By Sam Wang, V Form
Listen to the Echo of Silence: Sound in Salinger’s Nine Stories
J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories opens with a Zen koan: “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Reading through the book, the audience may find the unusual plots and characters do not make sense when interpreted logically. The only breakthrough to these unresolved and thought-provoking endings of Salinger’s stories is through reflecting on “the sound of one hand clapping,” to break the logic and hear the impossible sound.
In the first story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the conversation between Seymour, a veteran of the war, and the little girl Sybil seems random but profound. For instance, Seymour talks to Sybil in a nonsensical way. When asking where is Sybil from, Seymour playfully annoys her by asking, “Is that anywhere near Whirly Wood, Connecticut, by any chance” (Salinger 21). Seymour suggests to Sybil what they can do after going to the water: “we’ll see if we can catch a bananafish,” and when Sybil mentions another child, Sharon Lipschutz, Seymour says to himself, “how the name comes up. Mixing memory and desire” (Salinger 19). The audience may find Seymour strange at first sight. However, looking back to his interaction with Sybil after knowing about Seymour’s suicide at the end, these words may intrigue the audience to think about their connotations. Seymour implies his suffering in the postwar society by bananafish, and he longs for spiritual salvation by Sybil, an innocent child, when almost everyone around him is acting like a bananafish.
According to Seymour, the bananafish cannot pass through the hole because they devour too many bananas which enlarge their body. They are trapped by the hole and can only wait for death. In Seymour’s mind, many people become distorted bananafish, which keep feeding themselves more bananas until the day they die. His suicide prevents the audience from finding out an affirmative answer to his internal world, leaving the story dangling and evocative.
In addition to the hard-to-explain death of Seymour in the first story, the interaction between Eloise and her 10-year-old daughter Ramona in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” also implies a deeper connection than what is presented by the text. Ramona is a strange child who always has an imaginary boyfriend with fully-developed backgrounds. She even designs a deadly accident for Jimmy, her previous imaginary boyfriend——“[Jimmy] got runned over”——which surprises the readers and makes them wonder why the little girl imagines such a cruel thing and what she has suffered in the past (Salinger 50). On the other hand, Eloise is depicted as an indifferent and irresponsible parent who cannot help being drowned in her past memories after her lover dies in a war. The difference between the mother and daughter, however, is that Ramona conceives a new boyfriend after each imaginary death, whereas Eloise loses all of her happiness and innocence after the irreversible death of her husband. The world Ramona creates inside her head mirrors Eloise’s inner desires. This bond between them is vaguely displayed but important to understand the cause of their actions; for instance, Eloise interrupts Ramona’s sleep and even makes her daughter “extremely frightened” (Salinger 55).
At the end of the story, Eloise pleads to Mary Jane, “I was a nice girl… wasn’t I?” (Salinger 56). This confession is also open to interpretation. Her words might strongly reflect: her desire to return to the innocent and carefree world, her regret for not being a responsible and exemplary mother, or her yearning for the good old times with Walter. Eloise loses herself in the past as she is struggling in her current life, but whether she will be saved by Ramona’s innocence or her condition will worsen due to her obsession over her past is unknown.
In Nine Stories, while some characters shroud themselves in blissful wonder, others lose themselves in unwavering realism. For instance, in “The Laughing Man,” the chief tells a creative adventure story about a man who wears a mask because if other people see his grotesque appearance, they will die immediately. Although some details of the chief’s story are nonsense to adults, the story is extremely welcomed by the boys. They even consider themselves “legitimate living descendants of the Laughing Man” (Salinger 92). Furthermore, the character of the Laughing Man symbolizes the creative and imaginative children’s world, such as the “Paris-Chinese border” and the laughing man’s ability to talk with animals (Salinger 91).
At the end of the story, however, while the chief decides to “pull off [the Laughing Man’s] mask” and effectively kills the character, the chief destroys his personal belief in childlike imagination as well as innocence (Salinger 110). The chief is too attached to his gain and loss in the secular world. For example, the chief’s lose of hope in his worsening relationship with his girlfriend, Mary, leads him to “kill” the Laughing Man in an attempt to unload his suffering unto the boys, for whom he is supposed to care. By ending the Laughing Man’s story in a lamentable and realistic way, the chief is no longer able to return to the pure and light children’s world; instead, he is bogged down deeper in the adult world’s logic and annoyance. Although Salinger does not directly predict the chief’s future in “The Laughing Man,” the audience can learn how the Laughing Man’s death relates to the loss of innocence from the description of the boys’ disillusionment.
To understand the koan’s relationship with the unresolved endings in Salinger’s Nine Stories, the audience needs to meditate on the cause and effect of each character’s experience rather than interrogate the logic of the plotlines. For instance, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” was open-ended with the moment of Seymour Glass’s suicide. When Seymour commits suicide, there is no description of the sound of the gunshots as the audience only knows “then [Seymour]… aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple” (26). The silent bullet seems to ask a question, but no one yet hears the answer——the sound of one hand clapping. In the following stories, Salinger’s characters experience all kinds of struggles, such as doubts, joys, deceptions, loves, or sorrows. These characters either follow or deviate from this Zen Koan to understand their struggles or others’ sufferings.
In the process of figuring out this koan, some like Seymour partially realize the importance of innocence and genuine relationships, some like the Chief lose in the world of their own, and others like Teddy achieve spiritual advancement in calmness. Salinger finally reveals how to hear “the sound of one hand clapping” through Teddy, who elucidates the essence of Zen that “logic’s the first thing you have to get rid of” (290). The only way is to clear the logic through meditation. In Teddy’s perspective on life and death, his actions and thoughts transcend rationality and logic. As he attains spiritual advancement, time and aging become no longer important or meaningful, and the limits of life are resolved in Teddy’s boundless, clear heart. Therefore, when Teddy quietly and calmly listens to the world, he may hear a sound beyond which can be heard by the ears. Teddy is an echo of this koan, as the “all-piercing, sustained scream—clearly coming from a small, female child” at the moment of Teddy’s death is also the echo of Seymour’s silent gunshot (Salinger 302). Therefore, the “sound of one hand clapping” serves as a clue to approach the usually mysterious and unresolved plots of Salinger’s stories.
Sam Wang is a V form boarding student from Nanchang, China. She enjoys cooking and learning about different food cultures. At school, she loves taking walks or jogging to Starbucks.
Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. Little, Brown & Company, 1953.