The purpose of this essay is to look at J. D. Salinger’s concept of time as it is revealed in his short story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” (“Esmé”). It is an early work of Salinger’s, published in The New Yorker on April 8, 1950, a year after his first short story “A Nice Day for Bananafish” appeared in that magazine. His seminal work, The Catcher in the Rye came out the year after “Esmé” and his last published work, “Hapworth 16, 1924” appeared in the New Yorker in 1965. Salinger retreated to Cornish, New Hampshire in 1953 and slowly cut himself off from most of his friends, finally becoming a recluse and writing for his own pleasure. He died on January 27, 2010 in Cornish at the age of ninety-one.
There has not been a lot written on “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” and the best of what has been offered is generally centered on the biographical nature of the work with focus on the relationship between Salinger’s war experience breakdown and that of Sergeant X.[i] It is clear the work is biographical and in this essay we won’t ignore that implication. Scholars and critics have also argued the nature of Esmé’s “love” and how that love “cured” Sergeant X. They find the denouement or Sergeant X’s epiphany in the letter he receives from Esmé at the time of his breakdown central to the meaning of the story.[ii]
These reflections are all interesting and increase appreciation of the work. However, this essay takes a very different tack. It looks at the structure and technique of the story and what it tells us about the metaphysics of the author. Unfortunately, metaphysics is a term almost destroyed today by its myriad and vaporous applications; it would seem any world-view, cultural, social, psychological, historical, etc. can now be identified as metaphysics. Here, however, we narrow the definition to the author’s essential understanding of the way the world works—at least as it is revealed in this particular story.
Jean Paul Sartre, in his essay on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, offers us a possible framework which might help identify Salinger’s metaphysics.[iii] He tells us that, “A fictional technique always relates back to the novelist’s metaphysics.” If this is true, what does Salinger hold as the underlying nature of things that leads him to structure Esmé the way he has? In fact, what is this story “about?” Esmé’s love? Her innocence? Sergeant X’s “cure?” Salinger’s breakdown? The horrors of war? The importance of human relationships? While all these are contributive features, the way Salinger has structured the story does not support them as pivotal elements. We take a page from Sartre’s book here and suggest that the central element of the story is a metaphysics of time.
Sartre argues that The Sound and the Fury is about “time” and man’s misfortune in being time-bound. Time here is comprised of a present filled with the past but no future. “Faulkner’s present is essentially catastrophic,” Sartre says. “ It is the event which creeps up on us like a thief, huge, unthinkable—which creeps up on us and then disappears. Beyond this present time there is nothing since the future does not exist. The present rises up from sources unknown to us and drives away another present; it is forever beginning anew.” Sartre suggests that this is why Faulkner has broken up time in his story and “then scrambled it to pieces.” Faulkner’s metaphysics, he says, would allow The Sound and the Fury to be written no other way.
In similar fashion, Salinger has not given us a story with a traditional time or plot line. Exposition, development, resolution do not roll out in an orderly fashion in “Esmé.” In fact, Salinger begins his story at the end, “Just recently, by air mail, I received an invitation to a wedding….” He then, by means of a letter or story for Esmé, launches into an account of the past with a narrative about his meeting with the thirteen-year-old girl and her brother Charles in a café six years earlier. All this in the first person switches to the third person point of view as he goes on to tell us about the breakdown of Sergeant X. Salinger then finishes his narrative by doubling back to the “present” adopting the first person again and closing the circle. With no peaks or valleys, the narrative is a seamless flow from the present to the past and back to the present all enclosed in a neat capsule.
In terms of time, what Salinger has created is a closed system. A closed universe in which equilibrium has been reached— an eerie unchanging present filled with the past. The end is contained in the beginning. When we meet Esmé at choir rehearsal and then the café in 1944, we already know that she survives the war, has grown up, and is preparing to marry. When we meet Sergeant X in the throes of his “breakdown” in 1945 we already know he regains his faculties and moves on to a middle-class life. He and his Esmé are already in a box that has achieved stasis. There will be no further change, no future, only the present with its frozen past.
This is not the case in The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner has shaken the box he has built and events are careening all over the place. His metaphysics of time in this novel is not static; events are pushed and pulled forward and backward in a dramatic and dynamic universe. His system may be closed, but events are still alive, ricocheting off the walls of the past into the present of each of the characters. Equilibrium has not yet been reached so, contrary to Sartre’s conclusion there is a limited future and the reader feels that the characters are actually free to chart their own destiny. And to a small degree—within their closed system—they are. Unlike Dilsey, we are not sure of the beginning much less the end of this tale. We only know each moment—and Faulkner inserts each like a knife blade between our ribs. In amazement and frustration we experience the tension of these unsettling moments in time and if we try to unjumble the course of events, the story dissipates like a puff of steam.
It is the watches that play a unifying role in both stories and advance the metaphysics of time suggested by their structure. The Sound and the Fury identifies two aspects of time: temporality (being bounded in time) and chronology (bound within a sequence of events). For Faulkner, temporality is a condition, chronology is a “mind-function” like “excrement or sweating,” Quinton’s father says. Lumping time in manageable segments is formed by the mental gravity of man’s imagination and creativity. This aspect of time, measured off by the hands of a watch, we can escape on occasion. But temporality is our state of being. When Quinton’s father gives him the watch he says, “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won, he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
To escape the chronology of time Quinton breaks the crystal of his watch and plucks off its hands. The watch continues to tick. He attaches the chain to his vest and places the watch in his pocket. Throughout the day, he is not unaware of its ticking. He hears the watch and the events of the past careen around in his mind. They are relentless in their insistence that they be recognized, and fill each present with pain and guilt. What is revealed to Quinton is “his own folly and despair.” Victory over time “is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” Quinton believes now that the only way to conquer temporality and silence the ticking of the watch is to kill himself. “I returned up the corridor, waking the lost feet in whispering battalions in the silence, into the gasoline, the watch telling its furious lie on the dark table. Then the curtains breathing out of the dark upon my face, leaving the breathing upon my face. A quarter hour yet. And then I’ll not be. The peacefullest words. Peacefullest words. Non fui. Sum. Fui.” (I was not. I was. I am not). We could say here that Quinton’s thought of his death is anticipation and as anticipation, a projection into the future. Sartre suggests, however, that Quinton’s suicide is not “anundertaking, but a fatality. In losing its element of possibility it ceases to exist in the future.” Quinton has already killed himself and thus is time conquered by extinguishing any awareness of it in the conscious mind. The ticking watch with no hands lies because for Quinton time has already stopped.
The arrow of time is unrelenting in the physical universe, however, and we know it will go forward forever in an open universe or until equilibrium is met in a closed system.[iv] In the mental universe time is an integral part of consciousness, tying together remembrance of the past and anticipation of the future in a dynamic ever changing present stretching toward its possibilities.
And this brings us to the closed system Salinger has given us in “Esmé.” A self-contained system that has reached stasis. When Sergeant X receives Esmé’s watch the crystal is already broken, and even though the hands are in place, they are still. The mechanism is not running. Unlike Quinton, Sergeant X is not bedeviled by any noise of ticking. “He wondered if the watch was otherwise undamaged, but he hadn’t the courage to wind it to find out. He just sat with it in his hand for another long period.” Time has indeed stopped for Sergeant X and he is trapped in an unmoving universe. At this moment he has the opportunity to shake the box and at least get the pieces moving. Start the watch! We are on the edge of our seats shouting, start the watch for God’s sake! Start the watch. At the moment of awareness, the inauguration of consciousness of the absurd—and Sergeant X must see his world: war, death-camps, as absurd—Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus says, “What follows is the gradual return into the chain (the acts of a mechanical life) or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awareness comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.”
Quinton lost the battle and opted for suicide. “And I will look down and see my murmuring bones and the deep water like wind, like a roof of wind, and after a long time they cannot distinguish even bones upon the lonely and inviolate sand. Until on the Day when He says Rise only the flat-iron would come floating up. It’s not when you realize that nothing can help you—religion, pride, anything—it’s when you realize that you don’t need any aid.” Time is his misfortune, Quinton’s father told him, and man is the sum of his misfortunes.
Sergeant X also loses the battle and opts for suicide, albeit suicide of a different type. The epiphany at the end of the story, “Then suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy,” would lead us to believe that Sergeant X has found a way out of his mental thicket. “You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of becoming a man with all his fac-with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.” And in fact we know he recovers because by all accounts he appears quite healthy in the opening paragraph of the story. But is he?
“Just recently, by air mail, I received an invitation to a wedding that will take place in England on April 18th. It happens to be a wedding I’d give a lot to get to. And when the invitation first arrived, I thought it might just be possible for me to make the trip abroad, by plane, expenses be hanged. However, I’ve since discussed the matter rather extensively with my wife, a breathtakingly levelheaded girl, and we’ve decided against it—for one thing, I’d completely forgotten that my mother-in-law is looking forward to spending the last two weeks in April with us. I really don’t get to see Mother Grencher terribly often, and she’s not getting any younger. She’s fifty-eight. (As she’d be the first to admit.)”
This is the most revealing paragraph in the story and perhaps the most important. It is the statement of a man who has committed suicide—or we might call it middle-class despair. He has acquiesced to the static nature of his closed world. Equilibrium has been achieved in his closed system; possibilities are neatly obviated and he dare not shake the box. At least Quinton had the courage to jump off the bridge with the flat-irons in his pockets. Sergeant X (can we read Salinger here?) constructs a closed, static universe for himself, then complains that he’s trapped in it. “It happens to be a wedding I’d give a lot to get to.” Well, apparently not too much. “I’d completely forgotten that my mother-in-law is looking forward to spending the last two weeks in April with us. I really don’t get to see Mother Grencher terribly often,…” Oh my, the young girl who saved his life with her letter of concern and the gift of her father’s watch has grown up, is getting married and invites him to the wedding he “would give a lot to go to,…” but he can’t because his mother-in-law is coming. So in response, he sends a wimpering missive out of his bunker. What sadness. We mourn for this man.
What the opening paragraph describes is a man in despair. Sergeant X defines himself here in terms of his own limiting circumstances. He is a victim of his closed system and unlike Quinton refuses to embrace his fate. Sleep is used by Salinger as a symbol of hope for Sergeant X but in reality it is a retreat into the shadows of forgetfulness. Sergeant X’s despair is truly a “sickness unto death.”[v]
Salinger, however, is not Sergeant X no matter how close the biographical similarities. And one story does not make a metaphysics. But if this analysis of “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” resonates at all, if the closed, static structure of the story does reflect the metaphysics of the author, then perhaps we are a step closer to understanding why Salinger retreated from public life, closed himself off from many of his friends, and folded in upon himself in his custom-made writing bunker to pen words meant for his eyes alone.
[ii] Alsen, Eberhard, New Light on the Nervous Breakdown of Salinger’s Sergeant X and Seymour Glass, CLA Journal, Volume 45, Issue 3, 2002.
[iii] Sartre’s essay may be found in Jean-Paul Sartre Literary Essays, or on line at:www.usask.ca/english/faulkner/main/criticism/sartre
[iv] For a full discussion of the “arrow of time” see Sean Carroll’s, From Eternity to Here, The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time.
[v] See Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death for an excellent psychological/theological discussion of the nature of despair.