Study Guide

Teddy Analysis

By J.D. Salinger

  • Tone

    An Odd Combination of Reverence and Detachment

    We can't doubt for a moment the way the author feels about his main character, the "whole and pure" Teddy who "carrie[s] the impact, however oblique and slow-travelling, of real beauty" (1.4). Even Teddy's voice is "oddly and beautifully rough-cut, as some small boys' voices are," and with regard to his crossed eyes the author would have us know that "one might [think] long and seriously before wishing them straighter, or deeper, browner, or wider set" (2.21, 1.4). There's a real sense of respect and admiration for ten-year-old Teddy.

    Perhaps because of this reverence, the author takes Teddy's advice and doesn't go "sticking [his] emotions in things that have no emotions" (4.46). He remains detached, particularly when it comes to Teddy's [likely] death at the end of the story. There is nothing sad and no regret to be found in this ending; the author seems to state it and accept it – just as Teddy wanted.

  • Genre

    Philosophical Literature, Literary Fiction

    The real heart of "Teddy" is the lengthy dialogue between Teddy and Nicholson. So much so, in fact, that the characters seem to exist only to embody certain philosophical ideas. Teddy embodies Eastern philosophy, Nicholson academic skepticism, and Mr. McArdle American capitalism and consumerism. Because the point of the story is ideas, and more particularly, philosophy, we can consider this philosophical fiction.

    Literary Fiction is also an easy label when it comes to Salinger's work. He's one of the great American short story writers, and his relationship with The New Yorker – the crème de la crème of short story publications – is legendary. "Teddy" is one of the many Salinger narratives published in the magazine, and is exemplary of his craft and quality.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Teddy is the name of our protagonist, known more formally as Theodore McArdle. As the central character and focus of the story, he's a fitting source for the title. For a discussion of the name "Teddy" itself, check out "Character Clues." For a discussion of Teddy's role as protagonist, see "Character Roles."

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Part of what makes "Teddy" so famous is its ending. There are actually a few different ways of interpreting that little girl's scream, though one in particular comes forward as the most popular, clear-cut, and convincing. Some will argue to the death that there's absolutely nothing ambiguous about this ending, while others insist that Salinger left it unclear intentionally. Let's take a look at the passage, and then a few different interpretations of it:

    He [Nicholson] was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream – clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls. (5.33)

    The Most Likely Conclusion: Booper pushed Teddy into the empty pool; she's screaming because he fell and died.

    We're inclined – along with the majority of Salinger critics – to go along this route of interpretation. Teddy twice predicts his death in the course of narration. First, when he's writing in his journal: "It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even" (4.20). The second is more explicit, and puts into context the "it" of this first prediction:

    "I have a swimming lesson in about five minutes. I could go downstairs to the pool, and there might not be any water in it. This might be the day they change the water or something. What might happen, though, I might walk up to the edge of it, just to have a look at the bottom, for instance, and my sister might come up and sort of push me in. I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously." (5.9)

    First and foremost, then, Teddy's death justifies him as a certifiable prophet/spiritual genius of sorts, which seems to validate everything he was saying to Nicholson. To those who interpreted Teddy as a poor, confused, but rather imaginative child (see Teddy's "Character Analysis"), sorry – not the case in this interpretation. Teddy not only accurately predicts his own death, but teaches Nicholson – and more importantly, the readers, how to react to it. As he says earlier:

    "If Sven dreamed tonight that his dog died, he'd have a very, very bad night's sleep, because he's very fond of that dog. But when he woke up in the morning, everything would be all right. He'd know it was only a dream. […] The point is if his dog really died, it would be exactly the same thing. Only, he wouldn't know it. I mean he wouldn't wake up till he died himself." (5.11-5.15)

    Teddy has already explained to Nicholson the uselessness of emotions – in particular any sort of grief over death. "They're still pretty afraid to die," he says of the professors in Boston. "It's so silly," he explains. "All you do is get the heck out of your body when you die. My gosh, everybody's done it thousands and thousands of times. Just because they don't remember it doesn't mean they haven't done it. It's so silly" (5.7).

    This isn't just Teddy talking to Nicholson; it's Salinger talking to his readers, giving us hints as to how to deal with Teddy's death at the end of his story. Teddy is on to his next life; perhaps in a non-American body where he can better live spiritually. This is certainly nothing to grieve. As Teddy says to Nicholson: "What would be so tragic about it [my death], though? What's there to be afraid of, I mean? I'd just be doing what I was supposed to do, that's all, wouldn't I?" (5.9).

    Option #2: Teddy commits suicide by jumping headfirst into the pool.

    In Teddy's "Character Analysis," we discuss the possibility – as a few critics have suggested – that Teddy isn't actually a spiritual genius; he might just be a troubled child who has created a fantasy for himself in which he is some sort of prophetic guru. If you like that theory, you might be partial to this interpretation of the story's conclusion. Teddy, fed up with the world in which he lives, has chosen to kill himself. If this is the case, the ending is tragic, and if we buy into Teddy's claim that we should not grieve death, we are making the same mistake as the other characters in the story who failed to save him.

    Option #3: Teddy pushed Booper into the pool, which was in fact full of water; she's screaming playfully as she splashes around.

    One of the issues readers take with the first interpretation is the seeming contrivance of the empty pool – why would Teddy have a swimming lesson scheduled on a day when the pool was emptied for cleaning? Why would the pool even be open on such a day? Of course, it's also possible that such details are simply meant to be ignored; one could find such contrivances in nearly every work of fiction. Another way to counter this theory is to take a look at the specific words used in the final line: It [the scream] was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls (5.33). This would seem to be Salinger's hint that the pool is – as Teddy predicted – empty.

  • Setting

    October 28, 1952, roughly 9:30 to 10:30am, on a cruise ship somewhere on the Atlantic ocean

    We learn the specific date of the story after a glimpse into Teddy's diary. The most interesting element of the setting is the fact that it takes place on board a cruise ship. We don't know exactly where the characters are – somewhere on the Atlantic between Europe and America. What we do know is that they're moving, traveling from one location to another. All we see is a small slice of a much larger journey that everyone is passively taking together.

    It might be a bit of a stretch, but it's tempting to think of the setting as a large-scale metaphor for the idea of reincarnation. As Teddy explains, each physical life that one lives is a small step in the longer journey of the spirit. Like it or not, everyone is on this ship together and moving forward in one direction.

    Another element of setting to consider is the image of the empty pool on top of the ocean. Check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for a discussion of "emptying out" in "Teddy." If you're interested in the connections between "Teddy" and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," you should know that the latter takes place on a beach, while Teddy is out in the middle of the ocean. Something to think about, at any rate.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    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 concludes with "Teddy." Together, these nine stories explore themes of innocence, youth, the psychological effects of war, and Eastern philosophies. In "Teddy," Eastern philosophies are discussed more explicitly than in any of the other eight stories.

    A kōan is a short riddle of sorts that Zen masters give to Zen students. The idea is to meditate on the riddle and come up with a sort of answer. But the answer to the riddle isn't logical. If we ask you, "What is the square root of 435?", you can solve that question using the usual parts of your brain that are involved in mathematical calculations (or a handy calculator). The point is that there is a logical answer here. 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 look up the answer to this one. You have to intuit the answer on your own.

    This is right on course with what Teddy discusses with Nicholson for much of "Teddy." He explains that we are so distracted and filled up with the trivial things we learn in school – like math and science and grammar and logic – that we don't open ourselves up to real spiritual truths. To get at those, you have to "empty yourself" of all the logical truths. Similarly, in Salinger's novel Franny and Zooey, college student Franny Glass complains that in school, all they learn is useless knowledge. Their goal is to amass as much of it as quickly as possible, which she finds no more noble than trying to amass wealth or fame or any material good. Knowledge is pointless, she says, unless it ultimately leads to wisdom.

    So what we have is differentiation between logical or intellectual knowledge on the one hand, and spiritual truth on the other. Teddy is interested in the latter. The "answer" to this kōan belongs to the latter. Possibly, Salinger is advising us that the "answers" to his stories belong to the realm of spiritual truth as well, rather than to an intellectual domain.

    Many of Salinger's nine stories – "Teddy" included – are confusing or ambiguous. In "Teddy," we wonder what to make of the death at the end of the story. In the collection's opening tale, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," we are left wondering at the reasons behind a baffling suicide. If Salinger intends his stories in the kōan tradition, however, it means that we are not meant to "figure out" his works logically. We don't have to understand "Teddy," or the other stories in an intellectual way; instead, we're meant to understand them emotionally or spiritually.

    One last note: Salinger definitely takes this idea seriously, but not so seriously that he can't have a little fun with it. In "A Reading of Salinger's 'Teddy'," scholar James Bryan points out this passage in the middle of the text:

    He [Teddy] sat forward abruptly, tilted his head to the right, and gave his right ear a light clap with his hand. "I still have some water in my ear from my swimming lesson yesterday," he said. He gave his ear another couple of claps, then sat back, putting his arms up on both armrests. (4.52)

    This might very well be Salinger's "intellectual" answer to the kōan he places at the start of Nine Stories. One interpretation is that the author is playing around a bit, and having some fun at the expense of a serious Zen riddle. Another way to look at it is that Salinger maintains his gravity – he's just trying to show us how silly and useless it is to approach a kōan logically. Perhaps he's warning us: if you interpret "Teddy" logically or analytically, you're just clapping your own ear and pretending it's the answer to a difficult and ancient riddle.

  • Writing Style

    Particular, Composed, and Not Without Humor

    Salinger's word-choice is about as far from sloppy as you can get. There's a peculiarity and particularity to each of his phrases that conveys a seeming lifetime's worth of knowledge about characters who are present for only a dozen pages or so.

    Consider his description of Teddy's speech: "Each of his phrasings was rather like a little ancient island, inundated by a miniature sea of whiskey" (2.1). Or of Mr. McArdle: "He had what might be called a third-class leading man's speaking voice: narcissistically deep and resonant, functionally prepared at a moment's notice to outmale anyone in the same room with it, if necessary even a small boy" (1.3). Teddy's physical appearance reveals the same peculiarity of phrasing: "The hole in the shoulder of his T shirt was not a cute hole. The excess material in the seat of his seersucker shorts, the excess length of the shorts themselves, were not cute excesses" (4.1).

    Just by reading these passages, you probably begin to get a sense of the humor in "Teddy." It's by no means slapstick comedy, nor amusing puns, nor sarcasm. It is, once again, a very particular, Salinger brand of humor. You get the sense the author wrote it with a half-smile, and you're bound to feel the text tugging at the corners of your own mouth as you read. It's little details; Teddy, for example, uses the word "nephritis" in his diary and on the next page adds that he needs to look up "nephritis" in the dictionary. He tells himself to be nice to the librarian when the man gets "kittenish." The author tells us that the people in deck chairs looked up at Nicholson "as, perhaps, only people in deck chairs can look up at someone" (4.23). Hilarious? No, but certainly comic to a certain, peculiar, Salinger degree.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Apple of Logic

    Teddy introduces this concept to Nicholson towards the end of their conversation on the sun deck. When he tries to talk to Nicholson about "getting out of the finite dimensions," Nicholson responds as most of us would: a block of wood has clearly defined length and width, an arm is just an arm, and so forth. Teddy's response is that Nicholson is only using logic – something we should dispose of if our goal is spiritual transcendence. "Logic's the first thing you have to get rid of," says Teddy (4.91).

    To understand this better, you should check out Shmoop's "What's Up With the Epigraph?". There, we explain the difference between understanding something logically and understanding something spiritually. 2+2=4 is an axiom you can understand logically. Logical and mathematical truths are true no matter what – they are said to be true a priori. However, the Zen riddle "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is something you have to understand spiritually. There is an "answer" to this sort of question, but not one that you could explain in words to somebody else.

    Teddy is getting at this very distinction. The important things, he explains, aren't things we can understand the way we understand 2+2=4. The important things are questions like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

    Not only is logic unimportant, but it actually gets in the way of spiritual understanding. Teddy thinks of logic as a limitation on mankind. This is where the famous apple of logic comes in:

    "You know that apple Adam ate in the Garden of Eden, referred to in the Bible?" he asked. "You know what was in that apple? Logic. Logic and intellectual stuff. That was all that was in it. So – this is my point – what you have to do is vomit it up if you want to see things as they really are. I mean if you vomit it up, then you won't have any more trouble with blocks of wood and stuff. You won't see everything stopping off all the time. And you'll know what your arm really is, if you're interested." (4.99)

    It can be a little confusing to understand what Teddy means about things "stopping off all the time." To really unpack this in detail, you'd have to do some research into Eastern religious philosophy and start with a solid grasp of its basic tenets.

    One surface way to approach this is to consider Teddy's claim that "everything [is] God" (4. 75). When he saw his sister drinking milk, he realized that "she was God and the milk was God" and that "all she was doing was pouring God into God" (4.75). This is an example of "getting out of the finite dimensions." When you look at a little girl drinking milk, you see a clearly defined glass of milk and a very separate little girl. These are two distinct objects – there is a line where the girl ends and the glass of milk starts. What Teddy is saying, however, is that this is not really the case. Because you're looking at the scene logically, you see finite dimensions. But if you try to understand the scene spiritually, you don't see these clearly defined boundaries.

    Teddy again mentions the apple in his discussion of education. Before poisoning children with the apple of logic, he says, you ought to let them discover the world with their own eyes, free of logic and intellectual boundaries:

    "I wouldn't start with the things schools usually start with. […] I'd first just assemble all the children together and show them how to meditate. I'd try to show them how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that . . . I guess, even before that, I'd get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them. […] I wouldn't even tell them an elephant has a trunk. […] I'd let them just walk up to the elephant not knowing anything […] about it. […] I wouldn't even tell them grass is green. Colors are only names. I mean if you tell them the grass is green, it makes them start expecting the grass to look a certain way – your way – instead of some other way that may be just as good, and may be much better. […] I'd just make them vomit up every bit of the apple their parents and everybody made them take a bite out of." (5.10)

    (A fun aside: Interestingly, two characters in Salinger's novel Franny and Zooey tried just this educational approach with their younger siblings – with a somewhat problematic consequence. Guess you'll have to read the novel to find out more. If it helps, know that one of those characters – Seymour Glass – might be the artistic source for the character of Teddy.)

    Back to the matter at hand: though Teddy seems to have vomited up quite a bit of the apple in question, he explains that most people in the world have not. "The trouble is," Teddy says, "most people don't want to see things the way they are. […] I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters" (4.101). There are quite a few apple-eater examples in the story – Booper, Mr. and Mrs. McArdle, and even Nicholson (see his "Character Analysis") – but Salinger may be making an example of his apple-eater readers, as well.

    Emptying Out

    Getting rid of the apple of logic is an important concept in "Teddy." In fact, getting rid of stuff in general, emptying out your body, seems to be part of Teddy's multi-step program on the path to enlightenment. Check it out:

    He [Teddy] sat forward abruptly, tilted his head to the right, and gave his right ear a light clap with his hand. "I still have some water in my ear from my swimming lesson yesterday," he said. He gave his ear another couple of claps, then sat back, putting his arms up on both armrests. […] He looked perfectly relaxed, even serene. (4.52)

    He shifted in his seat and took out an eyesore of a handkerchief – a gray, wadded entity – and blew his nose. (4.81)

    He's [Professor Peet is] teaching a lot of stuff right now that isn't very good for him […]. It stimulates him too much. It's time for him to take everything out of his head, instead of putting more stuff in. He could get rid of a lot of the apple in just this one life if he wanted to. (5.16)

    Teddy not only condones emptying out for others – like Professor Peet – but he is also still in the process of emptying out his own body. When he gets rid of the water in his ear or blows his nose, it might be symbolic of the other, less tangible emptying out (i.e., getting rid of logic, material concerns, emotions, or intellectual interests) that Teddy is undergoing.

    We should also keep in mind the image of the empty pool at the close of the story (yet another example of emptying out) as well as Teddy's fractured skull (the fatal injury is not mentioned in the ending itself, but is part of Teddy's prediction regarding his own death). Notice that he cracks his head open – the brain being, presumably, the source of all "logic and intellectual stuff" (4.99).

    In his essay "A Reading of Salinger's 'Teddy'" in American Literature, scholar James Bryan makes the observation that, while "Teddy" is a story about emptying out, Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is concerned with just the opposite: the problems of filling yourself up. The protagonist of "Bananafish," Seymour Glass, uses the metaphor of the fantastical "bananafish" to explain the problems of stuffing oneself full of things like materialism. Seymour says:

    "Well, they [the bananafish] 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."

    Three facts make Bryan's connection between these two stories interesting and consequential. First, remember that "Bananafish" is the first tale in Salinger's Nine Stories collection, and "Teddy" is the last. The collection opens with the spiritual problem of gorging, and concludes with the spiritual solution of emptying oneself out.

    Number two, note that both tales end in a death: Seymour's suicide in "Bananafish" and of course Teddy's death in our story. Seymour commits suicide – in one interpretation of the story anyway – in order to escape the disgusting gorging he describes in the passage above. Teddy's death, on the other hand, is the culmination of his emptying out. It's almost as though he has to empty himself out completely to get ready for the death that takes him closer to spiritual enlightenment.

    Third, know that Salinger's fictional character Buddy Glass claims in another story ("Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters") to have written both "Bananafish" and "Teddy." He even hints that the character of Teddy is Seymour in disguise. If "Seymour" deals with the problem of gorging in "Bananafish" and escapes it with his death, then he successfully resolves that problem by emptying himself out in "Teddy" moving on to a better spiritual place. A small but intriguing bit of evidence is the fact that Seymour was quite a prolific poet, whereas Teddy believes poetry to be a distraction. It's as though this Seymour/Teddy character has advanced, and poetry is one of the things that got "emptied out" along the way from "Bananafish" to "Teddy."

    (A brief note: we don't mean to imply that Teddy is literally the reincarnation of Seymour; there are several incongruities in the text that steer us away from this conclusion. Rather, Buddy presents a character with certain problems in "Bananafish" and explores the recovery from such problems in "Teddy.")

    The Orange Peels

    When he's sticking his head out of the porthole, Teddy notices that someone has dumped a garbage can of orange peels into the ocean. Our first thought is that the orange peels demonstrate Teddy's natural curiosity and interest in the world around him. "They float very nicely," he says; "that's interesting" (2.15). But Teddy's thoughts quickly turn from child-like observation to guru-like philosophizing:

    "If I hadn't seen them [the orange peels], then I wouldn't know they were there, and if I didn't know they were there, I wouldn't be able to say that they even exist. […] Some of them are starting to sink now. In a few minutes, the only place they'll still be floating will be inside my mind. That's quite interesting, because if you look at it a certain way, that's where they started floating in the first place. If I'd never been standing here at all, or if somebody'd come along and sort of chopped my head off right while I was –" (2.17-19)

    Unfortunately, Teddy's parents cut him off (yet again), so we don't get to hear his conclusion. But what we do see is that Teddy is no ordinary ten-year-old. At the least, he's unusually preoccupied with philosophy, and at best, as we suspect later, he's a genius/guru/prophet. This dialogue also paints a great contrast between Teddy, philosophizing about reality and perception, and his parents, who are obsessing over the material possessions (the suitcase, the camera), or daily distractions (i.e., the morning's swimming lesson).

    But the orange peels do more than exemplify Teddy's preoccupations. We should take a look at the content of his orange peel comments, particularly the last thing he says (ever, it turns out) to his parents as he leaves their cabin:

    Teddy lingered for a moment at the door, reflectively experimenting with the door handle, turning it slowly left and right. "After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances," he said. "I may be an orange peel." (2.35).

    Let's delve into Teddy's thought process a bit. He first notices the orange peels floating – that's pretty straight forward. He thinks it's interesting, which makes sense coming from a ten-year-old who is still learning which things float and which things sink. Then he notes that, if he hadn't seen the orange peels, he wouldn't have known that they existed. That's fair, right? Now comes the trick part: what if he had never seen the orange peels? Would they still exist?

    This is actually a restatement of the old philosophical riddle: "If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?" If you've read Shmoop's "What's Up With the Epigraph?", than you know all about the concept of a kōan, a.k.a. a riddle with no logical answer. This is a prime example of the second hidden kōan we've uncovered in "Teddy" (see the epigraph discussion for info on the other one: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?").

    What this kōan is getting at, and what Teddy is getting at in his orange peel discussion, is the connection between reality and perception. Is reality dependent or independent of perception? What's so interesting is that Teddy applies this argument to himself: his own existence may be tied to others' perceptions of him. Most interestingly, we can think about Teddy's death in the context of such a premise. Remember his explanation to Nicholson about Sven and his dog. If Sven dreamed that his dog died, everything would be OK when Sven woke up. If Sven's dog dies in real life, everything will be OK when Sven dies himself – or "wakes up" in a very different sense. The dog's death is only "real" while Sven, still living, thinks that it is real. Teddy's death might only be "real," then, in the sense that Nicholson,, Booper, and the McArdles perceive it to be real.

    On the other hand, who actually witnesses Teddy's death? Nicholson doesn't – he only hears Booper's scream, and then the story ends. We, the readers, certainly do not, which is why some readers claim the ending is ambiguous. We don't actually see Teddy die. An interesting question, then, driven by Teddy's orange peel comment, would be: if we don't see Teddy's death, then does Teddy's death actually happen? Or does it only exist when it is perceived? The ending of "Teddy" brings us back to the kōan our protagonist first introduced at its start when contemplating the orange peels.

    The Gladstone and the Leica

    Mr. McArdle's obsession with his Gladstone suitcase and Leica camera exemplify his materialism, or to take on the authorial perspective, his very American materialism. While Teddy waxes philosophic about perception and reality, all his father can do is yell at him to get off the suitcase and retrieve his camera. That the text focuses on specific brand names and monetary values drives home the point further. Teddy will soon show us that such petty concerns are pointless and even ridiculous.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient); First Person (Peripheral Narrator)

    If we look only at the text of "Teddy," we have an uninvolved third-person narrator who tells us what's going on and what's being said – not without bias and interpretation, but excluding any forays into the characters' heads. We stick to Teddy for most of the story, but the camera freely switches to Nicholson for the final scene.

    If we go outside of Teddy, into some of Salinger's other stories, we find some interesting info. Buddy Glass, one of Salinger's fictional characters and first-person narrators of several other Salinger stories, actually claims to be the author of "Teddy." This is an interesting addition, because it means we can use "Teddy" to understand more about the character of "Buddy."

    To do so, however, we have to read some more Salinger, or at least check out "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and Franny and Zooey on Shmoop. You can also read Teddy's "Character Analysis," in which we discuss his connection to Salinger's fictional Glass family characters, including Buddy and "Bananafish" protagonist Seymour Glass.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Teddy doesn't accurately fit any of the Booker plots. The meat of the story is the philosophical debate between Teddy and Nicholson – not any action that we could break down into different stages. Very few things actually happen in this story: Teddy talks with his family, then talks with Nicholson, and then dies (in most interpretations) at the end. The story is about ideas, not plot; character and not events. One can even argue that the protagonist remains essentially unchanged throughout the entire tale. He certainly teaches, but he neither learns nor overcomes difficulties himself.

  • Plot Analysis

    Note: In a typical classic plot, the Climax stage comes before the Suspense stage. However, in this short story, they are reversed: Suspense comes before Climax.

    Initial Situation

    Meet Teddy, boy genius/prophet/spiritual know-it-all.

    We first meet Teddy in the cruise ship environment dominated by his American parents. It's clear that he doesn't belong there; his philosophical interests are out of place with his father's materialism. For this reason, there is some conflict inherent in this initial situation, but the real meat of the story – the events related to Teddy's death – hasn't yet begun.


    Teddy predicts in his diary that "it" might happen today.

    What is this "it"? Teddy finds "It" important enough to record in his journal, but adds that "it" is not really worth mentioning. The impending swimming lesson is part of the tension of the story (everyone keeps asking if it's time for the lesson yet), though the first time through "Teddy" we aren't sure what this has to do with anything. In fact, the real conflict – Teddy's impending death – is still hidden from us at this point.


    "It" turns out to be Teddy's death.

    When Teddy posits to Nicholson the possibility that he might die later that day, we can put two and two together and conclude that this is the "it" he mentioned in his diary earlier. This complicates the conflict in that it raises the stakes considerably. The waters are also considerably muddied by the philosophical content of Teddy and Nicholson's discussion. Now we're not only dealing with Teddy's death, but we also have to ask ourselves what exactly this death will mean. (Absolutely nothing, according to Teddy, but this is a difficult pill to swallow.)


    Nicholson hurries down to the pool.

    (Note: In a normal short story, the suspense stage comes after the climax. In this case, these classic stages are reversed.) Along with Nicholson, we are eager to learn whether Teddy's prediction has come true. We can tell this is suspense time by taking a close look at the narrative. Nicholson gets up "abruptly" and walks "rather quickly" off the sun deck before taking the stairs "fairly briskly" and continuing "quite rapidly" downwards (5.30, 31). Even his progression down to the pool is drawn out and suspenseful: "he continued on down, still quite rapidly, to Main Deck. Then to A Deck. Then to B Deck. Then to C Deck. Then to D Deck" (5.31). Keep in mind, Salinger could have just said: "Nicholson went down to the pool." This is drawn out for a reason, and that reason is suspense.


    The scream in the swimming pool.

    As we discuss in "What's Up With the Ending?", there is some debate concerning the ending. The most popular interpretation, however, is that Teddy died as he predicted earlier. This is the moment, then, that the story has been building towards since Teddy wrote about "it" in his diary. It is also, we note, 10:30 – the time of the swimming lesson that everyone (Teddy, Mrs. McArdle, Booper) has been anticipating all day.


    Actually, it's not that big of a deal.

    If there is a denouement in "Teddy," it is the result of the protagonist's advice to Nicholson (and indirectly, to the readers) not to grieve his death. Death is no big deal, he explains, so as readers we can just relax and accept the story's ending. Notice that the climax is the final line of the story, so the denouement isn't a stage of the narrative; rather, it is a stage of the reader's emotional progression as he reacts to the story's finale.


    Take your pick.

    Again, "Teddy" ends on its climax, so the conclusion is part of the reader's reaction, rather than a stage in the narrative. And how you ultimately react to "Teddy" is up to you – see "What's Up With the Ending?" for a discussion of some different interpretations.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Teddy in the cabin with his parents, his discussion with Booper, and his diary entries. We discover that something important will happen today, but we don't know what it is.

    Act II

    Teddy's discussion with Nicholson. In this segment, the largest thematic and philosophical elements of "Teddy" are explored. This is the meat of the work.

    Act III

    Nicholson is left alone; he then hurries down to the pool deck only to hear the sound of a girl screaming.