Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction
by J.D. Salinger
Tools of Characterization
Telling (and also Indirect Telling)
The form of "Seymour: an Introduction" is Buddy telling us everything he can about his brother, Seymour. And while he frequently employs devices like physical description, anecdotes, and examples of Seymour's own writing, Buddy also does quite a bit of direct telling. "He was our blue-striped unicorn, our doublelensed burning glass, our consultant genius, our portable conscience, our supercargo, and our one full poet, […], a mukta, a ringding enlightened man, a God-knower," Buddy says ("Seymour" 1.4). He was "the most nearly tireless person" Buddy has ever known ("Seymour" 7.3). He was "a non-stop talker, though he "never sought the title" ("Seymour" 1.6).
The indirect telling comes in when we realize that the more Buddy directly tells us about Seymour, the more he indirectly tells us about himself. The details he chooses to convey as well his own reactions to these Seymour stories paint as clear a picture of Buddy as they do of Seymour. Come to think of it, the fact that Buddy is narrating at all tells us quite a bit about his character. There's more on that in his "Character Analysis."
One of Salinger's great literary skills lies in the details of physical descriptions. Characters never just move around. They almost always do very particular things in very particular ways at very particular times. For example, take a look at this passage from "Roof Beam," in which the driver of the guest car begrudgingly goes to see about the traffic hold-up:
He walked slowly and very independently, not to say insolently, the few steps over to the intersection, where the ranking policeman was directing things. The two then stood talking to each other for an endless amount of time. (I heard the Matron of Honor give a groan, behind me.) Then, suddenly, the two men broke into uproarious laughter – as though they hadn't really been conversing at all but had been exchanging very short dirty jokes. Then our driver, still laughing uninfectiously, waved a fraternal hand at the cop and walked – slowly – back to the car. He got in, slammed his door shut, extracted a cigarette from a package on the ledge over the dashboard, tucked the cigarette behind his car, and then, and then only, turned around to make his report to us. ("Roof Beam" 2.67)
This is a great example of Salinger's incredible prowess when it comes to physical description. We can clearly see that the driver resents his guests and is reveling in the small bit of power he – momentarily – has over them. And yet Salinger hasn't explicitly told us any of this. We get everything through physical details. The author has an observant eye for the way people move and interact. When Buddy arrives at Schrafft's, for another example, we learn that he and the Matron of Honor "exchange expressions of recognition, not of greeting" ("Roof Beam" 2.143). We learn exactly what the difference between these two looks are. This distinction is not one that your average, non-Salinger writer would notice, or put so incisively and simply into words.
Buddy's discussion of the true artist as a "seer" is an important part of "Seymour." Buddy tells us that he cries of pain that the Sick Artist feels come straight from the eyes. In other words, the idea is that the Sick Artist sees more than the rest of us. That's where the name "Seymour" comes in – he can literally see more than others. In the short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," one of the characters, Cybil Carpenter, points this out: "See More Glass," she calls him. Buddy asserts that the true artist seer dies only when he is "dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience" ("Seymour" 1.2). Buddy understands Seymour's suicide as the consequence of his simply having seen more.
We can also think about the prophetic family last name – "Glass." This carries any number of connotations with it, including transparency and fragility. Transparency may have something to do with this idea of seeing more than others, of seeing through things. Additionally, Seymour's suicide makes us realize how truly dangerous it is to be a Glass – how fragile these Glass siblings really are. The consequences of fragility for the other Glass siblings comes across more clearly in Franny and Zooey when it becomes evident just how delicate a balancing act it is for any one of the Glass children to live and function normally in the world.