Study Guide

For Esmé with Love and Squalor Quotes

  • Youth

    I ignored the flashes of lightning around me. They either had your number on them or they didn't. (4)

    At this early stage in the story, the narrator still has the confidence (some might say arrogance) of youth. He believes in luck, and has a certain feeling of devil-may-care invincibility that we're all fairly familiar with.

    They sang without instrumental accompaniment – or, more accurately in their case, without any interference. Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation. (7)

    The children's voices create the most peaceful moment in this story – the "unsentimental," innocent quality of the choir represents a peace that can't be found anywhere else.

    Listening, I scanned all the children's faces but watched one in particular, that of the child nearest me, on the end seat in the first row. She was about thirteen, with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that, I thought, might very possibly have counted the house. (7)

    This, our first glimpse of Esmé, shows her unique blend of child and adult – her "blasé" eyes betray the fact that she's somewhat older than her years, though not as old as she thinks she is.

    The young boy, who was about five, wasn't ready to sit down yet. He slid out of and discarded his reefer; then, with the deadpan expression of a born heller, he methodically went about annoying his governess by pushing in and pulling out his chair several times, watching her face. (10)

    The narrator betrays a certain admiration for the little boy's gutsy behavior here – there's a kind of nostalgia for the good old days of childhood, when any behavior was permissible.

    "You go to that secret Intelligence school on the hill, don't you?" she inquired coolly.

    As security minded as the next one, I replied that I was visiting Devonshire for my health.

    "Really," she said, "I wasn't quite born yesterday, you know." (23-25)

    This typical pre-teen statement reminds us of something we should never forget as adults: kids are not as gullible as we think (or hope) they are.

    "[Charles] misses our father very much. He was s-l-a-i-n in North Africa." (51)

    Even though Esmé herself is a child, she feels the need to protect her little brother ("s-l-a-i-n").

    It went over biggest with Charles himself. It struck him as unbearably funny. In fact, Esmé had to come around and pound him on the back, as if treating him for a coughing spell. "Now, stop that," she said. She went back to her own seat. "He tells the same riddle to everyone he meets and has a fit every single time. Usually he drools when he laughs. Now, just stop, please." (68)

    Charles embodies the sheer joy of being a child – no matter how many times he tells the wall riddle, he loves it every time. The two siblings are like a classic comedy act – Charles is the goof, and Esmé is the straight man. The funniest thing is, they don't even know it.

    "I'd be extremely flattered if you'd write a story exclusively for me sometime. I'm an avid reader."

    I told her I certainly would, if I could. I said that I wasn't terribly prolific.

    "It doesn't have to be terribly prolific! Just so that it isn't childish and silly." She reflected. "I prefer stories about squalor."

    "About what?" I said, leaning forward.

    "Squalor. I'm extremely interested in squalor." (76-79)

    This passage is perhaps the best example of Esmé's charming, contradictory nature. Though she's really concerned with being a grownup (she doesn't want a childish story), she's still a child at heart, and her over-seriousness and incomplete understanding here reveal her youth more than anything.

  • Warfare

    I remember standing at an end window of our Quonset hut for a very long time, looking out at the slanting, dreary rain, my trigger finger itching imperceptibly, if at all. I could hear behind my back the uncomradely scratching of many fountain pens on many sheets of V-mail paper. (4)

    This brief passage instantly debunks any myths we may have of eager, gung-ho soldiers who can't wait to see battle – these soldiers are bored, not looking forward to fighting, and more interested in writing letters home than singing war songs and looking forward to action.

    I told her that I'd never written a story for anybody, but that it seemed like exactly the right time to get down to it.

    She nodded. "Make it extremely squalid and moving," she suggested. "Are you at all acquainted with squalor?"

    I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time, and that I'd do my best to come up to her specifications. We shook hands. (100-102)

    Of course the narrator is getting better acquainted with squalor – after all, he is in a war, and, in this story, war = squalor.

    "Goodbye," Esmé said. "I hope you return from the war with all your faculties intact." (103)

    This seems like a faintly grim thing to say – as though the best to hope for is returning with one's faculties merely intact. However, Esmé doesn't mean for it to be interpreted this way; coming from her, it's the equivalent of "Good luck!" However, we can't help but think of it the first way, which is fairly accurate.

    […] he was a young man who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact, and for more than an hour he had been triple-reading paragraphs, and now he was doing it to the sentences. He suddenly closed the book, without marking his place. (106)

    These overt clues tell us that this new character, Sergeant X, is actually our old friend, the narrator, "cunningly disguised" by the third person narrator. And we learn that in the intervening time, war has done something terrible to him. He has, in fact, not entirely survived it.

    By driving with his windshield down, combat-style, Corporal Z hoped to show that he was not one of them, that not by a long shot was he some new son of a bitch in the E.T.O. (107)

    This comment, which describes Sergeant X's comrade, Corporal Z, describes the combined feeling of pride and aggression he feels after the war – aggression, interestingly, not directed at the enemy, but at the new members of his own side.

    He put his arms on a table and rested his head on them. He ached from head to foot, all zones of pain seemingly interdependent. He was rather like a Christmas tree whose lights, wired in series, must all go out if even one bulb is defective. (110)

    This incredible description sums up the total damage the war has brought upon Sergeant X – even if he's physically OK, the "one bulb" of his mind isn't functioning right, and breaks down everything else.

    Over the left-hand pocket he was wearing the Combat Infantrymen's Badge (which, technically, he wasn't authorized to wear), the European Theatre ribbon, with five bronze battle stars in it (instead of a lone silver one, which was the equivalent of five bronze ones), and the pre-Pearl Harbor service ribbon. He signed heavily and said, "Christ Almighty." It meant nothing; it was Army. (113)

    The "It meant nothing" refers ironically to two things: first, and more straightforwardly, the oath, "Christ Almighty." More significantly, the meaninglessness of Clay's show-offy display of his decorations – he thinks they mean something, but they're really just empty, worthless signs.

    "No, you know the reason I took a pot shot at it, Loretta says? She says I was temporarily insane. No kidding. From the shelling and all."

    X threaded his fingers, once, through his dirty hair, then shielded his eyes against the light again. "You weren't insane. You were simply doing your duty. You killed that pussycat in as manly a way as anybody could've under the circumstances."

    Clay looked at him suspiciously. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"

    "That cat was a spy. You had to take a pot shot at it. It was a very clever German midget dressed up in a cheap fur coat. So there was absolutely nothing brutal, or cruel, or dirty, or even – "

    "God damn it!" Clay said, his lips thinned. "Can't you ever be sincere?"

    X suddenly felt sick, and he swung around in his chair and grabbed the wastebasket – just in time.

    The problem here is that Clay is right – X has seemingly lost his capacity of sincerity, and this realization makes him physically ill. The war has taken its toll on his inner self, and the cruel, sarcastic X we see here is dramatically different from the kind, kid-friendly narrator we know from the first part.

  • Love

    I then looked through all my pockets, including my raincoat, and finally found a couple of stale letters to reread, one from my wife, telling me how the service at Schrafft's Eighty-Eighth street had fallen off, and one from my mother-in-law, asking me to please send her some cashmere yarn first chance I got away from "camp." (9)

    These letters are interestingly unsentimental and devoid of any trace of affection – you'd think that if your husband/son-in-law/brother were away in a distant land fighting a war, you might be a little more loving. However, all of the narrator's relationships at home seem to be strangely dull and lackluster.

    "Are you very deeply in love with your wife? Or am I being too personal?"

    I said that when she was, I'd speak up. (35-36)

    Hmm. Note that the narrator doesn't actually answer the question. Is he very deeply in love with his banal-sounding wife? We're not sure.

    "I'm training myself to be more compassionate. My aunt says I'm a terribly cold person […] Do you find me terribly cold?"

    "I told her absolutely not – very much to the contrary, in fact. (40-42)

    Esmé recognizes that love and compassion are important, and is concerned that she doesn't have enough.

    She bit reflectively at the cuticle of her thumb. "He looks very much like my mother – Charles, I mean. I look exactly like my father." She went on biting at her cuticle. "My mother was quite a passionate woman. She was an extrovert. Father was an introvert. They were quite well mated, though, in a superficial way. To be quite candid, Father really needed more of an intellectual companion than Mother was. He was an extremely gifted genius." (53)

    Though Esmé's evaluation of her parents' relationship seems cold and scientific, she betrays some carefully hidden emotion, through her nervous nail-biting and her façade of objectivity. Underneath this front, she obviously really loves and misses her parents, especially her father.

    Esmé gave me a long, faintly clinical look. "You have a dry sense of humor, haven't you" she said – wistfully. "Father said I have no sense of humor at all. He said I was unequipped to meet life because I have no sense of humor."

    Watching her, I lit a cigarette and said I didn't think a sense of humor was of any use in a real pinch.

    "Father said it was."

    This was a statement of faith, not a contradiction, and I quickly switched horses. I nodded and said her father had probably taken the long view, while I was taking the short (whatever that meant).

    "Charles misses him exceedingly," Esmé said, after a moment. "He was an exceedingly lovable man." (58-62)

    Esmé's unshakeable faith in her father and her desire to please him hasn't faded with his death – she's obviously still really hung up on this, despite the fact that she insists that it's Charles who misses their father (though he seems largely unaffected).

    Charles led the way out, limping tragically, like a man with one leg several inches shorter than the other. He didn't look over at me. Miss Megley went next, then Esmé, who waved at me. I waved back, half getting up from my chair. It was a strangely emotional moment for me. (93)

    It's a strangely emotional moment for us, too. We haven't really seen the narrator feel anything up to this point – especially with regards to his supposed loved ones back home – yet, here, he feels a kind of loss (or something) as the children leave. We're not sure exactly what it is, or if it can be classified as a kind of love, or perhaps nostalgia, or both, but we feel it, too.

    […] with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, "Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love." He started to write Dostoevski's name under the inscription, but saw – with a fright that ran through his whole body – that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book. (108)

    Could it be that the kind of hell Dostoevsky summons up here, that of being unable to love, is the same hell Sergeant X feels he has fallen into?

    It was a long time before X could set the note aside, let alone lift Esmé's father's wristwatch out of the box. When he finally did lift it out, he saw that its crystal had been broken in transit. He wondered if the watch was otherwise undamaged, but he hadn't the courage to wind it and find out. He just sat with it in his hand for another long period. Then, suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy. (162)

    This final proof that someone genuinely cares for him – which is all the more special, considering that the watch is Esmé's precious memento of her father – creates a heartbreaking moment of relief for Sergeant X. The doubts that he had about surviving with his ability to love intact (see the Dostoevsky quote) seem to finally be resolved by this gift.

    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)

    These memorable closing lines are a final expression of love and gratitude for Esmé, whose letter and gift brought Sergeant X back to real life. In effect, she restored his mental and emotional faculties. The spelling out of the latter is the narrator's way of reminding us of the fact that only a child's innocent, truly sincere friendship was able to remove the war's curse of loveless insincerity.

  • Literature and Writing

    Nobody's aiming to please, here. More really to edify, to instruct. (2)

    This is kind of the purpose of literature in this story – in essence, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The narrator implies that it is more important to "edify," to enlighten, rather than to make up a nice story.

    I'd packed all my belongings into my barrack bag, including a canvas gas-mask container full of books I'd brought over from the Other Side. (The gas mask itself I'd slipped through a porthole of the Mauretania some weeks earlier, fully aware that if the enemy ever did use gas, I'd never get the damn thing on in time). (4)

    This quote reveals a lot about the narrator – to him, books are more important than a theoretically life-saving device like a gas mask.

    "May I inquire how you were employed before entering the Army?" Esmé asked me.

    I said I hadn't been employed at all, that I'd only been out of college a year but that I like to think of myself as a professional short-story writer. (70-71)

    Though the narrator goes on to admit (kind of) that he's unpublished as of yet, we see that writing is a kind of state of mind – in order to become a writer, one has to envision oneself a writer first.

    "My father wrote beautifully," Esmé interrupted. "I'm saving a number of his letters for posterity." (74)

    This offhand comment emphasizes the idea we see throughout the story that letters are a kind of physical extension of their writers – written material has some kind of power to preserve, whether in letters or short stories.

    This is the squalid, or moving, part of the story, and the scene changes. The people change, too. I'm still around, but from here on in, for reasons I'm not at liberty to disclose, I've disguised myself so cunningly that even the cleverest reader will fail to recognize me. (105)

    This writerly intrusion reminds us that we are, in fact, reading a short story that he, the narrator/writer is in the midst of writing. This moment is an interesting one – it's a direct communication with the narrator, in which he gently reminds us that this isn't just a story about war, it's also one about reading and writing.

    […] with far more zeal than he had done anything in weeks, he picked up a pencil stub and wrote down under the inscription, in English, "Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love." He started to write Dostoevski's name under the inscription, but saw – with a fright that ran through his whole body – that what he had written was almost entirely illegible. He shut the book. (108)

    We know that books used to be the narrator's lifeblood, exemplified by the fact that he ditched his gas mask to make room for more books. Here, Sergeant X attempts to find some solace again in literature – even believes for a moment that he will – only to be horrified that even this has become impossible.

  • Foreignness and 'the Other'

    "I thought Americans despised tea," [Esmé] said.

    It wasn't the observation of a smart aleck but that of a truth-lover or a statistics-lover. I replied that some of us never drank anything but tea. (11-12)

    The "otherness" of the American soldiers is highlighted here – they're out of place in this small English town, and their perceived difference is notable.

    I bit into a piece of toast myself, and commented that there's some mighty rough country around Ohio.
    "I know. An American I met told me. You're the eleventh American I've met." (21-22)

    Americans are something of a novelty to Esmé – she collects them like any other interesting and strange item.

    "You seem quite intelligent for an American," my guest mused.

    I told her that was a pretty snobbish thing to say, if you thought about it at all, and that I hoped it was unworthy of her.

    She blushed – automatically conferring on me the social poise I'd been missing. "Well. Most of the Americans I've seen act like animals. They're forever punching another about, and insulting everyone, and – You know what one of them did?"

    I shook my head.

    "One of them threw an empty whiskey bottle through my aunt's window. Fortunately, the window was open. But does that sound very intelligent to you?"

    It didn't especially, but I didn't say so. (27-31)

    OK, so Esmé has some negative stereotypes of Americans, but she's not entirely wrong, and the narrator knows it. He recognizes that his compatriots don't always act as they should, but still defends their despicable behavior, out of some patriotic sentiment.

    "My first name is Esmé. I don't think I shall tell you my full name, for the moment. I have a title and you may just be impressed by titles. Americans are, you know." (43)

    Again, we get the feeling that Esmé doesn't think that Americans quite understand the English and their culture – and she's probably kind of right, albeit in a ridiculous way.