Study Guide

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Themes

  • Admiration

    Like many of Salinger's Glass family stories, both "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: an Introduction" are filled with intense admiration. We have admiration on the part of the author for his fictional characters, and also on the part of the fictional narrator/writer (Buddy) both for his own story telling and his subject matter (his brother Seymour, in this case). "Seymour" deals most explicitly with the artistic consequences of such intense admiration and emotion. Buddy finds that he cannot write with accuracy about a man he holds in such high esteem.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Why is Buddy so drawn to the bride's father's uncle in the car even before he finds out that the man can't hear or speak?
    2. What does Buddy so admire in his brother Seymour?
    3. Buddy lists the many roles that Seymour played for the children of the Glass family in the following passage: "He was […] our blue-striped unicorn, our double-lensed burning glass, our consultant genius, our portable conscience, our supercargo, and our one full poet, and, inevitably, I think, […] he was also our rather notorious 'mystic' and 'unbalanced type.'" ("Seymour" 1.4) What is revealed in each of these characterizations? How do they work together to paint a unified picture of Seymour?
    4. What is Buddy getting at when he compares Seymour to the curlew sandpiper?

    Chew on This

    Buddy is blinded by his own closeness to and admiration for Seymour; we can't expect a realistic depiction of Seymour through Buddy's eyes, and yet we are limited in our conception of Seymour to Buddy's recollections, opinions, and musings.

    Because we get to read Seymour's own words (through his diary and notes) and hear about his own writing (through Buddy's summary of his poetry), we are able to get at the true nature of his character, despite our narrator's bias.

  • Language and Communication

    Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction is about the inherent difficulty of expressing truth in plain language. Confusion and miscommunication dominate "Roof Beam," and the frustration of communicating through written work is at the heart of "Seymour." Arguably, the only effective communication in the first half of the book is non-verbal. As evidenced by the Zen koan, certain truths can only be understood emotionally or spiritually, not in a way that could be expressed verbally. On top of it all, the alienating force of the peculiar Glass family language acts as an additional barrier for narrator Buddy Glass in communicating to other characters and to the reader.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why does Buddy explain the story of Charlotte's stitches to the bride's father's uncle?
    2. Buddy's narrative is a type of meta-fiction, or fiction that acknowledges that it is fiction. How does this narrative technique speak to the novel's theme of communication via the written word?
    3. The narrator of "Seymour: an Introduction" is four years older than the narrator of "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters." How has Buddy changed in these four years (from 1955 to 1959)? Is his tone markedly different between the two stories?
    4. Buddy dedicates a great deal of time attempting to describe Seymour. Yet he claims he's not done. What is missing here? What is there left that you still want to know? How or why has Buddy failed in his endeavor?

    Chew on This

    Words are not an effective means of communication in "Raise High the Room Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: an Introduction."

    Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction argues that communication must take place on a spiritual level.

  • Family

    Like the many of Salinger's famous short stories, both "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: an Introduction" are about the fictional Glass family, a set of seven intelligent, highly-educated, and spiritual siblings. In these stories, the insular and alienating nature of the Glass family surfaces yet again (having been discussed first in the short stories "Franny" and "Zooey"). Narrator Buddy Glass struggles with the difficulty of communicating to the reader (a clear outsider) the inner workings of the rather unique inner workings of the Glass family.

    Questions About Family

    1. Early in "Raise High the Roof Beam," Buddy worries that the Matron of Honor "might well be in secret possession of a motley number of biographical facts about Seymour," among them Seymour's status as a radio celebrity and the fact that he was a freshman at Columbia University when he was fifteen ("Roof Beam" 2.49). What is it about these "basic facts" that are ultimately so misleading when it comes to Seymour's character, especially when someone who is not in the Glass family knows them?
    2. Why does Buddy lie about his brother to the Matron of Honor when she asks what Seymour did before he went into the army?
    3. What do the Glass family members think about psychoanalysis? What is the author's (Salinger's) point of view, as evidenced in these two stories?
    4. How much of Buddy's identity has to do with Buddy himself, and how much has to do with his relationship to Seymour? Is his character defined independently, or only in relationship to his brother?

    Chew on This

    The Glass family characters alienate the reader.

    The characters in the Glass family are endearing and likable to the reader.

  • Spirituality

    Like many of Salinger's short stories, both "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter" and "Seymour: an Introduction" reflect the author's interest in Eastern philosophies. Though koans, or Zen riddles, are not explicitly discussed in either story, we can see the influence of this way of thinking throughout the book. In other words, understanding truth is emphasized as a spiritual or emotional process, rather than a cerebral or intellectual one. The difficulty of attempting to live an Eastern life in a Western world is also part of the subtext, and particularly relevant to the character of Seymour Glass. In Salinger's writing, Eastern and Western religions are perfectly compatible as discussion moves freely from Christ to the Buddha and back again.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. How does Buddy feel about Seymour's suicide? Is he still angry or bitter? Sad? Confused?
    2. Where are Eastern philosophies explicitly discussed in these two stories? Where is it implicitly discussed, or hinted at? How does Salinger use these different techniques to imbue a Western story with Eastern concepts?
    3. Re-read Buddy's discussion of sickness as related to artistry and spirituality. He cites examples like van Gogh and Kafka – and of course his brother – as men who were tortured precisely because of their artistic brilliance. According to Buddy, must a man necessarily be unhappy to be an artist?
    4. Based on the two poems, which Buddy revealed in detail, are Seymour's poems fundamentally Western or Eastern?

    Chew on This

    Eastern philosophy is at the heart of both "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: an Introduction."

    Eastern philosophy is peripheral, and not central, to both "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and "Seymour: an Introduction."

  • Love

    For a word that gets so little explicit attention, love dominates the thematic undercurrent of Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction. Narrator Buddy Glass is motivated to tell both stories by his love and admiration for his brother, Seymour. At the same time, love is one of the reasons he can never accurately portray Seymour on the written page. "Seymour" deals explicitly with the consequences of such love for the artist at work. The book also deals with the ability of the detached, spiritual man (Seymour, the god-knower, as Buddy puts it) to love others. In "Roof Beam," Seymour's love for his fiancée is examined. In "Seymour," the idea of religious love – Christ's love for every human being – rises to the forefront.

    Questions About Love

    1. How much of Muriel's love for Seymour is based on the idea she has of him as a radio star?
    2. Does Seymour actually love Muriel? Does he seem like he's capable of loving anyone outside of the Glass family? With his detachment, does he seem capable of loving anyone at all?
    3. How would you characterize Buddy's feelings toward his brother, Seymour? What specific lines in the stories lead you to make this characterization?
    4. Buddy explains that Seymour threw the stone at Charlotte simply because "she looked so beautiful sitting there in the middle of the driveway" ("Roof Beam" 5.2). What does he mean? Can you explain, in plain words, why Seymour threw the stone?

    Chew on This

    Muriel and Seymour's love for each other is based on mutual self-delusion.

    Muriel and Seymour's love for each other is genuine.

  • Writing and Literature

    Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction is narrated by the fictional Buddy Glass, an English professor and professional writer. "Seymour" in particular is about the writing process, and specifically the difficulty of writing about a subject one loves and admires as dearly as Buddy does his brother Seymour. In its discussion of communication in general the book suggests that languages obscures truth, and that communication is necessarily flawed.

    Questions About Writing and Literature

    1. At several points Buddy interrupts his own writing to tell you which details or facts he will not be discussing. Find a few examples and think about the effect of these passages on the reader. What is achieved by these interludes?
    2. Who is the real focus of each of these stories, Buddy, or Seymour? How is our attention focused at various times in the story?
    3. How do Buddy's anecdotes in "Seymour: an Introduction" function with regard to narrative structuring? Would you argue that there is a structure to this piece? Or is it in fact, formless?
    4. What do you make of Buddy's use of footnotes in "Seymour: an Introduction"? Is this an example of excessive stylish garnish, or is this the right formatting call?

    Chew on This

    Salinger defines poetry differently in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" than he does in "Seymour: an Introduction."

    We can only fully understand Salinger's definition of poetry by reading these two short stories together. The ideas, which are introduced in "Room Beam," are completed in "Seymour."

  • Isolation

    Isolation is both literal and metaphorical in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction. Narrator Buddy Glass is a member of the insular, peculiar, and alienating Glass family – a fact that predisposes him to isolation from the rest of the world. The difficulty of communication heightens this sense of isolation. How can Buddy connect to another individual, or even to the reader, when he can't communicate effectively? In "Roof Beam," Buddy suffers from isolation and loneliness even while surrounded by people. In "Seymour," he has progressed to physical isolation, writing from a lonely cabin in the woods.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why do you think Buddy chooses to live alone in the woods in his middle age?
    2. How does Buddy react after reading Seymour's diary? Why does he react this way?
    3. Buddy introduces a group of men early in "Seymour: an Introduction" called the "notorious Sick Men." The list is comprised of Seymour, Van Gogh, Kierkegaard, and Kafka. What is the relationship between these four men? Why do you think Buddy chooses those three particular artists to group with his brother Seymour?
    4. In "Seymour: an Introduction," Buddy claims that he won't be ready to talk about Seymour's suicide for several more years. Yet he does touch on it – perhaps not explicitly – several times in the text. Find these passages and take a second look. When Buddy discusses the death of the true artist-seer, he claims that such a man is "mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience" ("Seymour" 1.2). Is this how Seymour died? Check out the actual death in "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and think about it.

    Chew on This

    Buddy's character is more isolated in "Seymour: an Introduction" than in "Roof Beam."

    Buddy's character is more isolated in "Roof Beam" than he is as a narrator in "Seymour: an Introduction."

  • Happiness

    Happiness is explicitly discussed both in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" and in "Seymour: an Introduction." In the first story, Seymour Glass fails to show up at his wedding and claims that he is "too happy" to get married. Here, happiness is contrasted with Zen-like calm and acceptance. To live a truly spiritual life, Seymour believes he needs to maintain a degree of detachment – something that, it seems, his marriage would disrupt. (This idea of detachment is further explored in Salinger's short story " Teddy," if you're interested.) In "Seymour," narrator Buddy Glass claims to be an ecstatically happy writer, a fact that further complicates his attempt to accurately and completely portray his brother Seymour via the written word.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. The night before the wedding, Seymour told Muriel that he was too happy to get married. What does he mean by this?
    2. What does Buddy mean when he says that he is an ecstatically happy writer? He tells us about six separate times, and very vehemently at each. Why is he so adamant?
    3. What is the connection between happiness as discussed in "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" (when Seymour says he is too happy to get married) and in "Seymour: an Introduction" (Buddy insists repeatedly that he is an ecstatically happy narrator)?
    4. Seymour says in his diary that Muriel isn't really happy with him. Is he right? And if so, why does Muriel marry him?

    Chew on This

    Buddy is lying when he claims to be happy in "Seymour: an Introduction."

    Buddy is genuinely, as he claims, ecstatically happy as he narrates "Seymour: an Introduction."