Study Guide

Teddy Themes

By J.D. Salinger

  • Spirituality

    "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.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. How does Salinger blend ideas from different religions to construct Teddy's own religious philosophy? What does this say about religion and spirituality?
    2. What is the distinction between Eastern and Western thought as portrayed in "Teddy"?
    3. Check out Salinger's description of Teddy's clothes, body, and facial features. How does Teddy's physicality compare to his mental and spiritual status? What do you make of this juxtaposition?
    4. Early in the text, Teddy claims that he was close to enlightenment in his previous life – not so close that he could have died and stayed with God, but pretty close. What are we meant to think of Teddy's post-mortem fate this time around? Has he achieved enlightenment, and will he be reincarnated yet again? (This question assumes you agree with the popular theory that Teddy is dead at the end of the story. You don't have to, of course.)

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    "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.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Why does Nicholson get up "rather suddenly" at the end of the text and rush after Teddy?
    2. Teddy tells Nicholson that, if he had his way, he would make children vomit up the apple of logic and intellectual stuff before trying to teach them anything. What does he plan on teaching them, and why would logic or intellectual stuff get in the way?
    3. If Teddy is supposed to be beyond logical and intellectual pursuits, why is he so concerned with word games, and looking up words and phrases in the dictionary?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Mortality

    "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.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How do you feel after reading Teddy's [likely] death at the end of the story?
    2. Does Teddy successfully convince Nicholson that death is no big deal? How do you think Nicholson feels upon hearing that scream at the end of the story?
    3. Teddy writes in his journal that "it," presumably his death, will happen either on the current day or when he is sixteen. Why doesn't he know for sure? What does this tell us about fate and free will in Teddy's religious philosophy?
    4. Teddy explains to Nicholson that he didn't tell the professors in Boston when they were going to die because they didn't really want to know. Does it seem likely that Teddy is correct, given how vehemently the professors were asking him?
    5. What might be the problem with knowing when you're going to die?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. Why is Teddy so staunchly against emotions? What's wrong with feeling things?
    2. Teddy is against emotion; does this mean he is cold and detached? If not, how is this possible?
    3. Teddy says that he loves his parents in the sense that he has "an affinity" for them (4.66). What does he mean by this? Is it really love that he's talking about, or his having an affinity for someone something very different indeed?
    4. Teddy tells Nicholson that he loves God, but that he doesn't love Him sentimentally, as God would never want anyone to love him that way. What way, in Teddy's opinion, does God want people to love him? And why in this particular way?

    Chew on This

    Teddy has succeeded in removing emotion from his life.

    Despite a very convincing façade, Teddy is still consumed with emotion.

  • Youth

    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.

    Questions About Youth

    1. What is the significance of Salinger's protagonist being a small child instead of an adult?
    2. Do the adults in the story take Teddy seriously?
    3. Who controls the conversation that takes up the latter half of the story – Nicholson, or Teddy?
    4. How does Nicholson see Teddy? Does he talk down to him, or look up to him? Does the answer to this question change over the course of their conversation, and if so, what causes this shift?

    Chew on This

    "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.