For Esmé with Love and Squalor
by J.D. Salinger
Where It All Goes Down
Devon, England and Gaufurt, Bavaria, Germany – 1944
The first setting we find ourselves in is the idyllic, albeit rainy, peaceful English countryside. Even though it's wartime, some semblance of normal life seems to persevere in Devonshire – we're reminded that, even during a time of international crisis, life goes on in some places. Children still go to choir practice, and families still go out for tea in the same old shops in town.
However, underneath this placid exterior, all is not well. We learn that even Esmé and Charles have been touched by the war; their father was presumably killed in action in North Africa, and, since their mother is already dead, they are now orphans, living with a kind aunt in Devon. Like Esmé herself, things in this safe part of the world that remain untouched by battle may look lovely on the outside, but, under the surface, there are unseen depths of sorrow.
OK, cut to Gaufurt, Germany, just after Victory-in-Europe Day (the end of the European war): this is a totally different story. This town wears its sorrows on its sleeve – Sergeant X and his fellow American soldiers are actually living in a house seized from an arrested Nazi official, and the reminders of loss, sorrow, and destruction are all around them. Sergeant X is totally steeped in the horrors of war, even though the fighting is technically over, and his setting – the abandoned home of someone else whose life will be forever marked by the war – plays an important role in his psychological condition. He's disgusted by the happy-go-lucky attitude of the other soldiers (represented by Colonel Z) who manage to hide away their negative memories of the war, and focus on living it up now that the Allies have won.
The idea that the American soldiers are living the high life, only caring about their stylish new Eisenhower jackets and how many medals they can wear at once, while they inhabit the ruined former home of their enemy, is incredibly depressing. However, this setting is like the inverse of the initial setting in Devon – things look grim on the outside, but Esmé's letter proves that there's some hope to be found deep down inside individual human beings, even Sergeant X.