by J.D. Salinger
It can be difficult to decide just what to make of Teddy McArdle. On the one hand, he's a rather adorable, precocious ten-year-old boy. On the other hand, he's a spiritual guru who knows more about metaphysics, religion, and philosophy than top professors in the subjects. The genius of "Teddy" is that its main character is both of these things at the same time. Salinger never lets us forget that, for all his wisdom and serenity, Teddy still has to look words up in the dictionary and obey his parents. He doesn't talk like an adult; he talks like a child who wants to talk like an adult.
This is in part the reason for the heavy debate surrounding "Teddy." The biggest question is whether or not we can take this kid seriously. Let's take a look at two different viewpoints.
Option 1: Teddy only is a lifetime or two from enlightenment
One way to read "Teddy" is to buy into everything the main character says. He really was a spiritual man in India his last time around, and he's that much closer to enlightenment after a brief decade in this life.
If we are meant to take Teddy seriously, then we should focus our attention on exactly what he has to say. Teddy's arguments, most of which are outlined in his discussion with Nicholson, are the real meat of the story – so much so that you might accuse Salinger of using his characters as mere pulpits for a philosophy he's indirectly preaching. We can distill these beliefs of Teddy's down to a few basic principles.
- Reincarnation is the name of the game. We all live thousands of lives, and the point is to learn as much as we can in each one. As we gain more and more experience, we get closer and closer to enlightenment.
- Death is no big deal. This is a direct consequence of Teddy's belief in reincarnation. If dying just means moving on, for about the seven-hundredth time, to another life, then why should we get all weepy about it?
- Earthly things get in the way – avoid materialism, physical pleasure, and emotional attachment. They are just distractions. What you should really be focusing on is meditation, spiritual truth, and God. Teddy claims that he was distracted by a woman in his previous lifetime, and we notice that he's careful not to make the same mistake this around. He's avoiding personal attachment at all costs.
- Forget logic! Teddy tells Nicholson that the real truths in the world can only be understood spiritually, not logically. In fact, logic gets in the way of real understanding, so we have o get rid of it to advance spiritually. For a discussion of this in gory detail, see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." This is an important concept in "Teddy" and worth spending some time with.
Option 2: don't trust Teddy
Another reading of "Teddy" is that our main character is a spiritually ordinary (if very intelligent) ten-year-old boy who has created an elaborate fantasy for himself. To feel special, loved, and important, the precocious Teddy has read enough books to talk the talk about metaphysics and God, but it's really just all in his head.
This is quite sad. If you're inclined to read "Teddy" this way, you will probably look to his parents as the source of his troubles – as the reason he felt compelled to create this intricate fantasy. Mr. and Mrs. McArdle are portrayed as rather selfish and crass; they're not interested in listening to what Teddy has to say, and they even use him as a sort of battleground for their silly marital squabbling (Mrs. McArdle tells Teddy to jump up and down on the suitcase just to irritate her husband). His sister is nothing short of a holy terror – just look at the way she treats Myron while she's playing with the shuffleboard ("You're the stupidest person in this ocean," she says, after rubbing it in that his father is dead [3.20]).
In fact, the only place Teddy does get attention – and lots of it – is from Nicholson. Nicholson asks him questions, is interested in what he has to say, and after he gets over some initial condescension, even learns from Teddy. It's clear from the background info we get that the entire academic world treats Teddy this way; they record him on tapes, interview him all over the world, and discuss him at length. They make Teddy important; they provide what he's not getting at home.
In this reading, "Teddy" is more about emotion and character than ideas. We can listen to what Teddy has to say about religion and God, but we don't take it too seriously if we're busy fretting about his home life. (On the other hand, if you believe Teddy's ideas about reincarnation, you don't fret about his home life because you're too busy trying to wrap your head around the philosophy, and besides, he's going to die in a few minutes anyway, which is no big deal.) What we make of the story's ending changes as well; perhaps it means that Teddy committed suicide, a tragic end to a terribly tragic story. Or perhaps no one died at all, and Teddy will go on compensating for his not-so-great home life with philosophical fantasies about his death and spiritual importance.
You can find some terrific evidence to support this theory in one of Salinger's other stories, which we'll talk about…right now.
The Glass Connection
As we mention in our "In a Nutshell," "Teddy" seems on the surface to stand alone as a piece of work, independent from Salinger's web of interconnected stories about the famous Glass family. However, in "Seymour: an Introduction," fictional narrator Buddy Glass claims that he wrote "Teddy" and that Teddy's character is based on his brother Seymour. It's terribly interesting to re-read "Teddy" with this in mind, to learn more about the Glass family from Teddy, and to learn more about Teddy from the Glasses.
First, a brief introduction to the Glass family. There are seven Glass siblings, grown adults by the time Salinger writes about them. All of the Glass children are extremely intelligent and were terribly precocious as children when they participated on a radio quiz program called "It's a Wise Child." The Glass children whom Salinger wrote about most extensively were the two oldest, Seymour and Buddy, and the two youngest, Franny and Zooey. The four of them share an extreme interest in religion and philosophy (particularly Eastern religion) and a severe antisocial attitude.
Is this starting to sound relevant to "Teddy" yet? Eastern religious philosophy, social detachment, precocious children – certainly sounds "Teddy" to us. If that's not enough, remember that the "Teddy" is the last tale in the collection Nine Stories. The first is "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and tells the story of Seymour Glass's suicide. Buddy claims that he secretly narrated this tale, as well. In "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" we talk about the important continuity from "Bananafish" to "Teddy," and in "What's Up With the Epigraph?" we talk about the thematic commonality between the two. Here in this section, we'll look at some excerpts from "Seymour: an Introduction" to see what Buddy has to say about "Teddy" and the connection between Teddy McArdle and Seymour Glass.
First, Buddy admits that he is the one who wrote "Teddy." (Buddy Glass is a writer by profession.) He even quotes from it (!), as if to prove his authorship:
A few years ago, I published an exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a 'gifted' little boy aboard a transatlantic liner, and somewhere in it there was a detailed description of the boy's eyes. By a happy stroke of coincidence, I happen to have a copy of that very story on my person at this moment, tastefully pinned to the lapel of my bathrobe. I quote : 'His eyes, which were pale brown in color and not at all large, were slightly crossed – the left eye more than the right. They were not crossed enough to be disfiguring, or even to be necessarily noticeable at first glance. They were crossed just enough to be mentioned, and only in context with the fact that one might have thought long and seriously before wishing them straighter, or deeper, or browner, or wider set.'
Once Buddy demonstrates that he indeed wrote "Teddy," he discusses the importance of Seymour in all of his writing:
There's seldom been a time when I haven't written about him [Seymour], and if, presumably at gunpoint, I had to sit down tomorrow and write a story about a dinosaur, I don't doubt that I'd inadvertently give the big chap one or two small mannerisms reminiscent of Seymour.
He explicitly makes the connection with our Teddy, referring back to his description of Teddy's brown eyes: "At least two members of my family knew and remarked that I was trying to get at [Seymour's] eyes with that description, and even felt that I hadn't brought it off too badly, in a peculiar way."
OK, so we get the idea – Teddy is based on Seymour. Why do we care? Because it tells us more about Teddy. (And more about Seymour, whom you can learn all about in Shmoop's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" Guide.) Reading the few tidbits Buddy has to offer on Teddy helps us to look at "Teddy" in a very specific light. Look carefully at the way Buddy refers to Teddy in this passage:
Before we join the others, […] including […] the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette filters for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the […] incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet […], please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: ( ( ( ( ) ) ) ).
Hilarious parentheses aside…did Buddy just call Teddy an unenlightened, pretentious snob? Absolutely. You also might have noticed in the passage quoted above that when he refers to Teddy as gifted, he uses single quotation marks: "a story about a 'gifted' little boy," which is basically a mocking punctuation. In his opinion, Teddy is certainly not "gifted."
As we promised, here is that great evidence for the theory that Teddy is a troubled little boy, not a genuine spiritual guru. In fact, consider Buddy's claim that this story was "unpleasantly controversial" and "thoroughly unsuccessful"; this might be his frustration with the way people read the work. Perhaps he intended the story in one way (Teddy as a misguided child) and was disappointed that it was interpreted differently (Teddy as a real spiritual genius).
This brings us back to Seymour. Seymour was Buddy's older brother and the two of them were very close. It's not a stretch to think that Buddy is angry at his brother for committing suicide – regardless of the spiritual or philosophical reasons Seymour had at the time. Buddy, rather than embrace his brother's suicide, rejects it with "Teddy." Seymour, in a way, is the one who, by killing himself, turned his nose up at what Buddy maintains is a "splendid planet."
On the other hand, you can't deny the contrast between Seymour's suicide in " Bananafish" at the start of Nine Stories and Teddy's death in "Teddy" at its closing. Teddy insists time and time again not to grieve his death, because he is on to something better. We know from the other Glass family stories that Buddy, to make a generalization, subscribes to Eastern religious philosophy (he believes in reincarnation, among other things). "Teddy" might be Buddy's way of coming to grips with, or even accepting Seymour's suicide.
And on that note, we'd like to end with a rather beautiful passage from Buddy that offers us yet another, peculiar, perhaps veiled interpretation of the ending of "Teddy." It is not an interpretation that we can understand easily or logically or even analyze here in discussion, but one that, in the style of the Zen kōan, requires some meditation:
However contradictory the coroner's report – whether he pronounces Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide to be the cause of death – isn't it plain how the true artist-seer actually dies? I say (and everything that follows in these pages all too possibly stands or falls on my being at least nearly right) – I say that the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience. (From "Seymour: An Introduction")