A Note to the Reader
Jean has two intense experiences outside the display window of the orthopedic appliance shop that is underneath Les Amis Des Vieux Maitres. There is lots of symbolism at work in those scenes, but because they are very important to Jean's character, we cover them in his "Character Analysis" rather than here.
The following moment in "Blue Period" strikes us as peculiar:
Three late afternoons a week I spent in a dentist's chair, where, within a period of a few months, I had eight teeth extracted, three of them front ones. (4)
Unless Jean was also fitted with false teeth, this would have striking implications for his appearance, though he never mentions the tooth issue again. This is one of the moments that makes some readers think the story itself is a dream. In 1953, when this story was published, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) had been around for quite some time, and would have been part of the literary diet of a young intellectual like Salinger. Click here to see what Freud had to say about dreams of teeth being pulled. According to Freud these dreams indicate repressed sexuality, and express anxiety over masturbation. Freud belittles the "popular belief" that such dreams indicate anxiety over "the death of a connection." Salinger is probably playing with both of these ideas, once again blending humor and sadness.
Freud aside, we look at some other interpretations of the losing-teeth dream. Since these interpretations seem rather commonsensical, Salinger was probably aware of at least some of these. Even if he wasn't we can use them to get at some possible deeper meanings in the story.
Apparently, losing teeth is extremely common in dreams. According to the Dream Moods website (ask your teacher before using this as a source), these kind of dreams usually indicate a feeling of powerlessness and insecurity in some aspect of your life. We can see how this would apply to Jean – the death of his mother has left him feeling powerless.
Looking at this moment as a dream helps us open up symbolic possibilities, which some readers and critics will roundly reject. Some might suggest that such a reading causes us to neglect the obvious, literal meaning of the scene. If we get too caught up in the symbolism, we might not see the real implications of the scene. If his dental work is for real, then on top of losing his mother, being a smart, artsy kid, leaving Paris, and being friendless – Jean doesn't have any front teeth. A literal look at this moment makes all of our empathy bells ring.
Whether you take it symbolically or literally, a quick look at lost teeth gives us more insight into Jean. Before we move onto another body part, we want to ask you a question: is it significant that Jean's dentist and the priest for whom Sister Irma is substitute teaching are both named Zimmerman?
Noses are important in "Blue Period." In Jean's "Character Analysis" we discuss the significance of the moment where "the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of [his] nose at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second" (83). There doesn't seem to be anything symbolic going here, unless you remember that this isn't Jean's first nose experience. He mentions another in his unsent letter to Sister Irma:
The happiest day of my life was many years ago when I was seventeen. I was on my way for lunch to meet my mother, who was going out on the street for the first time after a long illness, and I was feeling ecstatically happy when suddenly, as I was coming in to the Avenue Victor Hugo, which is a street in Paris, I bumped into a chap without any nose. I ask you to please consider that factor, in fact I beg you. It is quite pregnant with meaning. (68)
This is one of the most mysterious moments in the text. We can think of it as a Zen Kōan. As we discuss in "What's Up With the Epigraph?" a Kōan is similar to a riddle, and is meant to be an object of meditation. You can't necessarily "solve" a Kōan through logic and analysis only. To get at the meaning of a Kōan, we need to use our imaginations, our senses, our emotions. The meaning of a Kōan can't be taught, and changes from one person to the next.
We'll give you a few things we came up with. On the one hand, this might be Jean being "ribald" again. A guy like Jean says "pregnant with meaning" and we know there is a dirty joke in there. In a footnote to Edgar Allan Poe's "Some Passages in the Life of A Lion" (a story about a man with a fabulous nose), editor G.R. Thompson states that "the nose, in folk and literary tradition, is a metaphor for the penis" (Selected Writings, 129, note 7).
But wait, the man Jean saw was without a nose. Metaphor for the penis, or plain old nose, that sounds painful. But we all know that such extremes are the mainstays of comedy.
We don't know if seeing the man made Jean happy, or if it was something that happened after that. We know he was happy before he saw the man. We know he was on his way to meet his mother, who had been ill. Maybe this was the last time he saw her. Maybe she died right after the meeting. Maybe the extreme happiness he was feeling on his way to see her continued through the visit. Maybe the man with no nose had nothing to do with the happiness. He could be seen as a harbinger to Jean's mother's death. What is creepier than a guy with no nose on a brightly lit street?
The noseless man also foreshadows Jean's second epiphany. In the first epiphany the symbols of human waste, decay and amputation in the orthopedic shop window disgust him – producing a kind of mental stink. In the second epiphany he re-imagines these "bedpans and urinals" as flowers – we all know that most flowers smell sweet. The man with no nose can be seen as a completely nonjudgmental person, a person to whom nothing human stinks.
Or, as Terence, Roman slave turned master of Greek comedy, famously said, "I consider nothing human alien to me." He also said, "While there's life there's hope," and "many men, many minds!" Salinger may have had these words in mind when he wrote this "Blue Period." In a way, this sums up the outcome of Jean's journey, as we discuss in "What's Up With the Ending?"Using a combination of logical deduction and emotional reaction we offer our solution to the Kōan of the man with no nose. As you can see, it's not neat and tidy, and asks more questions than it answers. It also leaves plenty of room for your interpretations.
If you read what we wrote about teeth, you probably thought about the dentist chair at some point. So, we can already assume that chairs are linked to pain and anxiety. Before we hear about the dentist chair, we hear that Jean couldn't get a seat on the bus because it was so crowded. The companion moment is the whole musical chairs business. Let's have a look at it:
One afternoon, a week or so later, as I was coming out of the Ritz Hotel […] it seemed to me that all the seats from all the buses in New York had been unscrewed and taken out and set up in the street, where a monstrous game of Musical Chairs was in full swing. (4)
Next we learn how upset he is about having a hard time finding a bus seat, and how isolated and alone he feels. Like everything in the story, this is comic and tragic at the same time. The scene also ascribes much power to the imagination. Jean imagines the streets to be empty, and all of a sudden, he's alone. Isolation, the novel seems to argue, is a state of mind. At this point, Jean can only see his own pain. In his mind the rest of the world is a having a huge party, playing musical chairs in the streets.
We've all been there. But what does this have to do with chairs, beyond the fact that they are important for sitting on and experiencing dental work? In his essay titled "Salinger's "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," Mike Tierce argues that Jean likes chairs more than the average guy. Having a seat makes him feel secure. Not having one makes him feel insecure.
Yet, he bends over backwards to reassure the Yoshotos that he is fine with a chairless bedroom, even though, as we find out later that he desperately wants a chair. He thinks that by adopting cultural habits of the Yoshotos he can somehow belong with them. He isn't experimenting here to see if he wants a chair or not. Just before he goes to bed after his epiphany he seems to give up this self-denial. As a result, writing becomes easier for him. Check it out:
Before going to bed for the night, I wrote letters to my four just-expelled students, reinstating them. I said a mistake had been made in the administration department. Actually, the letters seemed to write themselves. It may have had something to do with the fact that, before sitting down to write, I'd brought a chair up from downstairs. (85)
Notice also that he is experiencing ease of being nice, too. If this all sounds a little preachy and silly to you, you could argue that sometimes chairs are just chairs. In this case, Salinger might be using the chair as a parody of too-too serious discussions of symbolism. Perhaps he's throwing the chair out there as bait, and watching gleefully when we take it.
Religion is always on Jean's mind – he is a Salinger wonder-kid after all. The epigraph to Nine Stories the collection that contains "Blue Period" is a Zen Kōan. Jean tells the Yoshotos that he is "a student of Buddhism" (54). There is some indication that he did so because he assumed the Yoshotos were Buddhists, and that if he'd know they were "Presbyterians" he would have said he was a student of Presbyterianism. He also claims to be an "evil-minded monk" of an unknown religion (68). Sister Irma is, of course, Catholic.
Jean is seems particularly concerned with the crucifixion of Christ, which, he thinks, is the subject of the painting by Sister Irma with which he is impressed. For Christians, Christ is the ultimate martyr. As we'll see in a moment Jean doesn't want to be a martyr. This might be why he's more interested in the Mary Magdalene figure in Sister Irma's painting. He seems to identify more with Mary, a kind of outcast accepted by Christ, than with Christ himself. He wants to be loved and accepted more than he wants to be a religious leader, or saint.
This is what he's getting at in the preface to his second epiphany:
I'm about to touch on an extraordinary experience, one that still strikes me as having been quite transcendent, and I'd like, if possible, to avoid seeming to pass it off as a case, or even a borderline case, of genuine mysticism. (To do otherwise, I feel, would be tantamount to implying or stating that the difference in spiritual sorties between St. Francis and the average, highstrung, Sunday leper-kisser is only a vertical one.) (82)
Jean doesn't want us to think of his experience as a mystical experience; that much is clear. But, let's break down the potentially confusing statement in the parenthesis. "[S]ortie" means "attack." St. Francis de Assisi devoted his life to helping lepers and other "outcasts." His mode of "attack" was to remain constant and vigilant in his work. A "Sunday leper-kisser" on the other hand, empathizes with lepers and outcasts, but isn't prepared to devote his or her life to their aid and care. The difference between the two is not just vertical, but horizontal, therefore total. The two groups, according to Jean, are worlds apart.
Jean seems to identify himself as belonging to this latter variety. He wants us to understand that his experience was a personal spiritual experience. It helped his deal with his mother's death, and helped him learn to be a kinder person. It wasn't a message from god telling him to follow a certain religion or to bring that religion to others. If anything, the message is universal and simple: don't be so hard on people, including yourself.
So, if his experience isn't wrapped up in a specific religion, and if it wasn't mystical, then why, does he write, "Everybody is a nun" in his diary after the experience? Head on over to "What's up With the Ending?" for our thoughts on the matter.