Study Guide

For Esmé with Love and Squalor Love

By J.D. Salinger

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.

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