Analysis: What's Up with the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?
– A Zen Kōan
This is the epigraph to Nine Stories, the 1953 collection that opens with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Together, these nine stories explore themes of innocence, youth, the psychological effects of war, and Eastern philosophy. While Eastern philosophy isn't explicitly discussed in "Bananafish," it's easy to see a spiritual theme reflected in the story. If this stuff interests you, we'd recommend reading "Bananafish" and "Teddy" (the final piece in the Nine Stories collection) together. These two works book-end Nine Stories, literally and thematically, and "Teddy" really informs the way that we read and interpret "Bananafish."
In "Teddy," for example, the titular character, an enlightened young man and spiritual prodigy, explains to a college student the way that knowledge works. His theory is that we are all so distracted and filled up with the useless things we learn in school – like math and science and grammar and logic – that we don't open ourselves to real spiritual truths. To get at those, you have to "empty yourself" of all logical truths. Similarly, in Salinger's novel Franny and Zooey, college student Franny Glass (Seymour's younger sister) complains that in school, they learn nothing but this useless knowledge. Their goal is to amass as much of it as quickly as possible, which Franny finds no more noble than trying to amass wealth, fame, or any material good. Knowledge is pointless, she says, unless it ultimately leads to wisdom.
Which brings us to the epigraph. A kōan is a sort of riddle, as you can see from this particular example. But the answer to the riddle isn't logical. If we ask you, "What is the square root of 435?" you can solve the problem using the usual parts of your brain (or a handy calculator). The question has logical answer. But kōans don't work that way. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If you meditate on this long enough, claim the Zen Buddhists, you will come up with an answer. But it's not a logical answer that you could explain to someone else. In other words, you can't Google the answer to this one. You have to intuit it on your own.
What does this have to do with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"? Remember that the point of an epigraph is to inform the way we read a work. The epigraph provides the author with an opportunity to give us a hint (or sometimes tell us directly) how to interpret his writing. This epigraph reminds us that some questions – actually, the most important questions, spiritually speaking – don't have logical answers. And, of course, the big question in "Bananafish" is…why does Seymour kill himself? It's very possible that Salinger intends his story as a sort of kōan in itself. There may be an answer to his question, but it's not one that anyone could write down or explain in a thesis paper. Perhaps we're meant to meditate on this and the other stories in the collection, but we're not meant to "figure out" what the "answer" is.
If you buy into this theory, you might very well take issue with all the "deep hidden meaning" conclusions that critics have drawn and that we've explored in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." You might think that it's the wrong approach to assign any one meaning to each of the metaphors and images in this text (like the bananafish, the color blue, the nail polish). And this is certainly a legitimate approach to the text. Maybe it's better to walk away from "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" with an emotional or spiritual reaction, rather than an analytical one.