"For Esmé" allows Salinger to show off his mad skills with regards to tone – the two section of the story are like day and night. The first half is lighthearted, dryly comic, and chatty; the first person narrator's interaction with the two children has a terrific mock-seriousness (combined with a sense of real, earnest actual seriousness) that's incredibly fun to read, as well as touching. Salinger is always at his best in dialogue-heavy scenes, and his naturally conversational rhythm captures the alternately hilarious and sweet exchange between the narrator, Esmé, and Charles.
The second half of the story is a horse of a completely different color. It's cynical, grim, wartime drama, and Salinger shifts his tone accordingly. The move of the narration into the third person separates us and alienates us from our protagonist, who we now see at a distance, and the overall tone is much darker and totally serious. There's dialogue here, too, but it's far from lighthearted – it's cynical, sarcastic, and has an edge of cruelty that's particularly distressing after the innocent, kindhearted first half of the story. This marked contrast in tone is fundamentally important in our reading of the story as a whole.
The war is the driving force behind this story, and it's essential to both the events of the plot, and the emotional transformations we see here. The narrator/Sergeant X is a soldier, just as Salinger himself was, and we see how war wreaks havoc upon him as an individual being. We also see the impact of the war on people seemingly removed from it, like Esmé and Charles, whose lives were changed by the coming of war – their father was killed in North Africa. Even though this is really the story of individual human relationships, the wartime setting is central to our understanding of it.
This gem of a short story is a gift – specifically, a wedding present from the narrator to Esmé, a very special young lady. We learn that the narrator, a writer, promised Esmé that he would write a story for her someday, and, on the occasion of her wedding (years after the original promise was made), he finally makes good on his word.
The younger Esmé, an avid reader, hilariously claimed that she was very interested in "squalor" – and as a result, we have a story that claims to embody both "Love and Squalor." The "squalor" refers to the narrator's experience of World War II and its aftermath; in the second half of the story, the narrator (not so cunningly disguised as Sergeant X) reflects upon his near nervous breakdown following the war. Here, we see that the story is not just a wedding present, but also a thank you gift: it's the narrator's way of telling Esmé how her youthful determination gave him hope and helped him get over the trauma of the war.
The story's final, admittedly rather cryptic line, "You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac – with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact" (163) refers to an earlier point in our tale. About midway through the story, as Esmé and the narrator (later known as Sergeant X) part ways at the tearoom, she gravely tells him that she hopes he makes it through the war "with all [his] faculties intact" (103).
Months later, after the war has ended, it turns out that Sergeant X didn't in fact leave the front unscathed; when we meet him again, he's on the brink of a nervous breakdown. However, one thing does bring him back from his depression – Esmé's letter. Her serious, earnest, and unintentionally comical missive gives him a sense of relief, and he finally feels some release of the tension he's been carrying around. For the first time in a long time, Sergeant X is able to let himself go a little, and finally feel healthily, productively sleepy. The story's closing line is a final "Thank you" to Esmé herself for bringing the narrator back from the war in one piece (mentally, that is).
The first setting we find ourselves in is the idyllic, albeit rainy, peaceful English countryside. Even though it's wartime, some semblance of normal life seems to persevere in Devonshire – we're reminded that, even during a time of international crisis, life goes on in some places. Children still go to choir practice, and families still go out for tea in the same old shops in town.
However, underneath this placid exterior, all is not well. We learn that even Esmé and Charles have been touched by the war; their father was presumably killed in action in North Africa, and, since their mother is already dead, they are now orphans, living with a kind aunt in Devon. Like Esmé herself, things in this safe part of the world that remain untouched by battle may look lovely on the outside, but, under the surface, there are unseen depths of sorrow.
OK, cut to Gaufurt, Germany, just after Victory-in-Europe Day (the end of the European war): this is a totally different story. This town wears its sorrows on its sleeve – Sergeant X and his fellow American soldiers are actually living in a house seized from an arrested Nazi official, and the reminders of loss, sorrow, and destruction are all around them. Sergeant X is totally steeped in the horrors of war, even though the fighting is technically over, and his setting – the abandoned home of someone else whose life will be forever marked by the war – plays an important role in his psychological condition. He's disgusted by the happy-go-lucky attitude of the other soldiers (represented by Colonel Z) who manage to hide away their negative memories of the war, and focus on living it up now that the Allies have won.
The idea that the American soldiers are living the high life, only caring about their stylish new Eisenhower jackets and how many medals they can wear at once, while they inhabit the ruined former home of their enemy, is incredibly depressing. However, this setting is like the inverse of the initial setting in Devon – things look grim on the outside, but Esmé's letter proves that there's some hope to be found deep down inside individual human beings, even Sergeant X.
This is considered to be a classic New Yorker short story – that is to say, like the best of the short stories published by this landmark magazine, it's sleek, elegant, and beautifully constructed. Salinger doesn't waste any time or words here, and "For Esmé" thrives within its rather minimal boundaries…or perhaps because of them. There are no paragraphs of flowery description, nor are there even many exhibitions of authorial power; even when we move back and forth in time and location, the narrator just gives us the basic facts and lets us figure out everything else for ourselves. His transitions are quick and smooth, as in the beginning of the story, where he announces that he's going to write about the bride as he knew her several years ago – and suddenly, we're back in April of 1944 (3). Salinger lets his characters do the talking (the bulk of the story is brilliantly timed and reported dialogue), and doesn't interfere with them too much. The end result is a story that relies heavily upon character development and true-to-life conversation, which feels like a series of moments from real life.
The huge, chronograph-like watch that Esmé sports is really the only continuing visual symbol that we encounter in the story. From the beginning, the oddness of the huge watch on the girl's tiny wrist disturbs the narrator, and unsettles us, his readers, as well. When Esmé explains that it belonged to her deceased father, who gave it to her "purely as a momento" (76), it all clicks into place; the watch, which Esmé rather self-consciously but proudly wears, is the visually disturbing representation of her hidden (and not-so-hidden) and unresolved grief for her father. By carrying around this unwieldy object, she maintains some connection with him, despite the fact that she won't admit that she actually misses him, instead emphasizing the fact that Charles, the younger sibling, misses their parents a great deal.
Why, then, does Esmé send the watch to Sergeant X? One very literal interpretation might be that she sees in him another father figure, and therefore associates him with the watch. However, we think it's more subtle than that – Esmé sends it as a good luck token, and invests the watch with all of her complicated emotions about the war (her love and longing for her father, her fears and hopes about the outcome of the war, and her concern for Sergeant X).
There's a great concern in this story about writing things down and getting them right – the narrator, as a writer, is interested in communicating events as directly and authentically as he can, as we see in his style of direct reportage and extensive quoting of dialogue. We also see this concern in other characters. Esmé, after all, is saving her dad's letters "for posterity" (74) in order to preserve a part of her beloved father; there's something about saving someone's own words and voice that allows readers to keep them alive in a way. Clay is also very interested in letters, but his are kind of different – instead of being true-to-life, he gets Sergeant X to help him improve his letters to make him look better to his mom and Loretta. This is another interesting use of writing; here, it helps Clay become the war hero he dreams of being, at least in the eyes of the ones he loves.
For the section we've been calling "Unofficial Part 1" of the story, we deal with a very opinionated, quite charming, first person narrator, who actually re-emerges right at the end of the story (in the final paragraph). We only hear his thoughts, and his distinctively humorous voice colors our view of the first part of the story.
In the second half, however, this first person narrator abdicates his power, and switches suddenly to the third person. This shift creates something of a sense of alienation and distance – we were used to knowing everything our narrator was thinking, and feeling like we were having a conversation with him, but all of a sudden, we're kind of out in the cold. Through the limited omniscient gaze of the third person narrator, we see the thoughts and feelings of Sergeant X (the character of our first person narrator, seen from a slight distance), but we're somewhat removed from him now. This serves the function of showing us the impact the war has had on Sergeant X over the past year – he's a very different man from the one we met in England.
During the "Falling Stage," the hero falls under a "dark power." Early in the story, we don't exactly know why war is a "dark power" yet, but we do know that war is generally considered to be a bad thing.
This peaceful afternoon in the tearoom is kind of the calm before the storm. The soldier knows that he's about to depart for military action, and we know that the threat of battle is immanent. However, he's still able to enjoy this reprieve from the war.
Time has elapsed, and a lot has happened in the life of the soldier over the last year. He's seen action at D-Day and beyond, and now that the war in Europe is over, his soul has yet to recover. Sergeant X, as he's now known, is emotionally numb and alienated from his former self.
This is not the soldier we knew from the tearoom – all of a sudden, we see just how much the war has warped him. We worry, as he does, that he'll never find himself again.
During the "Rebirth Stage," the hero is redeemed, usually by a woman or child. Esmé (who is fortuitously both a young woman and a child) helps the soldier reconnect with the world, and with his old self. Finally, there's light at the end of the tunnel – it looks like he just might pull through.
"For Esmé – With Love and Squalor" isn't exactly a classically plotted story – for the life of us, we couldn't get it to fit into the parameters set by the classic plot analysis. Rather than going in peaks and falls like a more traditional story, this piece goes along at a more consistent pace; it captures the rhythm of regular, everyday dialogue, and, rather than relating a series of events, it relates conversations and states of mind – it's more of a character study than a conventional story. So basically…tough cookies. No analysis here.
Basically, the first section of the story (the tearoom scene) – lasts until the shift in time and place.
Sergeant X's post-breakdown breakdown is Act II; just after Clay leaves, he's on the brink of utter despair.
Act III begins with Sergeant X listlessly opening the mysterious green package, and finally throws his optimistic readers a bone – Esmé's letter brings the half-dead man back to life.