dad. Their father was apparently quite an intellectual, at least in his kids' eyes (Esmé calls him a genius), and something of an introvert. Their mother, on the other hand, was outgoing and passionate.
- Charles, not to be forgotten, sticks out his tongue and unleashes a loud, rude Bronx cheer (what we could call a big fat raspberry).
- Esmé, unaffected, tells Charles to stop and again apologizes for him – apparently, it's a habit he picked up from an American he saw once.
- The narrator sardonically comments that Charles should save this maneuver for when he's grown up enough to use his aristocratic title, if he also has one.
- Esmé remarks upon the narrator's dry sense of humor, and tells him that her father always said she didn't have a sense of humor, and is therefore unequipped for life. Her father sounds like he really was a wise man.
- The narrator tries to make her feel better about her perceived lack of humor by saying that it's not important, but she replies that her father thought it was – end of story. Her faith in her father is clear.
- Esmé comments that Charles misses their dad a lot, and goes on to tell the narrator more things about their adored father, who was both wonderful and handsome, apparently.
- Charles interjects again, this time to tell a riddle – "What did one wall say to the other wall?"
- The answer, "Meet you at the corner," drives Charles mad with glee. He can't contain himself.
- Again, Esmé subdues her exuberant brother, and he sinks back into his seat, triumphant.
- Esmé changes the subject back to the narrator. She asks what his profession is in non-wartime; he responds that he hasn't been out of college for long, but he calls himself a short story writer (as of yet unpublished, we assume).
- Esmé interrupts to say that her father was a brilliant writer – she's saving his letters "for posterity."
- The narrator discovers that the enormous watch belonged to her father, who gave it to her before she and Charles were evacuated (referring to the evacuation of children from London to the countryside during the war). The watch obviously means a lot to her.
- Again, Esmé changes the subject, this time to ask the narrator to write a short story for her – she's particularly interested in squalor.
- Before he can ask her to elaborate on this interesting comment, Charles pinches the narrator on the arm and repeats his riddle. Esmé reminds him that he's already asked it, but he ignores her.
- The narrator fixes Charles' tie, which is crooked, looks him in the eye, and answers the riddle. This is totally uncool with Charles, who is instantly, violently angered. The little boy turns his back and returns to his own table.
- The time has come for Esmé to leave as well, which she informs the narrator in French. Before they part, she apologizes again for not looking her best, then asks if they can meet up again. Unfortunately, the narrator is leaving the next day, so it's impossible. Esmé offers to write to him, and takes his address.
- The siblings and Miss Megley finish their tea and leave the tearoom. The narrator feels surprisingly emotional upon their departure.
- However, his sadness doesn't have to last too long – in a moment, Esmé marches back in with Charles in tow. She basically forces Charles to kiss the narrator goodbye, and as the little boy is about to rush away after delivering a big, wet smack on the cheek, the narrator catches him by his coat and asks Charles' favorite question – "What did one wall say to the other wall?"
- This was clearly the right thing to do; Charles immediately lights up, screams the answer, and dashes out of the shop, apparently overwhelmed by hilarity.
- Esmé reminds the narrator to write a story for her, and he promises not to forget. She also reminds him that she would like it to be "extremely squalid and moving" (100). The narrator tells her that he is becoming increasingly familiar with squalor (being in the war and all), and that he will do his best to meet her requirements.
- The pair shakes hands and says their goodbyes. Esmé thoughtfully wishes the narrator good luck in the war, saying that he makes it back from the war in one piece, "with all [his] faculties intact" (103).
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