Study Guide

For Esmé with Love and Squalor Themes

By J.D. Salinger

  • Youth

    Youth is kind of the guiding light of "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor" – the war-scarred protagonist is brought back to life by a letter from a young friend of his, whose strength and resilience reminds him that life can go on. However, these noble traits aren't the only things that recommend youth here; Salinger is also really interested in its delightful, whimsical quality. This story occasionally has something of a "kids say the darnedest things!" tone; we, the readers, are asked to see youth as amazing both for its strength and its hilarity, two things that the author captures amazingly well.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Why is the narrator so taken by Esmé? What is it about her character that fascinates him?
    2. Youth is often depicted as a time of folly and poor judgment, but not here. How does Salinger characterize youth in this story?
    3. In your opinion, what are the narrator's feelings with regards to youth and childhood?
    4. The narrator himself is a young man – how do you view his development over the course of the story?

    Chew on This

    The strength, innocence, and resilience of childhood are the only things that can counteract the horrors of war in "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor."

    "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor" is at the same time a war story and a joint coming-of-age story, for both Esmé and the narrator.

  • Warfare

    War is bad. If you didn't already know this, just read "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor" to understand just how bad. Despite the fact that we don't see any of the stereotypical elements of a war story here, we see its terrible fallout, in the form of our protagonist, a character who is basically destroyed by his experience of battle. We also see what war does to the innocents that don't even participate in it (for example, children who lose parents in it). In some ways, not seeing the events of the war in this story make it all the more horrifying – instead, Salinger simply hints at it, and asks us to imagine the terror of war ourselves.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How is war depicted in this story? What does it mean for different characters?
    2. The narrator remarks early on that he is getting better acquainted with "squalor." Do you think this is a broad statement about the nature of war, or do you think that the narrator's individual nature makes him particularly sensitive to the "squalid" quality of war?
    3. Is there any point to war as depicted in this story, or is it simply a futile exercise?

    Chew on This

    In Salinger's short story, the association of war with "squalor" breaks down any notions of the nobility or pride of fighting for one's country.

    The removal of any political elements renders war seemingly meaningless, and thus more traumatic, in "For Esmé – With Love and Squalor."

  • Love

    OK, this is the story of a grown man and a thirteen-year-old girl, so you might be alarmed to see "Love" as one of the themes. However, don't flip your wig – this isn't Lolita, and we're certainly not talking about romantic love here. No, instead we're talking about other kinds of love – for example, familial love, friendship, even a hint of bromance. Love, says "For Esmé," comes in all different kinds, and all of it is productive. This is a story of simple human connection, and what a fundamental impact it can have on a life, even in the darkest of times.

    Questions About Love

    1. Love is something that lurks in the background here – nobody ever comes out and says "I love you," or even "I love So-and-So." What role does love play in this story?
    2. The narrator tellingly doesn't answer Esmé's question about his love for his wife. Judging from the snippets we glean about his various family members (his wife, mother-in-law, older brother), do you think his loved ones understand him? What is the relationship between love and understanding here?
    3. We've looked at youthful resilience as a potential source of hope at the end of this story – is love possibly another one? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The one thing that keeps Esmé going is her abiding love for her father; this love is the source of her strength.

    The narrator's own life is possibly devoid of real love, yet he is inspired by Esmé's capacity for it – though she herself is concerned about her coldness, he sees that she truly loves her family, and this ability to love is what makes her so compelling.

  • Literature and Writing

    Any time you have a writer writing a story about a writer, you just know that literature is going to be a big deal. "For Esmé" is no different. While this story is, on one hand, about a soldier going through a war, it's also about a writer learning how to find his voice. There are several moments in the story where we are reminded that our protagonist is a writer, both by his words and his actions. So, we constantly have to ask ourselves what the events of the story have to do with his ultimate destiny – which is to become the guy writing the story (whew, is that meta or what!).

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why is it significant that the protagonist of this story is also its supposed writer?
    2. What role do letters play in this story?
    3. The narrator was an unpublished writer before he went off to war. Do you think this fact changes once he returns (with his faculties intact)? Why or why not?
    4. What is the significance of the scene with the Goebbels book and the commentary included inside it? Why might this moment of crisis for Sergeant X be communicated through a book – and this particular book (a collection of Nazi propaganda)?

    Chew on This

    The ultimate destiny of the narrator/Sergeant X, to become a real writer, could not come to pass without his experience in the war.

    One of the "faculties" that Sergeant X loses and regains after the war is the faculty of writing; we see him lose control of his own ability to write in Gaufurt, but, from the story's frame narrative, we know that he ultimately regains it.

  • Foreignness and 'the Other'

    "For Esmé" plays upon a common theme of war fiction, the idea of the American soldier abroad. The way people elsewhere (in this case, in England) view Americans is a central theme here. When looking back on World War II, Americans tend to view themselves pretty unilaterally as the good guys, but this story, written by an American author, highlights the fact that, even though US soldiers were fighting on the right side, it doesn't mean that they're all heroes. In fact, the story examines the whole idea of wartime heroics in a questioning light.

    Questions About Foreignness and 'the Other'

    1. Why does Salinger choose to depict the Americans as 'the Other,' rather than the English?
    2. Though the narrator gently berates Esmé for her stereotyping of Americans, he secretly agrees with her. Why doesn't he tell her that he agrees?
    3. What is the narrator's own view of his peers in the American army?
    4. Do you think this depiction of the grating relationship between Americans and non-Americans would remain true even after the war? What about in your own experience?

    Chew on This

    The tension between the American soldiers and the English civilians they interact with further destabilizes the myth of wartime heroism.

    The narrator's unconventional sympathy for the arrested German woman whose house he and the other soldiers live in demonstrates his understanding of the suffering inflicted on people on both sides of the war.