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Applauding Adulthood: An Essay on Three of Salinger's Nine Stories
Smiling children clap their hands at all of the happiness in this great big world. Without a care, their imaginations run wild. They lose themselves in colorful stories and delight in life's little things. As time goes by, however, stories end, little things become littler as people grow bigger, and innocence slowly breaks apart and disappears. The smiling child without her innocence is no longer whole, and her world will never be the same. We have known the sound of her two small, carefree hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping? What is left to be heard when an essential part of her youth is missing?
J.D. Salinger presents this Zen Koan before telling any of his Nine Stories. It opens the door to a theme common to his stories, the loss of innocence. He focuses not only on the loss of innocence with youth, but also on events that have changed his characters forever. Ironically, it is often the children, seemingly the perfect models of carefree life and thought, who make this loss most evident.
"A piece of red tissue paper flapping in the wind against the base of a lamppost." (73) This is the sound of one hand clapping. This is the soft, gentle, yet poignant sound that is heard as a young boy, the narrator of "The Laughing Man," loses a part of his childhood. For months, he was so engaged in the story of the Laughing Man that it became a part of his life. It opened his imagination, let him dream of adventure and excitement. This life it encouraged within him was so active and important that it allowed him to block out the darker aspects of the story, the Laughing Man's deformities and the evil of his enemies. When the story came to an end, however, when the Laughing Man died, so did a piece of the boy's childhood. Suddenly, adventure was not enough. Evil had prevailed; deformities had been unmasked. Imagination could no longer hide the realities thrust upon him. Unfortunately, reality can overpower imagination; innocence, like stories, comes to an end. The Laughing Man's poppy-petal mask, a delicate image, is blown away, leaving only the deformed, almost gruesome, face of reality.
"'I was a nice girl,' she pleaded, 'wasn't I?'" (38) This is the sound of one hand clapping. It is louder, more urgent than the tissue in the wind. It is the sound of innocence remembered, long after it has passed. In "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," Eloise realizes the spark of youth that she lost with the death of Walt, a man she truly loved, with help from her young daughter, Ramona. Although Ramona is nearly blind, the eye of her imagination is wide open, and she sees Jimmy, her invisible boyfriend, quite clearly. Eloise is fond of Jimmy and Ramona's make-believe most likely because they subconsciously remind her of the time when she was happiest and still had the innocence of her youth intact, the period during which she was in love with Walt. Walt, who complemented the child within Eloise with his own carefree silliness, was the embodiment of Eloise's innocence. When he was killed, so was the child in Eloise. She did not realize this fact, however, until many years later. Her innocence had drifted away, unnoticed, until Eloise believed she had always been the adult she had come to be. It took a reliving of the experience of Walt's death through Ramona and the death of imaginary Jimmy to make her realize what had happened. When Jimmy was "run over," Ramona quickly replaced him with Mickey (whose invisibleness made him seem equal to Jimmy through Eloise's adult eyes). The anger she showed toward Ramona upon the introduction of Mickey was truly anger she felt toward herself, who replaced Walt with Lew as if it didn't matter, as if no injustice had been committed. She had replaced her inner child with an adult and had never been quite happy since. It was only when she looked at her life through Ramona's glasses that she was able to mourn the loss of Walt, her innocence, her own Jimmy, the invisible, the original, the irreplaceable.
"He...aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet." (18) This is the sound of one hand clapping -- loud, definite, and final. When innocence is lost, it is lost forever. Seymour Glass, the main character in "A Perfect Day For Bananafish," understood this, and it was too difficult for him to handle. Living through the war had stripped him of his inner child. The things he had seen and experienced were too horrible to forget. Because of this, he lost his innocence, and its presence was greatly missed. Seymour felt physically changed by this loss. At the beach, he wore a robe to cover his "tattoos," a strictly adult decoration. These tattoos couldn't be seen, but they were felt. To Seymour, they were the marks of adulthood, which he resented. Although he talked to and played with Sybil, his four-year-old friend, on the day he killed himself, the stories he told her were from the mind of an adult. The bananafish, he told her, who loved to eat bananas, fruits the same color as the little girl's bathing suit, would inevitably die because of their desire for bananas. Seymour, like the bananafish, desired the innocence, the childhood that was wrapped before him in a yellow package. He didn't want to live as an adult. If childhood came to and end, so, he decided, must adulthood. Realizing this, he fired the bullet, dying of his own desires. What's gone is gone; what's done is done.
Although innocence can never be recovered once it is lost, although the show is over when the hands stop clapping, there is still something left behind. Salinger's Nine Stories make this quite clear. The stories end after the loss of innocence has been acknowledged. The reader, then, can decide what will happen to the character, just as she is left with a choice about what to do with her own adulthood. We can choose to go out with a bang or let the wind blow us where it will. It is most important to remember that one hand remains, and a sound can still be made.