Study Guide

For Esmé with Love and Squalor

For Esmé with Love and Squalor Summary

If we're to look at the sheer facts of this story, there really isn't that much to it: an American soldier is in a top secret training program in England, where he meets a rather strange and extraordinary pair of siblings, thirteen-year-old Esmé and five-year-old Charles. He chats with Esmé somewhat superficially about the war, her deceased parents, and her plans for the future, and he kids around with the rather manic Charles. They part ways after exchanging addresses, and Esmé wishes him luck in the war (World War II).

Months later, Sergeant X (the narrator, "cunningly disguised") is recovering from the war; he's on the brink of a nervous breakdown, and can't seem to get a grip on reality. His comrade, Clay, tries unsuccessfully to talk him out of his depression. Upon receiving a letter from Esmé, however, Sergeant X feels a kind of peace settle upon him, and finally is able to relax – her letter gives him the sense that he might just be OK after all.

  • Section 1

    (Note: Salinger didn't divide this story into sections. This Unofficial Section 1 is the part of the story located in Devon, England.)

    • The narrator tells us about a wedding invitation he received recently. Unfortunately, practical matters make his attendance impossible – it's in England (he's in America), and to make matters worse, his mother-in-law is visiting.
    • Instead of actually attending the wedding, the narrator offers his readers (presumably also including the groom, who he doesn't know) some thoughts on the bride, who he met six years ago. Here, the rest of the story moves back in time to the date of this auspicious meeting.
    • Back in 1944, the narrator is a soldier in World War II. He's an American soldier temporarily stationed in Devon, England for a special intelligence (read: spy) course run by the British army.
    • The narrator's fellow soldiers aren't very social; they generally keep to themselves. As a result, the narrator has a lot of alone time, which he spends wandering around town and the countryside.
    • On the last day of the course, the narrator is all set to go – he's packed all his belongings, and has nothing to do. He decides to go into town.
    • Walking through the village, the narrator notices a children's choir practice occurring at the local church and stops to watch.
    • The choir is excellent; one girl, who looks about thirteen, is particularly excellent. Her voice is beautiful, but she seems not to even care, and keeps hiding yawns throughout practice.
    • When the hymn is over, the choir director critiques the performance, and the narrator leaves.
    • The narrator ponders stopping at the Red Cross recreation room, a hangout for soldiers, but it's too crowded for his tastes. Instead, he stops in at a tearoom (what we'd call a coffee shop) for civilians.
    • The narrator settles in at the tearoom and orders tea and cinnamon toast. While he's rereading some rather pedestrian old letters from his wife and mother-in-law, the talented choir member shows up, accompanied by a child that's apparently her younger brother, and their governess.
    • The party chooses a table not far from the narrator's own. The little boy makes some typical little boy trouble and irritates the governess until his sister intervenes and restores the peace.
    • The girl notices the narrator watching them, and offers him a smile. Before he knows it, she's standing at his table, chatting to him.
    • As the narrator and the girl, who is interestingly poised and distinguished for someone her age, converse about various and sundry matters, the narrator notices that she's wearing a man's watch, which looks absurdly big on her tiny wrist.
    • The girl nonchalantly mentions that she wants to be a professional jazz singer and make loads of money when she grows up, and that she wants to move to America (specifically, to a ranch in Ohio, a rather odd choice). She professes to be something of an expert on Americans – the narrator is the eleventh one she's met.
    • The governess makes some annoyed motions, implying that the girl should stop bothering the narrator. The girl blithely ignores these motions, and turns her back to her governess and brother.
    • The girl, unsurprisingly, turns out to be unusually bright. She guesses correctly that the narrator is in town to attend the supposedly secret military intelligence school, though he, of course, denies it.
    • Apparently without malice, the girl comments that the narrator is unusually intelligent – for an American. She explains that most of the American soldiers she's seen don't always act properly; one of them even threw a whisky bottle through her aunt's window.
    • The narrator defends his compatriots, even though he can understand the girl's perspective.
    • In an interesting conversational leap, the girl apologizes for not looking her best – her hair is wet from the rain, and isn't as wavy as it usually is. She's obviously somewhat self-conscious, despite her confident exterior.
    • Comically out of the blue, the girl asks the narrator if he's "very deeply in love" with his wife (35), then apologizes (kind of) if she's being too personal.
    • The narrator responds that he'll tell her if her questions are too personal; notably, he doesn't actually answer the question.
    • The narrator is a little troubled by the girl's enormous wristwatch – it doesn't seem to belong on her at all. He wonders idly if she might wear it around her waist instead.
    • The girl admits that she's usually not so talkative, but that she came over to chat with him because he looked so very lonely, and because he has a "sensitive" face. She gravely admits that she's trying to be more compassionate, since others have told her she's very cold.
    • The girl mentions her family for the first time – she lives with a kind aunt, and her mother, is apparently dead. She asks the narrator if he finds her cold, and he reassures her that she is not.
    • Finally, our two characters introduce themselves: the girl's first name is Esmé, but she won't tell the narrator her full name, since she's an aristocrat, and Americans, she thinks, are often intimidated by noble titles.
    • At this moment, Esmé's little brother arrives to tell her that Miss Megley, the governess, demands that she come back and finish her tea. After saying what he came to say, he sits down between the narrator and Esmé. He's a handsome little boy with huge green eyes.
    • Inexplicably, the boy asks the narrator an odd and hilarious question: "Why do people in films kiss sideways?" (45).
    • The narrator admirably keeps his cool, and answers to the best of his ability, saying that actors' noses are too big for them to kiss straight on.
    • Esmé informs the narrator that the little boy's name is Charles, and that he's considered rather brilliant.
    • In response, Charles acts somewhat un-brilliantly, denying that his eyes are green (he says they're orange), and twisting himself into contortions under the table.
    • Esmé excuses her brother by telling the narrator that he really misses their father, who was killed ("s-l-a-i-n") in the war in North Africa.
    • We hear a little more about Esmé and Charles' parents. Apparently, Charles takes after their mother, while Esmé looks just like their dad. Their father was apparently quite an intellectual, at least in his kids' eyes (Esmé calls him a genius), and something of an introvert. Their mother, on the other hand, was outgoing and passionate.
    • Charles, not to be forgotten, sticks out his tongue and unleashes a loud, rude Bronx cheer (what we could call a big fat raspberry).
    • Esmé, unaffected, tells Charles to stop and again apologizes for him – apparently, it's a habit he picked up from an American he saw once.
    • The narrator sardonically comments that Charles should save this maneuver for when he's grown up enough to use his aristocratic title, if he also has one.
    • Esmé remarks upon the narrator's dry sense of humor, and tells him that her father always said she didn't have a sense of humor, and is therefore unequipped for life. Her father sounds like he really was a wise man.
    • The narrator tries to make her feel better about her perceived lack of humor by saying that it's not important, but she replies that her father thought it was – end of story. Her faith in her father is clear.
    • Esmé comments that Charles misses their dad a lot, and goes on to tell the narrator more things about their adored father, who was both wonderful and handsome, apparently.
    • Charles interjects again, this time to tell a riddle – "What did one wall say to the other wall?"
    • The answer, "Meet you at the corner," drives Charles mad with glee. He can't contain himself.
    • Again, Esmé subdues her exuberant brother, and he sinks back into his seat, triumphant.
    • Esmé changes the subject back to the narrator. She asks what his profession is in non-wartime; he responds that he hasn't been out of college for long, but he calls himself a short story writer (as of yet unpublished, we assume).
    • Esmé interrupts to say that her father was a brilliant writer – she's saving his letters "for posterity."
    • The narrator discovers that the enormous watch belonged to her father, who gave it to her before she and Charles were evacuated (referring to the evacuation of children from London to the countryside during the war). The watch obviously means a lot to her.
    • Again, Esmé changes the subject, this time to ask the narrator to write a short story for her – she's particularly interested in squalor.
    • Before he can ask her to elaborate on this interesting comment, Charles pinches the narrator on the arm and repeats his riddle. Esmé reminds him that he's already asked it, but he ignores her.
    • The narrator fixes Charles' tie, which is crooked, looks him in the eye, and answers the riddle. This is totally uncool with Charles, who is instantly, violently angered. The little boy turns his back and returns to his own table.
    • The time has come for Esmé to leave as well, which she informs the narrator in French. Before they part, she apologizes again for not looking her best, then asks if they can meet up again. Unfortunately, the narrator is leaving the next day, so it's impossible. Esmé offers to write to him, and takes his address.
    • The siblings and Miss Megley finish their tea and leave the tearoom. The narrator feels surprisingly emotional upon their departure.
    • However, his sadness doesn't have to last too long – in a moment, Esmé marches back in with Charles in tow. She basically forces Charles to kiss the narrator goodbye, and as the little boy is about to rush away after delivering a big, wet smack on the cheek, the narrator catches him by his coat and asks Charles' favorite question – "What did one wall say to the other wall?"
    • This was clearly the right thing to do; Charles immediately lights up, screams the answer, and dashes out of the shop, apparently overwhelmed by hilarity.
    • Esmé reminds the narrator to write a story for her, and he promises not to forget. She also reminds him that she would like it to be "extremely squalid and moving" (100). The narrator tells her that he is becoming increasingly familiar with squalor (being in the war and all), and that he will do his best to meet her requirements.
    • The pair shakes hands and says their goodbyes. Esmé thoughtfully wishes the narrator good luck in the war, saying that he makes it back from the war in one piece, "with all [his] faculties intact" (103).
  • Section 2

    (Note: Salinger didn't divide this story into sections. This Unofficial Section 2 is the part of the story that takes place in Germany, following the war)

    • OK, as promised, here's the "squalid" part of this short story for Esmé. The narrator alerts us to an important shift; he's no longer the first person narrator, and is instead a character that he wryly comments is "cunningly" disguised.
    • The scene changes – we're not in England anymore. We're now in Bavaria, Germany, and the war in Europe has just ended.
    • The former narrator, now disguised as "Staff Sergeant X" is quartered in a civilian house with nine other American soldiers. It turns out that he did not, in fact, emerge from the war with all his faculties intact – he has trouble concentrating, and can't keep his thoughts straight. He attempts to read a book, but can't focus on it and gives up.
    • Sergeant X is not in good shape. He's been chain smoking so much that his gums bleed, and he really seems like he's on the edge of some kind of breakdown.
    • He presses his temples to try and make some sense of his thoughts. It doesn't work.
    • Sergeant X notices that his hair is dirty and needs to be cut; we learn that he'd spent two weeks in the hospital after the war, but we're not sure why.
    • We hear about someone named Corporal Z, who drove X back from the hospital – apparently it's his fault for getting X's hair dirty, since he drives his jeep "combat-style" (with the windshield folded down) to show new soldiers that he actually fought in the war.
    • Sergeant X picks up another book, left behind by the house's former occupant (a woman in the Nazi party who was arrested at the end of the war). It's a copy of Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel ("The Time Without Equal"), a collection of essays and articles by Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.
    • Inside the book, its owner has written (in German), "Dear God, life is hell." Sergeant X ponders the truth of this statement, attempting to contradict it.
    • In response, he writes his own comment underneath it: "Fathers and teachers, I ponder 'What is hell?' I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love" (a quote from Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Brothers Karamazov). However, X is distressed to see that his writing is in fact a meaningless, indecipherable scrawl.
    • Sergeant X puts the book aside and picks up a remarkably insensitive letter from his older brother, safely living in Albany, in which the brother asks him to pick up some Nazi mementos for "the kids" now that the war is over.
    • Corporal Z (mentioned earlier) shows up in Sergeant X's room to chat. They're longtime comrades in the war, and served together in five campaigns on the European front. Unlike Sergeant X, Corporal Z seems to have emerged from the war mentally unscathed and untroubled.
    • Corporal Z is an unusually cheerful young man, and he gripes a little about the fact that X is sitting alone in the dark. He barges in on Sergeant X, almost steps on his dog (Alvin), and turns the light on.
    • Z, whose real name is Clay, is wearing an Army shirt with all of his decorations (one of which he's not actually authorized to wear) – he's clearly very proud of his achievements.
    • Clay tries to get X to come and listen to a Bob Hope broadcast on the radio. He's distracted by X's shaking hands, and comments on how terrible X looked when he came back from the hospital.
    • X quickly changes the subject, asking Clay how his girlfriend, Loretta, is doing back home. She writes to Clay regularly, and the latter never fails to read her letters to X, even when they're very personal, and gets X to help him write impressive replies.
    • Clay and X discuss some business – they're supposed to leave super early the next morning to go and pick up new jackets for the rest of their unit, and X complains. Both of them grumble about the Army bureaucracy.
    • Clay notes with interest that X has a nervous tic on the side of his face, and cheerfully announces that he wrote to Loretta about X's nervous breakdown (apparently why he was in the hospital).
    • Loretta is apparently majoring in psychology, and is therefore something of an authority in Clay's eyes. She responded that nobody gets a nervous breakdown "just" from being in the war, and that X must have been unstable throughout his whole life.
    • X sarcastically comments on how much he enjoys Loretta's deep thoughts; Clay gets defensive, and there's a moment of tension between them.
    • Clay says he's leaving, but stays to talk about something that's clearly been bothering him a bit – he reminds X of an incident that happened to them during the war. The two of them were under shell fire for hours, and, at the end, Clay shot and killed a cat that jumped up on the hood of their jeep.
    • Apparently, Clay wrote to Loretta about this strange, unsettling incident, and she discussed it with her psychology class. They decided that Clay was temporarily insane because of the stress of the shelling, which explains the murder of the cat.
    • X responds sardonically that Clay wasn't insane, but that he was doing his duty in the war – he grimly jokes that the cat was a German spy and deserved what it got.
    • Clay is understandably upset by this sarcastic reply, and angrily demands why X can't just be sincere.
    • X is sickened by this exchange, and has to throw up in the wastebasket.
    • Clay, embarrassed, tries to make X feel better, and asks him to come down to listen to the radio broadcast with everyone else. X refuses, claiming wryly that he has to look at his stamp collection (he doesn't actually have a stamp collection).
    • Clay leaves, after asking if X will help him out with some German words in his next letter to Loretta. He tries again to cheer X up, telling his friend that his mother is glad they've been together through the whole war, since it's made his letters smarter.
    • After Clay leaves, Sergeant X shuffles around his old, unopened letters, and tries to write a letter to a friend in New York. However, he can't calm himself down enough to get paper in the typewriter, and gives up.
    • Head aching, X shuts his eyes for a moment, trying to gain control. When he opens his eyes, he notices a small, green package that looks like it's been trying to get to him for a while – it's got a bunch of his old Army addresses on it.
    • X opens the package halfheartedly. Inside, there's an item wrapped in tissue paper, and a handwritten note.
    • It turns out that the package is from Esmé, who writes with the same hilarious, endearing deadpan tone that she speaks with. The letter was written about a year earlier, before the end of the war in Europe. She sends her regards and apologies for not writing earlier, and wishes him well. There are even a few words from Charles (mostly just "HELLO" over and over again).
    • The object enclosed is Esmé's father's precious watch, which she sends as a "lucky talisman" for X to keep for the rest of the war.
    • X holds on to the letter for a long time; we're not sure what exactly he's thinking about. He slowly pulls the watch out of its wrappings, and notices that its crystal is broken; he doesn't check yet to see if it still works.
    • X sits holding the watch for a while, and then suddenly is hit by a merciful wave of sleepiness. We get the feeling that X hasn't slept for a long, long time, and that this feeling of exhaustion is a kind of relief and release.
    • Finally, the story's last lines directly address Esmé for the first time, telling her that a really sleepy man can always become a man with his faculties intact once more. There's hope for poor Sergeant X, after all, all because of a lonely girl and her father's watch.