Study Guide

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction Analysis

By J.D. Salinger

  • Tone

    Mock Self-Deprecatory, Hilariously wry, Reluctantly optimistic, Bittersweet

    As the rather dominant narrator of both of these stories, Buddy doesn't leave much space between himself and the author (Salinger, that is). In other words, Buddy's tone is pretty much Salinger's tone there. In other words, there's no space between the author and the narrator where we might examine the differences between them or consider Salinger's attitude toward his own creation (Buddy). This isn't true of all first-person narratives, but we think we make a good case for it here. (Feel free to disagree – we're all ears.)

    In fact, some have even argued that Buddy is Salinger's alter ego. Some critics argue that Salinger speaks entirely through Buddy, that Buddy's ideas are Salinger's own, and that Buddy is little more than a pen name with a few fictional attributes. (It helps that Salinger gives Buddy his own year of birth, 1919, and that he actually calls him his "alter-ego and collaborator" on the dust-jacket of Franny and Zooey.) Because of the closeness between Salinger and Buddy, we're going to take some liberties in this section on authorial tone. While "Tone" is defined as the author's attitude towards his subject, we're going to look at Buddy's tone in the course of these two stories.

    You probably laughed out loud several times in the course of reading "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." Buddy's has a particularly wry, incisive, and observant sense of humor. When Buddy helps the wedding guests into the car "without any degree of competence whatever," he admits that he is "not only twenty-three but a conspicuously retarded twenty-three" ("Roof Beam" 214). When he cracks his head on the roof of the car, he refuses sympathy and explains, "I was the sort of young man who responds to all public injury of his person, short of a fractured skull, by giving out a hollow, subnormal-sounding laugh" ("Roof Beam" 2.15).

    "Seymour" harbors its own share of hilarious self-deprecation. After having failed to establish a plot or any kind, Buddy parenthetically admits, "Buddy Glass, of course is only my pen name. My real name is Major George Fielding Anti-Climax" ("Seymour" 1.38).

    But we know for a fact that modesty isn't one of Buddy's virtues. He doesn't make fun of himself in a bashful or embarrassed way. He laughs at himself the way only a truly confident person can. That's why we call his attitude mock self-deprecatory.

    We should remember of course that, for all its humor, this book is far from a comedy. What makes its subject matter so poignant is the combination of this true-to-life humor and the very palpable emotional guts of the Glass family saga. Let's not forget that Seymour kills himself only a few years after the wedding, and that Buddy is narrating the story of the wedding day after Seymour is already dead. Perhaps the best example of this bittersweetness is the paragraph in Seymour's diary about the scars on his hands "from touching certain people" ("Roof Beam" 4.13). As a reader, you get a two-fold reaction here. First comes the smile, because this is a touching and adorable sentiment. But it's also incredibly painful – the word "scar" in itself implies pain, and this is an indication of Seymour's instability, paranoia, and a possible manifestation of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

    "Seymour: an Introduction" takes us a little closer to the bitter side of the bittersweet, since Buddy is dealing quite directly with the pain of his brother's death. Additionally, Buddy's arrogance, superiority, and cynicism are more palpable in "Seymour" than they were in "Roof Beam," perhaps because he's writing several years later (he does, after all, reiterate several times that he is forty now, and that middle-age has a major effect on his perspective). Buddy's description of poetry critics, English students, academics, and even the general reader is critical and a bit cynical as well.

    And yet, we've got the ending of the book to contend with. At the end of "Seymour" Buddy abandons his cynicism in light of an essentially optimistic outlook. What's so interesting about this concluding tone is that its optimism is not a youthful or idealistic optimism. Buddy is fully aware of the limitations of the world and the people in it. He chooses, in spite of everything, to love them and help them anyway. It's a knowing optimism, an optimism accompanied by wisdom.

    In any case, make sure you check out "What's Up With the Ending?" for a full discussion of this switcheroo. In a nutshell, however, what we see is that Buddy's cynicism has been a bit of a show for the reader. He'd like to talk the talk of a cynical writer, but the fact is that he loves all those critics and editors and "academicitis"-ridden students after all. See a parallel with "Roof Beam" here? If the tone in the first story is mock self-deprecation, then the tone in the second is mock bitter.

  • Genre

    Literary Fiction, Drama, Modernism

    We would argue that "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" is the drama center, while "Seymour: an Introduction" fits the bill for modernist literature. "Roof Beam" is dialogue-heavy, and its themes and conflict are explored in the dramatic interactions between characters. "Seymour," on the other hand, is wildly experimental, plot-less, meta-fictional, and essentially told via stream-of-consciousness narrative. It is a modernist piece in that it is non-linear, questions the nature of "reality," and looks to tell a story in a new, non-traditional form.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter" and "Seymour: an Introduction" were originally published separately, several years apart. When they were combined in this short story collection, Salinger chose to combine the existing titles as the new title of the collection. So let's look at each one separately, as the stories were originally titled.

    Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters

    This is a line taken from a poem by Sappho, a lyric poet from Ancient Greece. A piece of the poem makes an explicit appearance about halfway through the short story, so let's start by taking a look at its place in the text:

    [Boo Boo] had easily managed to post the following message up on the mirror: "Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man. Love, Irving Sappho, formerly under contract to Elysium Studios Ltd. Please be happy happy happy with your beautiful Muriel. This is an order. I outrank everybody on this block." The contract writer quoted in the text, I might mention, has always been a great favorite – at appropriately staggered time intervals – with all the children in our family, largely through the immeasurable impact of Seymour's taste in poetry on all of us. I read and reread the quotation, and then I sat down on the edge of the bathtub and opened Seymour's diary. ("Roof Beam" 3.28)

    The poem from which this line is taken is a celebratory wedding hymn. This is a fitting source for Boo Boo's congratulatory well wishing of Seymour's marriage. But why does it deserve the title spot? We can think of a few reasons, but you should feel free to add your own.

    1. As Buddy points out, this "was a day, God knows, not only of rampant signs and symbols but of wildly extensive communication via the written word. […] If you slipped into bathrooms, you did well to look up to see if there were any little messages, faintly apocalyptical or otherwise, posted high over the washbowl" ("Roof Beam" 3.26). We talk extensively about the theme of language and communication in the text in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" and "Themes." Boo Boo's message is one element in this much larger discussion, so be sure to check out the "Symbolism" section for the full picture.

    2. Buddy's use of the word "apocalyptical" reminds us of the message's irony. At the time we read it, Seymour has failed to show up for his wedding, which means the bridegroom is not coming like Ares. In fact, he's not coming at all. The word, apocalyptical, also reminds us that Seymour will be dead within a short time. As Boo Boo wishes him a happy wedding, we know that her wish will never come true.
    3. Speaking of happiness, it's a major theme in "Roof Beam" present in this mirror message. Recall that Seymour insists he is too happy to get married. There's more on what that means in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."

    4. Writing a message on the bathroom wall with a wet piece of soap is apparently one of the Glass-isms of this singular family. So is the love for Sappho. The Glass siblings speak to each other in their own way, through their own mannerisms and in their own language. To wish someone a happy wedding by quoting Sappho – and to do so on the bathroom mirror – is to speak the Glass family language. One of the major themes in both "Roof Beam" and "Seymour: an Introduction" is the insularity of the Glass family and the difficulty, for Buddy, of communicating Glass-isms to the outside world. Buddy can never get anyone outside the family to understand Seymour giving Charlotte the nine stitches, for example. Yet, everyone inside the Glass family understands it perfectly. There's more on that in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory."

    5. As Buddy points out, the Glass children's love for Sappho is "largely through the immeasurable impact of Seymour's taste in poetry on all of us" ("Roof Beam" 3.28). Seymour's literary influence on his siblings is explored more in Franny and Zooey than it is here, but title "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" reminds us of the impact Seymour has had in shaping each of the Glass siblings, and the Glass family dynamic as a whole.

    6. Sappho's poetry is written in Greek, and so there's some flexibility when it comes to word choice in translation. Salinger chooses the word "carpenters" where others have used "workmen" or "craftsmen" or any number of similar nouns. We know from the character Cybil Carpenter in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" that "carpenter" is an important word for Salinger, probably because Jesus was a carpenter. This line of poetry thus becomes more complicated, as it mixes an allusion to Christianity with an allusion to ancient Greek religion (the Sappho poem is actually a bridal hymn to Hymenaios, or the ancient Greek God of marriage rites). This is perfectly in line with Seymour's brand of universal spirituality. In his personal religious philosophy, Seymour combines elements of several different religions, including Christianity and Zen Buddhism.

    Seymour: an Introduction

    This title seems a lot more straightforward, but it's no less informative and consequential than "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." Again, the title serves several interesting functions:

    1. In "Writing Style," we talk about the fact that Buddy's narratives are meta-fictional. In other words, they acknowledge the fact that they are fiction. The title fits right in to the meta-fiction. By claiming that the following is "an introduction," Buddy acknowledges immediately that this is a work of writing serving some explicit purpose for the writer.

    2. Later in the text, Buddy discusses the title explicitly (yet another example of meta-fiction). Let's take a look:

      [Seymour] lends [himself] to no legitimate sort of narrative compactness that I know of, and I can't conceive of anyone, least of all myself, trying to write him off in one shot or in one fairly simple series of sittings, whether arranged by the month or the year. […] I'm anything but a short-story writer where my brother is concerned. What I am, I think, is a thesaurus of undetached prefatory remarks about him. […] I want to introduce, I want to describe, I want to distribute mementos, amulets, I want to break out my wallet and pass around snapshots, I want to follow my nose. In this mood, I don't dare go anywhere near the short-story form. ("Seymour" 1.4)

      The point is that "Seymour: an Introduction" is not a short story – it's an introduction. And so the title prepares us for the form of the piece. The title tells us not to expect a typically plotted (or typically anything else) short story.

    3. "Seymour: an Introduction" reinforces Buddy's point that Seymour is simply too large to fit on paper. He can't possibly describe everything about his brother (though it's not for lack of trying) on the written page. This is merely an introduction – merely the early beginnings of an infinitely large project. Don't expect to know everything about Seymour from this one piece, the title says, because there's lots more where this came from.

    4. Lastly, the title is a tad ironic since this is one of Salinger's last stories about the Glass family, not one of the first. We've already met Seymour in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and learned all about him in "Franny," "Zooey," "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," and even subtextually in "Teddy." All of this makes this "Introduction" anything but.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Buddy spends most of "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and all of "Seymour: an Introduction" looking at most people as though they were, in the words of The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield, a bunch of "stupid morons." The Matron of Honor is irritating, Buddy's colleagues have "academicitis," his students are hopeless, and the general reader will probably miss his point entirely. He dreads going into room 307 tomorrow, where he'll have to try (yet again) to impart knowledge on a generally impossible group.

    And then, somehow, we end up with this very surprising passage:

    I know […] there is no single thing I do that is more important than going into that awful Room 307. There isn't one girl in there, including the Terrible Miss Zabel, who is not as much my sister as Boo Boo or Franny. They may shine with the misinformation of the ages, but they shine. This thought manages to stun me: There's no place I'd really rather go right now than into Room 307. ("Seymour" 9.8)

    This is a huge tonal switch from what we've seen in the rest of this story (definitely check out "Tone" for examples and a more complete discussion). Where we once saw sarcasm and cynicism, Buddy is suddenly optimistic and even reverent. This ending is similar to that of Franny and Zooey, the Glass family short story duo that came out a few years before this one. In Franny and Zooey, Franny Glass undergoes a spiritual crisis, and spends a lot of time complaining, much as Buddy has done here, that everyone else is selfish, petty and doesn't "get it." The book ends with Zooey convincing Franny that everyone – even the pretentious professors and the snobby co-eds at her school – is worthy of love. Everyone is Jesus Christ, he says, and she should treat each person all accordingly. Of course, Zooey is passing on the wisdom courtesy of Seymour.

    And this is exactly what Seymour has taught Buddy in this book. Think about Seymour's interpretation of the passage from the Bible when Christ says to call no man fool (see 2.1.15). It's because no man is a fool at the end of the day, says Seymour. Ultimately, every person is worthy of love simply by virtue of being a person.

    We know that Seymour is the ultimate guide and ultimate guru (see "Character Roles"), for Buddy and for the rest of the Glass family. Buddy makes it clear that Seymour is the source of this final lesson. Right before Buddy reveals this revelation, he says: "I can't finish writing a description of Seymour […] without being conscious of the good, the real. This is too grand to be said (so I'm just the man to say it), but I can't be my brother's brother for nothing" ("Seymour" 9.8). He even adds, at the end of his philosophizing, "Seymour once said that all we do our whole lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next. Is he never wrong?" ("Seymour" 9.8).

    What's interesting is that Buddy learns from Seymour even after Seymour's death. In fact, Buddy learns this final lesson through the process of writing about Seymour. This is an important concept. Buddy isn't just writing here; he's discovering, exploring, and learning as he goes. That's why this process is so hard for him. Buddy isn't just struggling to explain Seymour, but struggling to understand him and their relationship. What's more is that Buddy has an epiphany or two in the process. (See his "Character Analysis" for more on just what Buddy learns from all this literary wandering.)

  • Setting

    New York City in 1942; upstate New York in 1959

    "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" takes place in New York City in late May of 1942 and is narrated by the fictional Buddy Glass in 1955. "Seymour: an Introduction" takes place and is narrated by Buddy Glass in 1959, "in upper New York, not far from the Canadian border […] in a totally modest, not to say cringing, little house, set deep in the woods and on the more inaccessible side of a mountain" ("Seymour" 1.10). Both stories feature flashbacks to Buddy and Seymour's childhood in the 1920s and young adulthood in the 30s.

    One of Salinger's trademarks is his partiality to confined spaces in his settings. His scenes are tight and sometimes border on claustrophobic. In his other Glass family story novel, Franny and Zooey scene that lasted half the novel takes place between two people in a small bathroom. In " Teddy," we have a scene confined to a tiny cabin aboard a ship. And in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters," we find yet another example in the backseat of the guest car.

    Salinger makes fantastic use of his setting to create an oppressive, stifling, overwhelming, and horribly uncomfortable atmosphere in which poor Buddy has to operate. To start with, it's New York City in the summer and is incredibly hot. Then Buddy is crammed into a car with too-little space for five guests in the back. On top of that, he has pleurisy (a painful lung disease) and is trying (and failing) to stop himself from coughing. He's got tape wrapped around his torso, which feels all sticky and itchy and sweaty in the heat. Then the car is stopped in traffic – indefinitely – which means they're stuck in this stifling environment. Oh, right, and at least one of the guests is just about ready to strangle anyone with the faintest connection to Buddy's brother. The discomfort here is palpable – you are supposed to feel miserable, or at least uncomfortable, reading this. You should also endlessly envy Salinger's incredible ability to create a scene.

    The setting of "Seymour: an Introduction" is interesting in that it's really more of an intellectual setting than it is a physical one. Physically, the setting of "Seymour" is the opposite of "Roof Beam." Sure, we get a few details from Buddy – typewriter, chair, study – but we really don't see where he is. There is no palpable physical atmosphere as there is in "Roof Beam." There is, however, an incredibly powerful, consistent, and integral intellectual atmosphere. Think of the opening two epigraphs as really setting the stage for what is to come. This is a world defined not by smells or weather or physical spaces, but by ideas and concepts. The concept of the Sick Artist (see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this concept) is one of the pieces of furniture occupying this mental space. The quote from Kafka is another. Buddy, who, let's face it, can start at times to sound like a disembodied voice (despite his repeated insistence that he is going to bed, waking up, or having a drink like a normal being), exists, talks in a similarly "disembodied" atmosphere.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I've written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly but loses itself dully in this love that will never be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting the actors by preventing this ability from exercising itself.
    – Franz Kafka

    It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, "No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."
    – Søren Kierkegaard

    There are actually four things up with these epigraphs. Let's go one at a time.

    The Content: Writing about People is Hard. Actually, Writing About Anything is Hard.

    These are some complicated epigraphs, and unless you're used to skimming Kierkegaard and Kafka over breakfast, you probably have to read them a few times to grasp what they're saying. So let's paraphrase. Kafka says that to write about a person with love makes it difficult to write about them with accuracy. When you love your subject, you are never satisfied with your "varying ability" to write about them. Kierkegaard is talking about errors in the content of what is being written – he just uses the metaphor of a "clerical error." Such a fundamental error cannot be easily fixed; instead it remains as a testament to the writer's imperfect abilities.

    Of course, both of these quotations tie in directly to Buddy's attempts to write about Seymour. First of all, he says as much: "By and large, I've reproduced the two passages to try to suggest very plainly how I think I stand in regard to the overall mass of data I hope to assemble here – a thing that in some quarters, I don't a bit mind saying, an author can't be too explicit about, or any too early" ("Seymour" 1.2). Buddy certainly writes about Seymour with love, and he repeatedly questions the accuracy of his descriptions. When he discusses the short story "Teddy," for example, he says that he was trying to get at Seymour's eyes with his description of the title character's face, but failed utterly. There's an example of an error that refused to be erased, an error that very much became "an essential part of the whole exposition." Kafka says that the love a writer feels for his subject means he won't ever be satisfied with his writing about that subject. This is Buddy in a nutshell, who openly admits falling victim to this plight with regard to Seymour:

    My original plans for this general space were to write a short story about Seymour and to call it 'SEYMOUR ONE', with the big 'ONE' serving as a built-in convenience to me, Buddy Glass, even more than to the reader – a helpful, flashy reminder that other stories (a Seymour Two, Three, and possibly Four) would logically have to follow. Those plans no longer exist. ("Seymour" 1.4)

    Buddy has found it impossible to capture Seymour in any "legitimate sort of narrative compactness," and "can't conceive of anyone, least of all [himself], trying to write him off in one shot or in one fairly simple series of sittings, whether arranged by the month or the year" ("Seymour" 1.4).

    The Style and Tone: A Fitting Appetizer for Seymour

    The epigraphs are effective not just in their content, but in their style and tone as well. They set us up for the more difficult, sophisticated, and cerebral territory of "Seymour" (as compared to "Roof Beam," that is). Check out our discussions of "Writing Style" and "Tone," and you'll see why Kafka and Kierkegaard fit the introductory bill.

    Furnishings for the Intellectual Setting

    We'll have to send you off to "Setting" if you want to understand this one. Basically, we argue that if "Roof Beam" goes down in a clearly-defined physical setting, then "Seymour" operates in a well-defined intellectual atmosphere. And these opening quotes are the cerebral equivalent of furniture. As Buddy says (in his own special way), the quotations reference his own "aesthetic pathology" ("Seymour" 1.2)

    A Thematic Lead-In

    Buddy, being the playful and meta-fictional narrator that he is, takes a moment to discuss the importance of his own epigraphs:

    I don't really deeply feel that anyone needs an airtight reason for quoting from the works of writers he loves, but it's always nice, I'll grant you, if he has one. In this case, it seems to me that those two passages, especially in contiguity, are wonderfully representative of the best, in a sense, not only of Kafka and Kierkegaard but of all the four dead men, the four variously notorious Sick Men or underadjusted bachelors (probably only van Gogh, of the four, will be excused from making a guest appearance in these pages), whom I most often run to – occasionally in real distress – when I want any perfectly credible information about modern artistic processes. ("Seymour" 1.2)

    The Four Sick men are an important idea in "Seymour," and we discuss them fully in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory." Since Kierkegaard and Kafka are two of the Four, it's fitting that they are quoted in the epigraph.

  • Writing Style

    Playful, Meta-fictional, and to many critics, Unbearably Self-indulgent

    Meta-fiction is a type of fiction that addresses the fact that it is fiction. Usually, fiction pretends that it is real. See Spot Run doesn't ask you to think about Spot's status as a fictional character or the story of his morning jog as a made-up narrative. On the other hand, meta-fiction addresses the fact that it is fiction. When Buddy refers to the plot, or to his "characters," or to the fact that he is sitting at his typewriter typing this out, he's being meta-fictional. Now onto the bigger stuff.

    Though the style of both "Room Beam" and "Seymour" are markedly Salinger, there is also a clear distinction between the two – two distinct flavors of Salinger. The most obvious difference is the sophistication of the prose in "Seymour." We're talking sentence length (way longer), word choice (way more "Dictionary Required"), syntax (more complicated), and number of just-can't-help-himself parenthetical remarks (off the charts). If you want an example, read the first two paragraphs of "Seymour: an Introduction." That'll get you about ten pages in and you'll see what we mean. Or, start with the first sentence:

    At times, frankly, I find it pretty slim pickings, but at the age of forty I look on my old fair-weather friend the general reader as my last deeply contemporary confidant, and I was rather strenuously requested, long before I was out of my teens, by at once the most exciting and the least fundamentally bumptious public craftsman I've ever personally known, to try to keep a steady and sober regard for the amenities of such a relationship, be it ever so peculiar or terrible; in my case, he saw it coming on from the first. ("Seymour" 1.1)

    Many critics (John Updike among them) have criticized "Seymour" for what they consider to be showy, pretentious, self-indulgent writing. (Think about the sheer number of intellectual parenthetical asides. Not to mention the footnotes.) Some think Salinger took his particular writing style Salinger. Consider the following passages. Are they playful, or secretly self-congratulatory? Take a look, and let us know what you think.

    I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I'm afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: ( ( ( ( ) ) ) ). ("Seymour" 1.1)

    There are, however, readers who seriously require only the most restrained, most classical, and possibly deftest method of having their attention drawn, and I suggest - as honestly as a writer can suggest this sort of thing - that they leave now, while, I can imagine, the leaving's good and easy. I'll probably continue to point out available exits as we move along, but I'm not sure I'll pretend to put my heart into it again. ("Seymour" 1.1)

    I gave what I think are the two main reasons I've elected to get up, rise, from them. And I'd prefer to pack both reasons into the same paragraph, duffel bag-style, partly because I'd like them to stick close to each other, partly because I have a perhaps impetuous notion that I won't be needing them again on the voyage. ("Seymour" 1.9)

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Deaf-Mute Uncle, Zen Detachment, and Communication

    The bride's great-uncle, a.k.a. the deaf-mute, a.k.a. the man in the silk hat with the Havana cigar, is probably one of the most cryptic elements of "Roof Beam." Buddy is immediately drawn to this man, even before he knows this man cannot hear or speak. Buddy finds his indifference comforting, considers him a sort of ally, and takes incredible joy in the man's appearance and general demeanor.

    One interpretation is that the bride's great-uncle embodies the sort of calmness idealized by Eastern philosophies. Detachment is an important concept in many Eastern philosophies – one that Buddy discusses more fully in the short story "Teddy" (of which, remember, he claims authorship). For Buddy and Seymour, the idea is to remain socially and emotionally detached from the world around you, realizing that whatever life you're living at the time is only one of many incarnations. We suspect that Buddy recognizes and admires this detachment in the uncle, especially after reading this passage:

    I glanced around at tile tiny elderly man with the unlighted cigar. The delay didn't seem to affect him. His standard of comportment for sitting in the rear scat of cars - cars in motion, cars stationary, and even, one couldn't help imagining, cars that were driven off bridges into rivers - seemed to be fixed. It was wonderfully simple. You just sat very erect, maintaining a clearance of four or five inches between your top hat and the roof, and you stared ferociously ahead at the windshield. If Death - who was out there all the time, possibly sitting on the hood - if Death stepped miraculously through the glass and came in after you, in all probability you just got up and went along with him, ferociously but quietly. Chances were, you could take your cigar with you, if it was a clear Havana. ("Roof Beam" 2.68)

    Of course we have to think about the fact that the uncle can neither speak nor hear. This cannot be a coincidence in a book that is fundamentally about language and communication. Both "Roof Beam" and "Seymour" explore the impossibility of expressing truth fully or accurately through language. Scholar Ihab Hassan says it well in his article "Almost the Voice of Silence: The Later Novelettes of J. D. Salinger" – truth places an unbearable burden on language. Think about Seymour's claim that, instead of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln should simply and silently have shaken his fist at the crowd. Or the fact that, in "Seymour," Buddy still hasn't published Seymour's poems, fearing that they will be misunderstood entirely.

    This is a burden made heavier by the fact that the Glass family has their own particular language and methods of communication (such as putting quotations from Sappho on the bathroom mirror). It all adds up to Buddy not being able to tell anyone anything. In particular, Buddy has a hard time explaining things to people outside the Glass family, like Mrs. Silsburn or the Lieutenant. He tries to make them understand that Seymour, but they just don't get it.

    Which is where the bride's father's uncle comes in. Because he is deaf, Buddy doesn't feel the same "burden of truth" when speaking to him. That's why he chooses to tell the uncle – and no one else – the story of how Charlotte got her stitches. No one is going to understand it anyway. (Notice that, when he tells the story, Buddy admits that Charlotte never understood why Seymour threw the stone either. Only the members of the Glass family got it.) In this way, Buddy gets to unburden himself of the truth without addressing the inherent failure of communication.

    "Seymour" will pick up this theme and explore it further, starting with the opening epigraphs. We start to see that these two stories have a lot more in common than sharing characters –they also share the same problems, themes, and big ideas.

    The Sick Artist

    In "Seymour: an Introduction" Buddy discusses at length "the four variously notorious Sick Men," four guys he runs to when he wants "perfectly credible information about modern artistic processes" ("Seymour" 1.2). The men on this list are: Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher and the so-called "father of Existentialism" (though Buddy finds it amusing that Kierkegaard was, in fact, not an existentialist himself); Franz Kafka, a 20th century writer; Vincent van Gogh, a 19th century Dutch artist, and of course Seymour himself.

    All these men were great artists (either prolific writers or painters). According to Buddy, they were also "sick" in one way or another. Kierkegaard was devoutly religious to the point of psychological self-torture; Kafka suffered from a number of ailments, including depression, social anxiety, and insomnia; van Gogh famously cut off part of his left ear, suffered from depression, and killed himself at the age of 37; and Seymour, as we know, suffered from what today we might call Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and eventually committed suicide.

    In a syntactically convoluted, long page paragraph at the start of "Seymour," Buddy explores just what it means to be a sick man and an artist. It's a section worth reading a second (or fifth) time. At least take a look at least this excerpt here:

    But what […] one most recurrently hears about the curiously-productive-though-ailing poet or painter is that he is invariably a kind of super-size but unmistakably 'classical' neurotic, an aberrant who only occasionally, and never deeply, wishes to surrender his aberration; or, in English, a Sick Man who not at all seldom […] gives out terrible cries of pain, as if he would wholeheartedly let go both his art and his soul to experience what passes in other people for wellness, and yet […] when his unsalutary-looking little room is broken into and someone […] asks him where the pain is, he either declines or seems unable to discuss it at any constructive clinical length, and […] looks more perversely determined than ever to see his sickness run its course, as though […] he had remembered that all men […] eventually die, […] but that he, […] is at least being done in by the most stimulating companion […] he has ever known. ("Seymour" 1.2)

    The concept of the sick artist is an interesting one. So often, this passage reminds us, the world's greatest artists are also sick men – unhappy, tortured, troubled men. There's a beautiful line in another of Salinger's short stories, "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," in which a painter says to an aspiring student: "The worst that being an artist could do to you would be that it would make you slightly unhappy constantly." He then adds, "However, this is not a tragic situation, in my opinion."

    According to Salinger, then, unhappiness is the price one pays for artistry. This leads to some interesting questions about Buddy's repeated insistence that he is happy, ecstatic even, while narrating Seymour. Perhaps this relates to his frustration with his own writing – how can be a true artist when he is so happy?

    But what exactly tortures the sick artist? What makes him sick? Buddy takes a stab at this question and makes a decent argument as to the source of the sick artist's pain:

    But where does by far the bulk, the whole ambulance load, of pain really come from? Where must it come from? Isn't the true poet or painter a seer? Isn't he, actually, the only seer we have on earth? […] In a seer, what part of the human anatomy would necessarily be required to take the most abuse? The eyes, certainly. Please, dear general reader, as a last indulgence (if you're still here), re-read those two short passages from Kafka and Kierkegaard I started out with. Isn't it clear? Don't those cries come straight from the eyes? However contradictory the coroner's report - whether he pronounces Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide to be the cause of death - isn't it plain how the true artist-seer actually dies? I say […] that the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience. ("Seymour" 1.2)

    We can start to see why Seymour – a "God-knower" who actually sees more than the rest of us (see "Characterization") – belongs on this list of Sick Men.

    The Sappho Poem

    See "What's Up With the Title?" for a detailed discussion of this poem and why it is important to "Room Beam" and "Seymour."

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Though Buddy is telling the story of Seymour, he is centrally a part of the narrative. We learn as much about him as we do about his subject, and so we've elected to consider him a central, rather than peripheral, narrator. Feel free to argue with us.

    Buddy is a present narrator. In other words, he's always reminding you that he's narrating. He's also a tricky narrator because he plays with the reader, the story, language and form. In "Roof Beam," he'll interrupt the narrative to comment, or to address the questions he's imagined you're asking (as in, why did Buddy get into the car with the guests? Because he was lonely). In "Seymour," Buddy spends more time digressing and commenting on his content than he does narrating the content. (Paragraph-long parentheticals in the middle of a sentence? Par for the course.)

    Buddy's role as a narrator is an important aspect of his character. To talk about the narration, we really have to talk about Buddy altogether. Be sure to take a look as his "Character Analysis" to get a larger sense of who Buddy is.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Neither of our two stories in this case fits the template for a Booker plot. "Seymour: an Introduction" is, as we know, far from a typically structured story. And while we can take a look at "Roof Beam" through a classical plot analysis, we find that it doesn't really work as a Booker plot. It is neither tragedy nor comedy in its structure (though arguably combines tonal elements of each genre), and lacks the epic grandeur of plots like "The Quest" or "Rebirth." It is indeed a brilliantly crafted story (think about structured way in which important narrative details are revealed, or the crafty narrative devices like the diary or the photos on the wall), but not a standard one.

  • Plot Analysis

    As narrator Buddy Glass openly admits, "Seymour: an Introduction" is as far from a typical short story as you can get. It's more of a collection of anecdotes and thoughts than a structured narrative, and so we won't even try to break it down into structured plot stages. However, we can do these typical plot analyses for "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters."

    Initial Situation

    Seymour is getting married; Buddy decides to attend the wedding.

    We start right when something is about to happen – in this case, Seymour's wedding. In this stage, we get a little bit of the background story of the various Glass family members.


    Seymour doesn't show up to his own wedding.

    That's a pretty major conflict, not just for the bride and groom, but for Buddy as well. As the sole representative of Seymour's entire family, he's left with the responsibility for explaining his brother's actions.


    Buddy jumps into one of the cars with a pack of guests. The parade sends them all to Buddy's apartment.

    A series of events complicates the central conflict considerably. First of all, Buddy is now in a small, confined space with a group of people who strongly dislike Seymour. (The Matron of Honor seems like she's about ready to strangle Seymour bare-handed.) Then they find out that Buddy is Seymour's brother. Then a parade going by stalls them in incredibly hot, uncomfortable weather. Buddy's pleurisy (painful lung condition) is acting up. The story of Charlotte Mayhew comes out. Then they end up at his apartment, which opens a new can of worms (the photos on the wall, Seymour's diary, etc.).


    Buddy loses his cool with the guests.

    After the Matron of Honor goes off – again – about Seymour being a schizoid personality or total nut job, Buddy finally cracks. He yells at her and defends his brother admirably. He's been trying to control himself throughout the story, so this is the blow-up we've been expecting.


    Lots of questions.

    This isn't so much a discrete stage as a series of general questions that have been building throughout the story. Why didn't Seymour show up at his wedding? How will it all turn out? What is the story behind Charlotte's stitches?


    Buddy reads the diary; the Matron of Honor reports back from her phone call; the final explanation to the deaf-mute.

    This is where a good deal of those questions we just mentioned are finally answered. The central conflict has been resolved in that Muriel and Seymour eloped happily ever after all. (Of course, we know that it's not going to last, since we've already been told that Seymour kills himself in 1948, just a few years later.) Seymour's diary reveals quite a bit about his character and his possible motivations. Finally, Buddy's re-telling of the story of Charlotte's stitches satisfies our curiosity (to some degree).


    A blank sheet of paper, by way of explanation.

    As Buddy stated earlier, this was a day for written discourse, and so it's fitting that the story ends by touching on the idea of communication, yet complicates itself with a sort of Zen Koan touch. We discuss this more in "What's Up With the Ending?"

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    As narrator Buddy Glass openly admits, "Seymour: an Introduction" is as far from a typical short story as you can get. It's more of a collection of anecdotes and thoughts than a structured narrative, and so we won't even try to break it down into structured plot stages. However, we can do these typical plot analyses for "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters."

    Act I

    Buddy goes to Seymour's wedding, jumps into one of the guest cars, and ends up inviting everyone up to his apartment.

    Act II

    Buddy flips out at the Matron of Honor and retreat to the bathroom.

    Act III

    Buddy reads Seymour's diary and gets drunk; we find out that Seymour and Muriel have eloped; Buddy tells Muriel's deaf-mute great-uncle the story of Charlotte's stitches before we move steadily into the story's conclusion.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Sappho, Fragment LP 111 (The title, 1.3.28)
    • William Shakespeare ("Seymour" 1.1)
    • William Shakespeare, Macbeth: The Lieutenant jokingly refers to Buddy as "Macduff" ("Roof Beam" 2.152); the line "somebody around here hath murdered sleep" is an allusion to a line in Macbeth ("Seymour" 3.5)
    • William Shakespeare, The Tempest: Buddy refers to the character Prospero ("Seymour" 1.1)
    • William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar: Salinger's line "I haven't come to bury but to exhume, and most likely, to praise" ("Seymour" 1.5) is an allusion to the line in Julius Caesar, "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."
    • William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Buddy reference the character Fortinbras ("Seymour" 9.6)
    • R.H. Blyth ("Roof Beam" 4.3)
    • Saigyō Hōshi ("Roof Beam" 4.4)
    • Franz Kafka (epigraph to "Seymour," 2.1.2, 2.1.11, 2.1.14)
    • Søren Kierkegaard (epigraph to "Seymour," 2.1.2, 2.1.37)
    • John Buchan, "Skule Skerny" ("Seymour" 1.1)
    • Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums ("Seymour" 1.1)
    • J.D. Salinger, "Teddy" ("Seymour" 1.1, 2.5.1)
    • J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye ("Seymour" 1.7)
    • J.D. Salinger, "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" ("Seymour" 1.7)
    • J.D. Salinger, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" ("Seymour" 1.7)
    • Thomas Kilroy ("Seymour" 1.1)
    • Kobayashi Issa ("Seymour" 1.11)
    • Yosa Buson ("Seymour" 1.11)
    • Masaoka Shiki ("Seymour" 1.11)
    • Matsuo Bashō ("Seymour" 1.11)
    • Lao Ti-Kao ("Seymour" 1.11)
    • Tang-Li ("Seymour" 1.11)
    • Ko-Huang ("Seymour" 1.11)
    • P'ang ("Seymour" 1.12)
    • John Keats ("Seymour" 1.12)
    • Robert Browning ("Seymour" 1.12, 2.1.13)
    • William Wordsworth ("Seymour" 1.12, 2.1.13)
    • Anne Nichols, Abie's Irish Rose ("Seymour" 1.14)
    • Sherwood Anderson ("Seymour" 1.16)
    • Henry David Thoreau ("Seymour" 1.16)
    • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Buddy tries to trick the young man into doing his yard work the same way Tom tricks a friend into white-washing the fence for him in this Twain novel. Buddy explicitly references Twain's character here. ("Seymour" 1.16)
    • Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias" ("Seymour" 1.17)
    • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein ("Seymour" 1.17)
    • Robert Burns, "To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest, With The Plough" (footnote from 2.1.17)
    • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Buddy references Betsey Trotwood, a character from this novel) ("Seymour" 1.18)
    • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina ("Seymour" 1.26)
    • Louis Bouilhet ("Seymour" 1.37)
    • Max Du Camp ("Seymour" 1.37)
    • Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary ("Seymour" 1.37)
    • Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac ("Seymour" 5.3)
    • Sofya Tolstoy (Leo's wife) ("Seymour" 6.5)
    • The Texts of Chuang-tzu, Book XXVI ("Seymour" 9.2)
    • Hans Christian Andersen, "The Red Shoes" ("Seymour" 9.6)
    • Anton Chekhov ("Seymour" 9.6)
    • Somerset Maugham ("Seymour" 9.7)

    Religious and Historical References

    Music, Art, and Pop Culture

    • Richard Wagner, Lohengrin ("Roof Beam" 2.8)
    • Johann Sebastian Bach ("Roof Beam" 2.9)
    • Rogers and Hart ("Roof Beam" 2.9)
    • Emily Post ("Roof Beam" 2.152, 2.1.15)
    • Vincent Van Gogh ("Seymour" 1.2)
    • Sigmund Freud ("Seymour" 1.2)
    • Ludwig van Beethoven ("Seymour" 1.6)
    • Ned Wayburn ("Seymour" 1.20)
    • Pat and Marion Rooney ("Seymour" 1.20)
    • W.C. Fields ("Seymour" 1.20)
    • Irving Berlin ("Seymour" 1.31)
    • Harold Arlen ("Seymour" 1.31)
    • Jerome Kern ("Seymour" 1.31)
    • Schubert Lieder ("Seymour" 1.31)
    • Pablo Picasso ("Seymour" 7.1)
    • Kay Nielsen ("Seymour" 7.2)
    • Stoopnagle and Budd ("Seymour" 9.2)