Muriel and the three other adult women in the story are painted in a most unflattering light, bordering on a caricature (all they talk about is fashion, even while dismissing the importance of Seymour's mental illness). Their world, priorities, and actions are judged and condemned as materialistic and shallow. As far as Seymour's death is concerned, the authorial tone maintains its distance from the topic at hand, betraying no real opinion of its own on the matter. The author leaves it up to his reader to interpret this tale.
"A Perfect Day for Bananafish" isn't interested in plot or suspense as much as in character and theme. Salinger's narrative technique, dialogue, and powers of characterization have been praised by many critics, as has the structure and effect of "Bananafish" in particular. The psychological complexity of Seymour Glass and the story's enigmatic conclusion have given it solid standing in the short story canon.
The bananafish are one of the story's key symbols. To understand what's going on here, we've got to take a closer look at the text:
"This is a perfect day for bananafish. […] Their habits are very peculiar. […] They lead a very tragic life. […] You know what they do, Sybil? […] Well, they swim into a hole where there's a lot of bananas. They're very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I've known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas. […] Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again. Can't fit through the door."
[…] "What happens to them?"
"Oh, you mean after they eat so many bananas they can't get out of the banana hole? […] Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die. […] They get banana fever. It's a terrible disease." (2.71-83)
As with most of "Bananafish," there's no one answer or clear interpretation here. One angle you might take is to think about the story's spiritual or Zen Buddhism theme. (See "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for an introduction to this theme.) By stuffing themselves full of bananas, the bananafish are focusing physical needs or pleasures. This is not unlike the materialistic adults in the story (such as Muriel, Muriel's mother, and Mrs. Carpenter) with their talk of clothes, fashion, or drinks. Seymour, who sees more, is aware of this sort of gluttony and wants to avoid it all costs. He doesn't want to gorge himself on bananas.
Which leads us nicely into the discussion of "What's Up with the Ending?" If Seymour is enlightened, then killing himself is a way of triumphing over any material impulses. If Seymour is filled with shame at his death, it may be that he suspects himself of such "banana-fever." (Maybe when Sybil exclaims that she's seen a bananafish, Seymour thinks he's talking about him.) Go ahead and check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for more thoughts.
Why does Seymour commit suicide? This is possibly one of the most highly-debated short story questions of the last fifty years. There are dozens of theories, and we can't be sure which one of them is "right." It could be that Salinger wrote his story with some specific reason in mind; or it could be that he intentionally left it ambiguous. It also might be, as we argue in "What's Up with the Epigraph," that the "answer" to this question can't be logically conceptualized. In any case, here's a little pupu platter of Seymour theories:
#1) Innocence, Children, and the War
Let's not forget that Seymour's mental troubles are the result of the war, and that he's suffering from what today we would probably call post-traumatic stress disorder (though this term wasn't yet around when Salinger was writing). We infer that Seymour has witnessed some awful things during his time in the service, and that he's having a hard time readjusting to being home. We see that he's retreated into a largely insular world, and that he's no longer comfortable interacting with most adults. Sybil offers him a glimpse of the world as he would like it to be – innocent, curious, and pure – but his interaction with the woman in the elevator reminds him that the adult world is actually nothing like this. Unable to cope with reality, and unable to function normally, Seymour turns to suicide.
#2) Seymour Is Enlightened
This theory makes more sense if you've read some of Salinger's other works about Seymour, or in particular if you're looking at "Bananafish" as part of the collection Nine Stories. As hinted at in the epigraph to Nine Stories, there is a common theme of Zen Buddhism in Salinger's work. "Bananafish," the first story of the collection, and "Teddy," the final story, both deal with this theme, though the latter far more explicitly. In "Teddy," a young child genius is somewhat of a Zen master. He discusses his flirtation with enlightenment in a previous life, and he casually foretells his own death.
It's interesting to note that both "Bananafish" and "Teddy" end with the death of the main character. At first, the tone of these deaths may seem very different. Teddy calmly accepts his accidental death as a step on the road to enlightenment, and there is tranquility even in the jarring ending. What of the conclusion to Bananafish, though? Is it a jarring, painful ending, quite different from that of Teddy? Or is Seymour's death, too, a calm and accepting step in the right spiritual direction? In "Teddy," for example, the title character explains that death is in many ways like waking up. It's no coincidence that Muriel is sleeping in the bed nearby when Seymour puts the gun to his head. He's waking up; she's still asleep.
Consider the idea of the bananafish. We flesh out this idea a but more in "What's Up with the Title?" The short version, though, is that the gluttonous bananafish may represent the material obsessions of people. Seymour doesn't want to be like the bananafish, pigging out on physical desires, so he kills himself. He ends his physical existence, but not, many argue, his spiritual one.
#3) Seymour is Sexually Attracted to Sybil
One possible, if far less satisfying, reason for Seymour's suicide is pedophilia. He's attracted to Sybil and even goes so far as to kiss her foot. He's then filled with shame at his action and so kills himself, preserving Sybil's purity in the process. It's unlikely that Salinger intended this as a line of reasoning, but there you have it.
We know from Seymour's nickname for Muriel that the year is 1948. In later Glass family works, narrator Buddy Glass confirms that his brother Seymour committed suicide in 1948, allowing us to deduce that Seymour was 30 or 31 at the time.
It's interesting to consider the sort of dual setting we have in this story. The first half takes place in a hotel room indoors, where a sun-burnt Muriel talks on the phone to her mother. The second half takes place outside, in the sun and in the ocean, where a pale Seymour plays with young Sybil. It's appropriate that Muriel is indoors; she's materialistic and certainly less aware of the world (at least spiritually) than Seymour. It's also appropriate that Sybil and Seymour are outside, in the purity of the natural elements. It's striking that when Seymour enters the hotel room, he is immediately hit with the smell of "new calfskin luggage and nail-lacquer remover" (2.108). This world – the materialistic world of his wife – is very different than the pure, natural world he just occupied with Sybil.
We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?
– A Zen Kōan
This is the epigraph to Nine Stories, the 1953 collection that opens with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." Together, these nine stories explore themes of innocence, youth, the psychological effects of war, and Eastern philosophy. While Eastern philosophy isn't explicitly discussed in "Bananafish," it's easy to see a spiritual theme reflected in the story. If this stuff interests you, we'd recommend reading "Bananafish" and "Teddy" (the final piece in the Nine Stories collection) together. These two works book-end Nine Stories, literally and thematically, and "Teddy" really informs the way that we read and interpret "Bananafish."
In "Teddy," for example, the titular character, an enlightened young man and spiritual prodigy, explains to a college student the way that knowledge works. His theory is that we are all so distracted and filled up with the useless things we learn in school – like math and science and grammar and logic – that we don't open ourselves to real spiritual truths. To get at those, you have to "empty yourself" of all logical truths. Similarly, in Salinger's novel Franny and Zooey, college student Franny Glass (Seymour's younger sister) complains that in school, they learn nothing but this useless knowledge. Their goal is to amass as much of it as quickly as possible, which Franny finds no more noble than trying to amass wealth, fame, or any material good. Knowledge is pointless, she says, unless it ultimately leads to wisdom.
Which brings us to the epigraph. A kōan is a sort of riddle, as you can see from this particular example. But the answer to the riddle isn't logical. If we ask you, "What is the square root of 435?" you can solve the problem using the usual parts of your brain (or a handy calculator). The question has logical answer. But kōans don't work that way. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If you meditate on this long enough, claim the Zen Buddhists, you will come up with an answer. But it's not a logical answer that you could explain to someone else. In other words, you can't Google the answer to this one. You have to intuit it on your own.
What does this have to do with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"? Remember that the point of an epigraph is to inform the way we read a work. The epigraph provides the author with an opportunity to give us a hint (or sometimes tell us directly) how to interpret his writing. This epigraph reminds us that some questions – actually, the most important questions, spiritually speaking – don't have logical answers. And, of course, the big question in "Bananafish" is…why does Seymour kill himself? It's very possible that Salinger intends his story as a sort of kōan in itself. There may be an answer to his question, but it's not one that anyone could write down or explain in a thesis paper. Perhaps we're meant to meditate on this and the other stories in the collection, but we're not meant to "figure out" what the "answer" is.
If you buy into this theory, you might very well take issue with all the "deep hidden meaning" conclusions that critics have drawn and that we've explored in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." You might think that it's the wrong approach to assign any one meaning to each of the metaphors and images in this text (like the bananafish, the color blue, the nail polish). And this is certainly a legitimate approach to the text. Maybe it's better to walk away from "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" with an emotional or spiritual reaction, rather than an analytical one.
Salinger is so famous for his tell-tale writing style, we figured we would just call it what it is. Observe all of these typical Salinger trademarks:
Before we talk about any of these symbols, you should know that there are two camps when it comes to interpreting "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." One camp is all about the deep hidden meaning, thinking that every line, perhaps even every word has some carefully chosen significance. From this viewpoint, it matters that Seymour's room is 507, rather than 213. It matters that Seymour's swim trunks are blue. It matters that Sybil likes to eat wax, not jellybeans or pencils. The other camp bases its interpretation largely on the epigraph, which tells us not to approach this story with logic. To pick it apart analytically is to misinterpret Salinger's intentions.
We're going to go ahead and discuss the possible meanings of these different symbols, but keep in mind that it might all be for naught.
We discuss this central theme in "What's Up with the Title?" See you there.
Notice that Seymour's swim trunks are blue, while Sybil wears a yellow bathing suit. Yet Seymour says to her, "That's a fine bathing suit you have on. If there's one thing I like, it's a blue bathing suit" (2.20). If we think of blue as associated with purity or innocence, then it makes sense that Seymour is wearing blue trunks. It also makes sense that he thinks Sybil is wearing a blue bathing suit. She is pure and innocent, so he associates her with the color blue.
Actually, there's an interesting aside in Salinger's short story "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters" that Buddy Glass tells about his brother Seymour. When their sister Franny was a ten months old, Seymour read her a story to stop her from fussing one night. The story he read was a Taoist tale about Duke Mu of China and an enlightened man named Po Lo. The Duke asked Po Lo to send him a man who could pick out a superior horse from a group of animals. Po Lo does, and the Duke employs this man to pick out a horse for him. The man does, and when the emperor asks about its color and sex, the man tells him it is a brown mare. When the horse arrives, however, it is a black stallion. The Duke is peeved that this guy can't even tell the color and sex of a horse, but Po Lo is ecstatic. The man has learned to look at the horse's "spiritual mechanism," he says. "In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external."
That's seems to be what's going on here with Seymour. Seymour sees Sybil's spiritual mechanism, her internal qualities of purity and innocence. So he sees her in the color blue, rather than the yellow she actually wears.
Notice that Seymour is very pale and doesn't want to get any sun on the beach. Muriel, on the other hand, is inside because she's sun-burned so badly. Getting too much sun is sort of equivalent to getting burned by material pursuits. Or, it could be equivalent to being jaded by experiences in the world. If this is the case, Seymour has maintained his spiritual purity or his youthful innocence, while Muriel has not. You might also want to consider the woman in the elevator with zinc salve on her nose, or the fact that Sybil is being slathered with sun-tan oil when we first meet her.
If you look only at the text of "Bananafish," you see an omniscient third person narrator. It might as well be a fly on the wall telling the story – the narrator doesn't know anything about these characters other than what he sees. Notice that the narrator never tells us that Seymour just came back from the war; instead, he observes Muriel and her mother discussing the fact that Seymour just came back from the war. Similarly, Muriel is referred to as "the young woman" and Seymour as "the young man" in narration.
But, check out more of Salinger's work on the Glass family, and you'll meet Buddy Glass, Seymour's younger brother and a writer. He claims to be the "hidden" narrator of many (or maybe all) of the Glass stories. At one point there's even the suggestion that Buddy, though trying to describe Seymour's death, unintentionally ends up describing himself in the character named "Seymour." There's plenty more narrative trickiness where that came from: check out Franny and Zooey if you find this sort of thing as interesting as we do.
The very start of "Bananafish" is devoted to Muriel Glass, to what she's like and to who she is. Muriel sets the stage for the story's coming conflict.
Muriel's mother's concern for her daughter is the clear conflict here, and it's all about Seymour Glass. We find out that he's got some mental troubles, that they have something to do with the war, and that he's a risk to himself and others (especially given "that business with the trees").
The scene between Seymour and Sybil certainly complicates the opinion of Seymour we formed during the opening scene. It seems possible that he is in fact the normal one, while everyone else (Mrs. Carpenter, Muriel, her mother) is insane for focusing themselves on things like fashion and drinks at the neglect of their souls. This has a lot to do with the way you interpret 1) the epigraph and 2) the bananafish symbol.
This climax is almost as confusing as the story's conclusion. Does Seymour kiss Sybil with affection? Reverence? Sadness? Desire? This climax is definitely tied into the story's title and major themes (see "What's Up with the Title?"), since Sybil has just claimed to have seen a bananafish.
Seymour has finally left the world of children and for the first time in the story is thrown into contact with another adult. That this takes place in an elevator is rather ingenious – it raises the stakes on the tension. (They're trapped together; there's nowhere for either of them to go.) The reader should at this moment remember everything Muriel's mother said at the start of the text: that Seymour is unstable and might completely lose control of himself.
Unlike most denouements, little is resolved or explained during this falling action. The suspense is resolved in the sense that we no longer wonder what Seymour is going to do, but we also aren't left with any satisfying explanation for his mental illness.
As we discuss in "What's Up with the Ending?", the ending to "Bananafish" is highly enigmatic. The story has no clear conclusion or, rather, the conclusion is a question (perhaps a kōan, if you've read "What's Up With the Epigraph?"): why does Seymour commit suicide?