"Teddy" explores different ideas in Eastern religious philosophy, focusing on reincarnation, Zen kōans (a.k.a. philosophical riddles), transcendence, detachment, and enlightenment. The story makes the point that living a spiritual life is very difficult in America, and shows some stereotypical American resistance to Eastern ideas. Main character Teddy maintains that it is the soul, not the body, which matters; therefore, physical pleasures and any sort of materialism are to be avoided.
A reader need not have any background in Eastern religions nor even grasp the nuances of Teddy's philosophical argument to understand "Teddy."
To understand "Teddy," a reader needs to be well versed in the religious philosophy Teddy discusses.
"Teddy" explores different kinds of wisdom and knowledge. Main character Teddy embraces a spiritual understanding of the world and the soul, and discusses at length the danger of logic and intellectual concerns. Logic, he explains, gets in the way of real knowledge. To grasp how the world really works, he says, we have to rid ourselves of logic. Teddy's serene understanding of life and death is contrasted with the overly academic concerns of Nicholson, whose self-congratulatory approach to knowledge seems to be looked down on by the author.
An overly-logical, analytical, or intellectual approach to "Teddy" obscures the story's real meaning.
In "Teddy," Salinger reveals his lighthearted approach to Zen and pokes fun at those who take it too seriously.
"Teddy" explores many tenets of Eastern religious philosophy, but most importantly the idea of reincarnation. Main character Teddy McArdle insists that death is merely the death of the body; the soul continues on to its next life. At the end of all of these lives, Teddy explains, man gets to stay with God instead of returning to a mortal life. (The text cites this as the "Vedantic theory of reincarnation.") Because of this belief, Teddy maintains that death is nothing tragic, nor even sad. The readers are taught to accept death with detachment, rather than grieve it.
Despite Teddy's insistence that emotions are useless and death is nothing, Salinger intends his readers to feel sad at the end of "Teddy."
The ending of "Teddy" is anything but tragic; Teddy himself has taught the reader that death is not anything to lament.
Love is just one of the many emotions main character Teddy McArdle feels we should all do without. As spiritual guru well versed in Eastern religious philosophy, Teddy believes that emotions get in the way of spiritual advancement. They are distracting, he explains, and not helpful. Because Teddy believes in reincarnation, he feels as though emotional involvement in any one particular life serves no purpose – each life is, after all, only a drop in the bucket in the span of the long, immortal lives of our soul. Teddy discusses love in particular as having different forms. Sentimental love serves no purpose, but one can "love" God in a very different, proper way.
Teddy has succeeded in removing emotion from his life.
Despite a very convincing façade, Teddy is still consumed with emotion.
Like many of Salinger's works, "Teddy" glorifies a young child as pure and beautiful at the expense of seemingly crass, jaded, and materialistic adults. The author grants this particular child, Teddy McArdle, with the spiritual wisdom of many lifetimes (Teddy believes in reincarnation) and intelligence far beyond his years. Because Teddy is a child, many of the adults around him miss the value of his insights.
"Teddy" employs the typical Salinger dichotomy between ignorant adults and wise children.
Nicholson is unable to learn from Teddy because he can't get past Teddy's age.