A Perfect Day for Bananafish
by J.D. Salinger
Sybil is a young girl vacationing on Florida with her mother. We can guess that her age is somewhere around four. Salinger tells us she's wearing a two-piece bathing suit, "one piece of which she would not actually be needing for another nine or ten years" (3). Later, when she pretends to not know her home town, Seymour tells her that Sharon Lipschutz knows where she lives, "and she's only three and a half" (43).
Sybil is completely characterized by her youth. She examines a seashell "with elaborate interest" before throwing it down (48). She hops on one foot for fun. She likes to eat wax. She walks "stomach foremost" in the manner of small children (48).
Sybil also reveals a number of singular qualities we wouldn't expect from a child. Her name indicated she's a prophet of sorts (check out "Character Clues"), and the description of her shoulder-blades as "wing-like" suggests a unique spiritual quality (which explains some of Seymour's attraction to her). Notice also that Sybil, though maybe without knowing it, uncovers an important insight: Seymour's name sounds the same as "see more." (Again, check out "Character Clues.")
We see in this story the glorification, perhaps even the deification, of youth. One of the central themes of "Bananafish" is the contrast between the world of adults (characterized by Muriel, her mother, and Sybil's mother) and the world of children (exemplified by Sybil). While the former is shallow, self-involved, selfish, and cynical, the latter is pure, engaging, and even beautiful.
Seymour, though an adult himself, has fled from other grown-ups and taken refuge in the world of children. He's left "the part of the beach reserved for guests of the hotel" (2.8) and has forsaken the company of his wife for solitude and Sybil. "I was waiting for you," he tells Sybil when she shows up (14). And, as we discuss in Seymour's "Character Analysis," he is indeed very much at home in the world of children. He's a genius with Sybil, and she's obviously completely enamored with him (as evidenced by her jealousy over his friendship with Sharon Lipschutz).
Let's look a little more closely at Seymour's relationship with Sybil, in particular at the somewhat confusing and rather abrupt end to their play-date:
With her hand, when the float was level again, she wiped away a flat, wet band of hair from her eyes, and reported, "I just saw one."
"Saw what, my love?"
"My God, no!" said the young man. "Did he have any bananas in his mouth?"
"Yes," said Sybil. "Six."
The young man suddenly picked up one of Sybil's wet feet, which were drooping over the end of the float, and kissed the arch.
"Hey!" said the owner of the foot, turning around.
"Hey, yourself. We're going in now. You had enough?"
"Sorry," he said, and pushed the float toward shore until Sybil got off it. He carried it the rest of the way.
"Goodbye," said Sybil, and ran without regret in the direction of the hotel. (86-97)
What just happened? They are playing in the waves, joking around, everything is fine, and then suddenly Seymour decides to leave (and possibly decides, at this moment, to kill himself). What's going on?
As usual, we want to look as closely as possible at the text. Seymour is obviously incredibly affected by Sybil's declaration that she has seen a bananafish with six bananas in its mouth. It is this line that prompts him to pick up her foot and kiss it, an action that seems filled with reverence for the young girl. One interpretation is that Seymour is filled with love; this little girl is so innocent, her mind so flexible, that she is able to enter into his world of fantasy (which no adults are able to do). When she shouts "Hey!" afterwards, he's reminded that he's not allowed to do things like that (it's not "appropriate" in the real world), and he ends their time together.
Another possibility is that he's kissing Sybil good-bye. When she yells that she's seen a bananafish, Seymour thinks she's talking about him (in other words, that Seymour himself is the bananafish. Check out more on this theory in "What's Up with the Title?"). Consumed with guilt, he decides then and there to kill himself and so is saying good-bye.
Another (less popular) possibility is that Seymour is sexually attracted to Sybil and kisses her out of desire. When she shouts "Hey!" he's filled with shame and decides to kill himself.
What we see next is certainly telling. Seymour plods along back to the hotel and gets into an elevator with an adult woman. "I see you're looking at my feet," he says (102). This is exactly the sort of silly banter Seymour was engaged in with Sybil only a few minutes earlier. But now, he is met with hostility and accusation instead of adoration. "I happened to be looking at the floor," responds the woman (105). Seymour, while perfectly suited to the world of children, is entirely incapable of functioning in the world of adults. What's interesting is that the tone of "Bananafish" may suggest that this is the adults' problem – not Seymour's.