Study Guide

For Esmé with Love and Squalor Literature and Writing

By J.D. Salinger

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Though the narrator goes on to admit (kind of) that he's unpublished as of yet, we see that writing is a kind of state of mind – in order to become a writer, one has to envision oneself a writer first.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