"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'
Why does Salinger choose to depict the Americans as 'the Other,' rather than the English?
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?
What is the narrator's own view of his peers in the American army?
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.