by J.D. Salinger
In A Nutshell
J.D. Salinger is an American writer famous for his 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye and the short stories he published in The New Yorker in the 1950s and 60s. Many of Salinger's stories revolve around the infamous Glass family, seven siblings with remarkable intelligence and unique spiritual interests.
On the surface, "Teddy" is not a part of the Glass family saga. It tells the story of a precocious ten-year-old genius boy with an interest in and knowledge of Eastern philosophies that far surpasses his years. While young Teddy McArdle is not explicitly connected to the Glass family, we find an interesting connection when reading "Seymour: an Introduction," a story about Seymour Glass narrated by his brother, Buddy Glass. In this tale, Buddy admits that he himself wrote "Teddy," and that the ten-year-old genius greatly resembles his older brother, Seymour.
Fittingly, then, "Teddy" belongs to the Nine Stories, a collection of Salinger's short works, along side a few more obvious Glass family stories, such as "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." While these stories differ in surface subject matter, they all explore similar themes, among them Eastern philosophy. "Teddy" in particular reflects Salinger's interest and knowledge in this area, and indeed many see the characters in "Teddy" as pulpits for Salinger's own ideas on the topic.
"Teddy" is famous as an outstanding example of Salinger's prose and subject matter, and for its somewhat cryptic ending. While some consider the conclusion clear-cut, others find it highly ambiguous – you can read all about it in "What's Up with the Ending?" Just know that many a literary war has been waged over the fate of ten-year-old Teddy McArdle.
Why Should I Care?
Why care about "Teddy"? Well, for one thing, Teddy, the main character in this story, is pretty much the polar opposite of Ted. You know, that goofy flick about the guy who owns a perverted teddy bear? Well, Ted (the bear) is into partying, high-fives, and make-out sessions. Teddy (our protagonist) is into reincarnation, higher spiritual truth, and eastern religions. Which do you think are more noble pursuits?
While you ponder, consider that, in a way, folks can fall into one of two categories here. You're either a Ted, or a Teddy. In other words, you're either a person who pursues material gratification, or you're someone who has a bigger picture in mind, who's on a quest for understanding the hidden meanings of existence, Indiana Jones style. Really, we're not here to judge, Shmoopers, but if we had to choose, we'd make a little button that said "Don't be a Ted; be a Teddy" and wear it proudly right next to our pocket protector.
You see, it gets us down—and it should get you down, too—that the vast majority of our fellows are the kind of folks that would rather watch Jersey Shore, buy body spray, or both, than contemplate the deeper meanings of our role in the grand scheme of things. Of course, that's painting with a broad brush, and we're sure that Snooki has her fair share of moments when she ponders the ineffable nature of the human condition, foregoing western logic to achieve a deeper sense of time and its relation to the soul's reincarnation. Then again, maybe… not.
Look, we're not saying that it isn't fun to just zone out once and a while and let that brain coast on autopilot. But, really, that's no way to live. One the great things about this story—and all good literature—is that it invites us to think long and hard about who we are, where we come from, and that really big one: where we're headed. So put down that hair gel and pick up this story. Salinger's work gives us the chance to investigate what it's all—Jersey Shore included—really about.