By: Helynna Lin, V Form
Maturity and Youth: Connection in “For Esme, with Love and Squalor”
In J.D.Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye, the rebellious teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, leaves school and wanders in New York City, trying to resolve his hatred towards the ingenuine, superficial adult world and his nostalgia of youthful innocence. The theme, conflict between youth and maturity, is continued in Salinger’s short story, “For Esme, with Love and Squalor.” The story takes place in an English town where American soldier Sergeant X prepares himself for battle and meets Esme, a 13-year-old girl who has recently lost her parents in war. They have a good conversation, at the end of which they promise each other to exchange letters. After D-Day, Sergeant X experiences a mental breakdown and loses the courage to live, but the arrival of Esme’s letter brings him strength to continue living. In this story, the wartime and battlefield are representative of the dark sides of society, and the two characters are symbols of adults and adolescents. By describing the connection between Esme and Sergeant X, Salinger proposes that youth and maturity can resolve one another’s struggles and fight against the downsides of society.
Esme is representative of teenagers in the process towards maturity, and Sergeant X’s adult insights provide her a passage out of the turmoil. Esme is still dependent on parenthood, as evidenced by her wearing her father’s wristwatch all the time. The death of Esme’s parents, caused by the war, forces Esme out of childhood and into adolescence, where she experiences confusion and fear. She craves to understand the emotional burdens imposed upon her and therefore has a special interest in squalor (Salinger 151). Desperate for support, Esme approaches Sergeant X in the tea house and starts a conversation. She demonstrates insecurity of self-image, which is a typical characteristic of teenagers. She twice complains about her outlook, asks Sergeant X if she is “terribly cold,” and worries about her lack of a sense of humor (Salinger 143). Recognizing Esme’s struggles, Sergeant X reassures her and helps establish her confidence. Although the conversation starts with Esme’s demand, she is ready to reciprocate by the end of it, as she proposes an exchange of letters with Sergeant X. Because of Sergeant X’s understanding, which comes from the experienced perspective of an adult, Esme obtains the courage to fully engage herself in the world.
Esme’s love for Sergeant X helps the latter recognize his emotional desires, which used to be covered by the force of maturity. Before meeting Esme, Sergeant X is nonchalant about his own life. He throws a gas mask into his bag even though he knows that he will not have the time to wear it while facing the enemy. Later, when he crosses the town, he carelessly walks through flashes of lighting and claims that “they either had your number on them or they didn’t” (Salinger 134). It is in this apathetic mental state that he meets Esme, who shows great care towards him. She sees that he is “extremely lonely” and has “an extremely sensitive face” (Salinger 144). Such subtle yet profound observations are confirmed by Sergeant X, who then comes to realization of his solitude. Having been in the army for three years, he is too accustomed to the depressive war atmosphere to generate response to it. His ignorance of his own loneliness comes from his familiarity with the environment, and such ignorance symbolizes an adult’s numbness of sentimental demands in an aloof society. In the course of their encounter, Esme has given Sergeant X warmth of company. As a result, in comparison to the aloof attitude at the beginning of the story, Sergeant X is able to feel “strangely emotional” when Esme departs (Salinger 154). He has discovered his need of another person’s care and thus obtains hope of survival. Sergeant X’s realization proves that the genuineness and passion of youth can bring adults to a self-awareness that maturity blocks.
In the second part of the story, maturity and youth come together to protect the hope of survival from the antipathy of the world. After being wounded during D-Day, Sergeant X is put in charge of arresting remaining enemies, many of whom have hardly committed egregious crimes. Fully immersed in cruelty and indifference, Sergeant X undergoes a mental breakdown. Unfortunately, the people surrounding him are ignorant of both his sufferings and the reasons why he suffers. For example, Corporal Z, another soldier, recalls his accidental killing of a cat during a mission with a jocular tone, demonstrating an indifference towards life that contradicts the values of Sergeant X. In response to the malice that he feels in his surroundings, Sergeant X seeks for comfort in childishness. He tells Corporal Z that the cat he kills is a German spy “dressed up in a cheap fur coat,” as if it justifies his killing an innocent life (Salinger 167). Sergeant X’s miserable situation symbolizes the frailty of humans in a malicious environment, and his childish approach to heal his pain indicates that youth can offer a solution to an adult’s mental plight. Finally, Esme’s letter arrives and reconnects Sergeant X with the world. He is able to function and feel sleepy again (Salinger 173). Accompanied by the letter is the broken wristwatch of Esme’s father. The fact that Esme is willing to give up her father’s watch implies that she no longer needs to rely on a parental figure and has liberated herself from the adolescent infliction; for Sergeant X, the wristwatch’s shattered glass surface means that he has broken the illusions of maturity and comes to tranquil acceptance of the world’s dark sides. For both the teenager and the adult, maturity and youth resolve each other’s struggles and empower the individuals against the world’s evil.
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Salinger uses this koan as the epigraph to Nine Stories, his collection of short stories, in order to address the conflict between youth and maturity, which is a theme of many of his stories. The way that youth and maturity come to harmony in “For Esme, with Love and Squalor” generates the sound of two hands clapping, the hope of human connection, and the possibilities of resolution that lie in human nature.
Helynna Lin is a V Form boarding student from Guangzhou, China. She is the head of the school poetry club, plays the piano, and enjoys traveling.
Salinger, J. D. Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Print.