Study Guide

For Esmé with Love and Squalor Youth

By J.D. Salinger

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.