Study Guide

Teddy Summary

By J.D. Salinger

Teddy Summary

"Teddy" begins in 1952 in the cruise ship cabin of Mr. and Mrs. McArdle. Their son, Teddy, is a ten-year-old boy who, it turns out, is a genius. Teddy subscribes to the Eastern religious philosophy and believes that he, like everyone else, has lived thousands of lives in previous incarnations. In his previous life, he says, he was a spiritual man in India and very close to enlightenment. Unfortunately, he met a lady and stopped meditating, which is why he was reincarnated in an American body. (It's hard to live a spiritual life in America, Teddy tells us.)

This time around, Teddy is careful not to make the same mistake again. He avoids emotional attachment and contact with women or girls. He meditates daily. He refuses to get caught up in the materialism of his parents and little sister, Booper.

Because of his wisdom and precociousness, Teddy has been analyzed and recorded by the world's top professors of religion and philosophy. On the day this story takes place, his family is returning home to America after a trip around Europe, where Teddy was interviewed at some top-tier universities.

Also on the ship, we soon discover, is a young teacher named Bob Nicholson, who knows of Teddy by reputation and has even heard some of his tapes. It's not long before Nicholson seeks out Teddy, who is sitting on the ship's sun deck and writing in his journal. Before Nicholson interrupts him, we get to read some of Teddy's entries, including the cryptic line: "It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even" (4.20).

Nicholson is eager to hear Teddy's thoughts on religion, reincarnation, and education. Teddy explains quite a bit to him, including the idea that spiritual truth is very different than logical or intellectual knowledge. To get at truth, to eventually reach enlightenment, explains Teddy, you have to empty yourself of logic. He tells Nicholson that the apple Adam ate in the Bible contained "logic and intellectual stuff," and advises him to "vomit it up" if he wants to make any spiritual advancement (4.99). Teddy also explains that emotions are unimportant and get in the way, and lastly that people make way too big a deal about death. We've all died thousands of times, he explains, and you just get out of your body and go on to the next one.

At this point Teddy pauses to belabor his point a bit further. As an example, he tells Nicholson, maybe when he (Teddy) goes down to the pool today for his swimming lesson, the pool will be empty for cleaning. And maybe his sister, not knowing that it's empty, will come up behind him and push him in, and he could hit the bottom, fracture his skull, and instantly die. It wouldn't be a big deal because he'd go on to his next life.

Teddy finally leaves Nicholson to head down to the pool to his swimming lesson. After a few minutes of silent thought, Nicholson gets up and hurries toward the pool himself. Just as he gets to the door of the pool, he hears "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" (last paragraph). The common interpretation is that Teddy is dead, just as he predicted (twice). However, some believe the ending to be ambiguous – see "What's Up with the Ending?" for a full discussion.

  • Teddy

    • "Teddy" begins on a large cruise ship out on the ocean. More specifically, it begins in the cabin of Mr. and Mrs. McArdle, who are still in bed. Their son, Teddy, is standing on his father's Gladstone bag and looking out the porthole at the water below.
    • Mr. McArdle commands his son, several times, to stop crushing his bag. He performs on daytime radio serials and has "what might be called a third-class leading man's voice: narcissistically deep and resonant, functionally prepared at a moment's notice to outmale anyone in the same room as it" (1.3).
    • Mrs. McArdle, sleepily, tells her son not to move, but instead to jump up and down and crush his father's bag. This sets Mr. McArdle off to no end.
    • Meanwhile, Teddy, a ten-year-old boy who's thirteen pounds underweight for his age, is inquisitively staring out the window. He has light brown eyes that are slightly crossed, but his face, just as it is, "carrie[s] the impact, however oblique and slow-traveling, of real beauty" (1.4).
    • Teddy, in his "oddly beautiful and rough-cut voice," informs his parents that they passed the Queen Mary at exactly 3:32 this morning, if anyone is interested.
    • He asks if his parents remember the man who sits next to them in the dining room. It seems this man is a friend of Professor Babcock's and is a teacher himself. He was at a party where someone played the tape Teddy had made for the Leidekker examining group.
    • We gather from listening to this conversation that Teddy is something of a child genius, and a spiritual prodigy. He's been examined and recorded by many philosophy and religion professors for years now.
    • Teddy's parents aren't paying attention. His father is still ordering him to get off the bag already, and his mother wants to know if he remembers he and Booper's (his sister) swimming lesson at 10:30.
    • Teddy sticks his head out the porthole and notes that someone just dumped a garbage can full of orange peels into the ocean. He sees them float, and then slowly sink below the surface. This is interesting, he says, because in a few moments, the only place they will still be floating is his mind – which is where they started in the first place.
    • Mrs. McArdle asks where Booper is. Teddy says that she's fine, as he gave her the camera.
    • This sets Mr. McArdle off again. How could Teddy give a six-year-old his expensive Leica?
    • Teddy calmly explains that he showed her how to hold it so she wouldn't drop it, and he took the film out, "naturally" (2.25).
    • Mrs. McArdle tells him to find Booper, because she wants to see her. She tries to give Teddy a hug, but he escapes her reach.
    • As Teddy stands at the threshold, he muses that after he goes out the door, he may only exist in the minds of his acquaintance. He may be an orange peel.
    • Then he leaves, after refusing to give his mother a kiss on the grounds that he's tired.
    • Teddy finds his way to the Main Deck where a young, good-looking girl in uniform is working. He asks her what time the word game starts this afternoon.
    • The girl thinks this game might be a little over Teddy's head, but he assures her it is not and thanks her for the info. Before he leaves, she asks his name, and he hers in return.
    • When she tells him that she is "Ensign Matthewson," he informs her that, when someone asks you're name, you're supposed to give your whole name, like Jane Matthewson or whatever. At least he thinks that's the way it works. ("Ensign" is just her position on the ship.)
    • Teddy leaves and heads up the stairs again. He finds his sister on the Sports Deck, stacking up the shuffleboard discs into two neat piles. She's also tormenting a little friend of hers named Myron.
    • Teddy informs Myron that, contrary to what Booper says, he's not the stupidest person in this ocean. Then he asks for the camera. He wants Booper to take it back to their room so he can go write in his diary.
    • After some argument, Booper complies, but not before she tells Teddy that she hates him and everybody on this ship.
    • Teddy makes his way down to the Sun Deck, where 75 labeled chairs are basking in the sun. He goes along, reading the label on every single one as he looks for his family's four chairs. He finds them, sits in the middle, takes out his diary, and begins reading. "In no sense – no mechanical sense, at any rate – [do] the words and sentences look as though they had been written by a child" (4.3).
    • Teddy looks at his recent diary entry, which reads "October 27, 1952. Property of Theodore McArdle. 412 A Deck" (4.5). There is a reward if found.
    • Teddy's journal entry is reprinted verbatim: in it, he tells himself to find and wear his father's dog tags, as it will make his father happy and won't be too unpleasant for him (for Teddy). He lists several people to whom he should write letters. He reminds himself to tell Professor Mandell not to send him any more poetry books, since he has enough and doesn't really like poetry anyway. He reminds himself not to say too much on this in the letter, since Mrs. Mandell is a poet.
    • Teddy then has listed several words and phrases to look up in the dictionary.
    • After reading, Teddy takes out a pen and begins another diary entry. He lists all the people he wrote letters to after breakfast, which includes some of the names on his to-do list from the day before. He then uses some of the vocabulary he told himself to look up, and concludes with the rather cryptic line: "It will either happen to day or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even."
    • Teddy is so involved in his work he misses the fact that a man, "thirty or younger," is standing at the foot of his chair (4.23).
    • The man asks to sit down, and takes one of the chairs next to Teddy. He has heavy-set legs and is wearing a jacket "that look[s] as though it ha[s] been aged at some of the more popular postgraduate seminars at Yale, or Harvard, or Princeton" (4.29).
    • He admires the weather, and then asks if Teddy ever feels upset when the weather is poor.
    • Teddy replies that he doesn't take the weather too personally.
    • The young man introduces himself as Bob Nicholson, and we gather that he is the same teacher Teddy was telling his parents about (the one who sits next to them in the dining room and who heard one of Teddy's tapes played at a party).
    • As Nicholson asks Teddy questions, we find out that Teddy's family was traveling around Europe so that Teddy could get interviewed at a bunch of different universities. Now they're on their way back home to America.
    • Teddy asks if Nicholson is a poet. Bob replies he is not. Teddy thought he might be because "poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions" (4.46).
    • Nicholson argues with Teddy that emotions are necessary for a poet. But Teddy counters that poetry doesn't have to be about emotion. He recites two, short, Japanese poems that have no real emotions in them.
    • Teddy then starts clapping one hand over his ear – it seems he has some water left in it from his swimming lesson the day before.
    • Nicholson wants to talk about the "pretty disturbed bunch of pedants" that Teddy left up in Boston (4.53). Apparently the same night that Teddy recorded that tape, he made a few predictions that didn't sit too well with the professors.
    • But Teddy is still on the topic of emotions. He would like to know why people – like his father – think it's so important to be emotional. Teddy doesn't remember ever having to use emotions.
    • Nicholson asks if Teddy loves God. Sure, replies Teddy, but he doesn't love him sentimentally. He can't imagine God ever wanting people to love him sentimentally.
    • Then Teddy clarifies in what way he loves his parents – he has an affinity for them, he says. And they don't really love him and his sister; rather, they love their reasons for loving them.
    • Teddy inquires after the time and decides that he has about ten more minutes to talk with Nicholson until his swimming lesson.
    • Nicholson then wants to know about Teddy's belief in reincarnation. As Nicholson's heard it, Teddy believes that in his last incarnation he was a very spiritual man in India.
    • Yes, Teddy affirms, but toward the end of his life he "met a lady" and "sort of stopped meditating" (4.73). He wasn't so spiritually advanced that he could have died and gone straight to Brahma (that is, stayed as a soul with God instead of coming back to Earth in a body), but he wouldn't have had to be reincarnated in an American body if he hadn't messed things up toward the end of his life. It's very hard to live a spiritual life in America, Teddy explains, "People think you're a freak if you try to" (4.73).
    • Nicholson wants Teddy to talk about the experience he narrated on his last tape – it seems Teddy claimed that he had his first mystical experience when he was six.
    • Yes, says Teddy. He was six when he realized that everything was God. He looked at his sister drinking milk, and he realized that all she was doing was pouring God into God.
    • And when he was four, Teddy adds, he could get out of the finite dimensions quite easily.
    • Nicholson wants to know more about this – how exactly does one get out of the finite dimensions?
    • Teddy has Nicholson hold up his arm. He explains that many of the problems Nicholson and his buddies have are caused by logic. When they look at a block of wood and decide that it has length and width, they're being blocked by logic.
    • You have to get rid of logic, says Teddy, if you want to get out of the finite dimensions.
    • He goes on to talk about Adam eating the apple in the Garden of Eden. You know what was in that apple, he asks Nicholson – it was logic. "Logic and intellectual stuff" (4.99). If you want to see things as they really are, he explains, you have to vomit up the apple.
    • "The trouble is," says Teddy, "most people don't want to see things the way they are" (4.101). They don't even want to stay with God after they die, all they want is to keep getting reborn into new bodies all the time. "I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters," he concludes (4.101).
    • Nicholson spends some time thinking about this. Then he asks Teddy whether the rumors are true: did he really tell all those professors when they would die?
    • No, says Teddy. He could have, but he knew that in their hearts they didn't really want to know. Instead, he told them times and places where they should be very, very careful. Anyway he thinks it's pretty silly that they're so afraid to die, since everybody's done it thousands of times. All you do is just get out of your body, after all.
    • For example, says Teddy, when he goes down to his swimming lessons in about five minutes, it might be that today is the day they have the pool all emptied out for cleaning. And his sister might come up behind him and push him in, for fun, since she doesn't like him very much and "hasn't been a human being for very many lives" (5.8). And he might fracture his skull and die instantaneously, but it wouldn't mean anything.
    • Nicholson retorts that, even if his death wouldn't bother Teddy, it certainly would bother his parents.
    • This launches Teddy into an example. If Sven (Sven is the trainer who works in the gym) had a dream that his dog died, then Sven would be sad. But when he woke up, he'd know it was just a dream. If Sven's dog really dies, Sven will "wake up" when he dies himself.
    • Teddy worries that he'll be late for his swimming lesson and excuses himself. Nicholson stops him. He wants to know why Teddy told Professor Peet to stop meditating after the first of the year.
    • Teddy explains that Professor Peet is very spiritual, but that teaching isn't good for him. He should be emptying himself out instead of putting more intellectual stuff into his head.
    • Before he lets Teddy go, Nicholson wants to know how Teddy would change the education system. Nicholson teaches education, which is why he's so interested.
    • Teddy explains that he would start by showing kids the world before making them take bites of the apple. In fact, he'd start by making them vomit up any bites their parents made them take in the first place. Then, if they wanted to learn all that intellectual stuff later, they certainly could.
    • Nicholson asks if he'd ever consider doing medical research when he grows up.
    • No, says Teddy – doctors are too concerned with things like cells. They think they have importance all on their own.
    • Teddy points out that he grew all of his cells himself, so he must remember how to grow them. He may have forgotten how, after all these years, but if he really wanted to remember he could drag it out.
    • Teddy finally manages to leave for his swimming lesson. Nicholson sits alone for a few minutes, lost in thought. Finally he gets up and "rather quickly" makes his way down to D Deck (5.30).
    • As he heads to the pool area, he suddenly hears "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).