JD Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” often appears on lists of must-read short stories, but no one ever explains exactly why that is. To be honest, we can’t really explain it either.
This story is one of Salinger’s most complex and captivating works, and it leaves the reader with nagging questions that remain unanswered. Published as the opening piece in Salinger’s collection “Nine Stories,” the story is shocking and brings the reader into the complex world of the post-war era.
The story opens in a sunny Florida resort, where the reader first meets Muriel and her husband Seymour. Muriel is talking on the phone with her mother, and the dialogue suggests that there has been marital stress since Seymour returned from his time in combat. Salinger’s craft as a writer is seen in his ability to switch between the depiction of frivolous newlyweds and the beautiful setting he describes. At first the problems seem trivial and a routine part of the anxiety that comes from being newly married. However, as the story progresses, the readers are introduced to the deeper psychological problems that Seymour faces.
During our many classes together, we have developed a pretty strong (we hope) understanding of psychoanalytic theory. That being said, this story is full of psychoanalytic cues that allow us to consider the darker part of the human psyche.
Seymour himself is plagued by a number of mental abnormalities that cause him to act on strange impulses, including the development of suggestively pedophilic relationships with young girls he meets on the beach. He swims in the ocean with one child named Sybil in a rather flirtatious and disturbing manner.
As readers, we are both captivated and repulsed by this interaction, and we want to know what Seymour is thinking, a desire that ultimately goes unfulfilled. The story follows Seymour’s interactions with other hotel guests, revealing his social ineptitude and hinting at some sort of psychological repression that the reader desperately wants to uncover.
This story challenges our trust in people and reveals the darkness that follows traumatic experience and permeates our everyday lives. We wish we could reveal the reason why this story is so striking and shocking, but we don’t want to spoil the ending. The story ultimately takes a surprising and twisted turn, revealing the impossibility of ever truly knowing anyone. You’re going to have to trust us here—this story is well worth the read.