Originally published in the New Yorker in 1950, “For Esme – With Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger is a semi-autobiographical story, having been greatly influenced by Salinger’s own experiences as a soldier working in the counter-intelligence unit of the United States Army in World War II. The story is divided into two parts, the first part being narrated by a first-person narrator, and the second by a limited third-person narrator. The entire story is arranged inside a frame narrative of a letter from the narrator to the titular character, Esme, although the story is not written in epistolary form.
American writer J.D. Salinger, best known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye, was also a prolific short-story writer, some of his shorter works having been widely read and anthologized.
For Esme – With Love and Squalor | Summary
The story begins with the narrator receiving an invitation to attend a wedding in England on the 18th of April, a wedding that he really wants to attend, but won’t be able to as he is expecting a visit from his mother-in-law around the same time. Regardless of his physical presence at the wedding, however, he proclaims that he is not the type who lets a wedding pass without any excitement or surprise and chooses to disclose a few facts about the bride who he met almost six years ago. He is not aiming to please anyone, and would be glad if his notes cause the groom some uneasiness, as he is aiming to “edify” and “instruct”.
He begins recounting his memories from April 1944, when he was in Devon, England, being one of sixty American soldiers receiving specialized pre-invasion training. The soldiers in his group were all introverted, “letter-writing types” who rarely spoke to each other outside the hours of duty. Outside training, the narrator would wander around the countryside on clear days, and read a book on rainy days. On the last day of the three-week course, a particularly rainy Saturday, the narrator along with his comrades is supposed to leave for London on a train scheduled at 7 p.m. By 3, he is packed and ready to go, including a gas-mask container that he has filled with books, having thrown the gas-mask off a porthole of his ship, knowing that he will never get it out in time if the enemy actually uses gas bombs.
After watching the rain from the window for some time, he abruptly puts on his raincoat and walks out in the storm. He stops to read the bulletin board in front of the church in the center of the town, reading the numerals on it. He reads a list containing the names of children who are to attend choir practice and decides to enter the church. He passes a dozen adults and settles in the front row, watching twenty children aged from about seven to thirteen sitting on chairs on the rostrum. Their coach was instructing them to sing while opening their mouths wider, asking them to understand and absorb the meaning of the verses they are singing. At her signal, the children begin singing without instruments or interference, their voices unified, “melodious and unsentimental”, and although the hymn was unknown to the narrator, he kept hoping that it would last long. As he scanned the children’s faces, one of them catches his attention. She is a girl of about thirteen, seated on the end chair of the front row which is nearest to the narrator-
“with straight ash-blond hair of ear-lobe length, an exquisite forehead, and blasé eyes that… might very possibly have counted the house.”
Her voice could be heard distinctly from the other voices as it had “the best upper register, the sweetest-sounding, the surest, and it automatically led the way.” The girl, however, appeared bored with her own ability and yawned twice in the middle of the song in a “ladylike”, close-mouthed manner. As the song ends and the coach starts chastising the girl for yawning, the narrator leaves the church. He crosses the street and enters a tearoom that appeared empty, ordering tea and cinnamon toast.
As he settles down and begins to reread a couple of old letters from his wife and mother-in-law, the girl from the choir enters the tearoom with a child who looks like her brother, and a woman, presumably their governess. She sits on a table that is directly in front of the narrator, pleasing him. Her little brother, however, is not ready to sit down and keeps annoying their governess by sliding in and out of his chair despite her orders, until his sister orders him to sit down and he obeys. She catches the narrator staring at her and stares back for a moment, before giving him “a small, qualified smile” that is “oddly radiant”. In answer, the narrator smiles back in a much less radiant manner, trying to keep the charcoal filling in his front teeth from showing. The “young lady” now comes and stands beside his table in a poised manner, wearing a wonderful Campbell tartan dress. “I thought Americans despised tea”, she remarks, genuinely curious. The narrator replies that some Americans prefer tea to all other drinks, and invites her to join him, which she accepts. She sits down, displaying great poise and posture, staying true to the narrator’s manner of addressing her as a “young lady”.
As he begins the conversation by remarking on the weather, he realizes that she detests small talk. He notices that she is wearing a ‘military-looking’ watch that is too large for her wrist as she tells him that she remembers him from choir practice, confirming the narrator’s assessment of her as a good observer. He confirms her observation and compliments her voice, and she replies that she confidently replies that she will be a jazz singer and make lots of money, retiring at thirty and living on a ranch in Ohio. She asks the narrator if he knows Ohio, and he tells him that he has only crossed it a couple of times. As he warns him about the roughness of the country in Ohio, she tells him that another American has already warned him about it, the narrator being the eleventh American that she has met. She asks him if he attends the “secret Intelligence school on the hill”, and while he denies it, she is not fooled, and smugly tells him that she “wasn’t born yesterday”. She remarks that he looks “quite intelligent for an American”, and the narrator calls out her snobbery. She blushes but insists on the wild manners that she has seen in the ones that she met, claiming that one of them even threw a bottle of whiskey at her aunt’s window. While the narrator tries to excuse the behavior by citing their loneliness and the hardships that they encounter, the girl does not seem convinced. Fretting about her hair momentarily, she asks him if she is married. When he tells her that he is, she asks him if he is “very deeply in love with” his wife, or if it is too personal a question. The narrator, however, does not seem to have a problem with the question. She claims that she is not “terribly gregarious”, but the narrator appeared very lonely, which made her come over to him. He thanks her for her consideration, and tells her that he was, in fact, feeling lonely. She is trying to be more compassionate as her aunt tells her that she is a “terribly cold person”. She is an orphan who lives with her aunt, along with her brother. She tells him how intelligent and sensuous her mother was, and asks him if he finds her to be cold, which he denies strongly, finding her very warm instead. As he introduces himself and asks her for her name, she tells him her name is Esme but refuses to disclose her surname as she has a title, which she thinks he might be impressed by, like most Americans.
At this moment, the narrator catches Esme’s brother, Charles, standing behind him, who tells his sister that their governess wants her to go back to her own table and finish her tea, an order that she has been ignoring for some time and continues to ignore. Little Charles settles down on the chair between the narrator and Esme, innocently asking the narrator “Why do people in films kiss sideways”. As this baffled the narrator himself in childhood, he humorously replies that they have too large noses to kiss directly. Esme introduces her brother, informing the narrator that he is “extremely brilliant for his age.” As Charles begins his childish antics, his sister tells the narrator that he really misses their father who was very fond of him, as he looks like their mother. She, on the other hand, resembles her father, who was killed in North Africa.
As Charles’ mischievous antics continue, his sister threatens him that she will send him back to their governess. The narrator jokes about Charles’ Bronx cheer, and Esme comments on his dry sense of humor. She and her father reportedly didn’t have any, which she is worried would make life difficult for her. After a moment, she tells him that “Charles misses him exceedingly,” adding that “He was an exceedingly lovable man. He was extremely handsome, too.” The narrator nods, supposing her father also had an exceptional vocabulary, which is reflected in his daughter. At this point, Charles entertains the narrator with a witty riddle, laughing at his own riddle with childish pride and delight. The narrator compliments his abilities, pleasing him further. Esme enquires about the narrator’s former profession before joining the army, and he tells her that he is a short story writer. She asks if he is published, and he avoids the question. She tells him that her father wrote beautifully and she is preserving his letters.
The narrator asks if the large watch on her wrist belongs to her father, and she tells him that it does. She suddenly requests him to write a story about her. As he tries to humbly decline, she insists that it does not need to be “prolific”, just not “childish and silly” and preferably with a lot of “squalor” as she is “extremely interested in squalor”. Her brother decides to throw a temper tantrum at this moment, forcing her to leave unwillingly. She bids adieu in French, and the narrator returns her farewell in English. They shake hands and he notices that her palms are damp and sweaty, a sign of nervousness. She asks if he would be there at the next choir practice, and he tells her that it would not be possible. She asks him if she can write to him and he immediately agrees, giving her his address. She promises to write first so that he doesn’t feel “compromised”. She leaves the tearoom, only to come back in a minute dragging Charles, who she claims, wants to kiss the narrator. The child grudgingly kisses the narrator, who manages to win his favor back by asking him his own riddle. As he runs out of the tearoom squealing in delight, Esme reminds the narrator to write her the story, and he tells her that he has never written a story for anyone, and he would love to. She reminds him again to make it “extremely squalid and moving”. She bids goodbye, hoping that he would return from the war “with all his faculties intact”. As she leaves, the narrator feels “strangely emotional”.
The next part of the story is the “squalid part”. There is a change of scene and characters, although the narrator is still present, albeit disguised. It is ten-thirty in Gaufurt, Bavaria, weeks after the armistice. Staff Sergeant X is in his room in a civilian home with nine other soldiers. He was trying to read a novel and was having difficulty reading it. He was a young man “who had not come through the war with all his faculties intact”, and he had been triple-reading paragraphs and sentences for the past hour. He closes the book and lights a cigarette with fingers that are constantly shaking, exhibiting symptoms of Combat Stress Reaction (CSR). He would make his gums bleed by pressing his tongue against them for hours, and sometimes he felt “his mind dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack.” His hair is dirty and unkempt, and it is mentioned that he was hospitalized for two weeks. His compatriot, Corporal Z, or Clay still appeared unaffected by the war, driving with his windshields down even before the armistice.
Sergeant X lets go of his aching head and stares at a German book by Goebbels, titled “Die Zeit Ohne Beispiel.” It belonged to the woman who owned the house, a Nazi official who X himself had arrested. He opens the book and reads the brief German inscription that she has written –
“Dear God, life is hell.” “Nothing led up to or away from it. Alone on the page, and in the sickly stillness of the room, the words appeared to have the stature of an uncontestable, even classic indictment.”
He stares at the page for some time and writes down with a pencil stub –
“Fathers and teachers, I ponder ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that it is suffering of being unable to love.”
He is about to sign it as Dostoevsky but is horrified at the illegibility of his own handwriting. He picks up an old letter from his older brother who had asked for some “bayonets or swastikas” for his kids, now that the war was over, a letter that he had torn apart. He lay his head on the table, his entire body aching.
Just then, Corporal Z walks in without knocking, his constant companion throughout the war, a handsome, photogenic man whose photographs made the front covers of magazines in their wartime issues. He finds the unlit room spooky, and X warns him not to step on the dog in the corner. Clay turns on the light and sits down, informing X about a radio program that is about to begin. X, however, isn’t interested. Clay exclaims at X’s shaking hands, telling him that he had looked like a corpse in the hospital. X tries to change the subject by asking about Clay’s fiancée, Loretta, whose letters he would read out to X, however intimate, and ask him for help with the replies. Clay tells X that they need to pick up Eisenhower jackets for the whole detachment, but X angrily says that he doesn’t want one. Clay is freaked out by the side of the narrator’s face which is showing uncontrolled movement from a nervous tic. He tells him that he had disclosed to Loretta about his “nervous breakdown”, as she was majoring in psychology. She had insisted that “nobody gets a nervous break-down just from the war and all.”, adding that he probably had been “unstable” his whole life.
X sarcastically writes off Loretta’s remarks, offending Clay who insists that she knows much more about psychology than X. He recounts shooting a cat that climbed on the hood of the jeep during heavy shelling, despite the narrator’s repeated pleas of not wanting to hear it, and tells him that he wrote about that to Loretta who discussed it with her entire class and professor, concluding that Clay had become momentarily “insane” by the shelling. X sarcastically mocks him, taunting that he had killed the cat only because it was a German spy. He suddenly throws up on a waste basket beside him. Clay leaves, after trying to persuade his comrade to come and socialize more, in vain. As he leaves, X picks up his typewriter, attempting to write a letter to his friend in New York, but failing to insert the paper roll in the typewriter because of his shaking hands. He suddenly notices a small unopened package that had been readdressed several times. He opens it uninterestedly, only to find Esme’s letter (thus revealing that X is, in fact, the narrator) – apologizing for the delay in beginning the correspondence as she was busy caring for her ailing aunt. However, she had thought about him and their “extremely pleasant exchange” often, and hoped for a speedy termination of the war. She hopes for his well-being and sends her regards. She has also enclosed her father’s wristwatch that she had been wearing during their meeting, and she informs him about its many virtues and hopes that he will accept it as a “lucky talisman”. The letter ends with a dozen Hellos from Charles, and Esme’s appeal to X to write back as soon as possible.
The sergeant stared at the watch for a long time, and suddenly “almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy”. The story ends with the narrator expressing his heartfelt gratitude to Esme, who can bring back a man from the depths of trauma and despair, “and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac- f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.”
For Esme – With Love and Squalor | Analysis
The story has numerous autobiographical references to Salinger’s own experience in the Second World War, including his presence at the D-Day bombings, the battle of Hurtgen Forest, as well as his hospitalization from experiencing Combat Stress Reaction, a milder, short-living form of PTSD, which follows after the onset of the former. While most definitely a story of war and the resulting “squalor” and trauma that it involves, “To Esme” is also an affirmation of life, love, and empathy, its titular character embodying the revitalizing abilities of human warmth and connection.
The two parts of the story are drastically different from each other, in tone, mood, and content. The first part is bright, cheerful, innocent, and humorous, full of the thirteen-year-old Esme’s innocent but precocious manner, the confidence and charisma that she projects despite being nervous, as well as the extremely interesting encounter that she has with the narrator. The childish antics of her brother Charles add to the brightness of the overall segment, as does the narrator’s “dry humor”.
The language of the first part evokes wonder and amazement, especially in the narrator’s experience of hearing the choir sing, and in the physical description of Esme and Charles’ clothes and appearance. The fact that they are titled orphans also adds to the fairy-tale charm of this segment, and even the implicit references to war and D-day bombings do not dampen the tone. A hint of melancholy looms in Esme’s constant remembrances of her parents, especially her father, as she tries to pass off her own emotions and the loss that she experiences by projecting them on her little brother. The fact that she wears his watch as a memento, despite the fact that it does not suit him very well, reflects her love for her father and her attempts at keeping his memory with her at all times, through the watch which is a symbolic reminder of him. Her insistence on adding “squalor” to her story appears comic when contrasted with her own age and aura.
In sharp contrast to the first, the second part of the story embodies the squalor that Esme demanded. The tone changes to grim and the visuals are much darker than in the first part, as the old narrator is completely transformed by the trauma that he has experienced during the war, and appears like a completely different person, explaining the narrator’s assertion that he is present but disguised by the “squalor” of his condition.
The squalor is symbolized not only by the dark, dirty surroundings and the narrator’s physical unkemptness, but is also present in the very post-war psyche that is either traumatized by the war, or intent on denying, trivializing, or invisibilizing its trauma. Clay and his fiancée, Loretta, represent the latter. Although Clay tries his best to be supportive of the narrator, his lack of sensitivity and insight regarding the same, despite having been traumatized by the war himself (as exhibited in mindlessly shooting the cat), keeps him from being able to truly empathize with the narrator. Loretta, however, is outrightly degrading of the narrator, trivializing his trauma and labeling him as “unstable” even before the war, mirroring the general attitude of the government and the public who did not want to recognize the evils of warfare, intent on glorifying it as a playing field of masculine honor and glory. The narrator’s brother, with his demands of bayonets or swastikas as toys for his children, also exhibits this tokenization of the war, and the absolute insensitivity to its victims, both on the battlefield and in the concentration camps.
Esme’s letter is a warm flood of relief from this seemingly endless darkness and squalor. Although a child who has no first-hand understanding of the trauma of war, she is also a sufferer as she had lost her father in North Africa. Despite not knowing the real, bloody face of war, she unconsciously shows more empathy and understanding of what the narrator has experienced, her letter and her father’s watch literally become the talisman that revives the narrator, returning his faculties back to him intact, a line which is an allusion to Esme’s last words in the first part. The watch is a symbol of Esme’s love for both her father and the narrator, and there is an overriding of both in her gesture. It is her love, the warmth and brightness that she brings with her innocent precociousness, and her sincere hope for the narrator’s well-being, which ultimately become the positive human contact and support necessary for the healing of the narrator’s trauma.
For Esme – With Love and Squalor | Themes
War– The story is a moving and squalid portrayal of war in its true horrors. Although it does not depict any bloody battle scenes, the story successfully paints the terrible impact that war has on its victims, either directly (like the narrator suffering from CSR induced by war trauma), or indirectly (like Esme, who has lost her father to war).
Squalor- The child protagonist’s comic mock-serious insistence on squalor is fulfilled in the truly squalid depictions of the post-war realities of the second part. Squalor is not only present in the physical setting of the narrator’s room or his unkempt appearance and uncontrollable movements, but also in the psychology of the society at large, trying their best to deny the effects of war trauma. This state is symbolized by the inscription on the Nazi woman’s book – “God, life is hell”.
Childhood/Humanity – If war is the breeding ground of trauma, death, and squalor, childhood represents the warmth of sincere human connection that can revive even the worst victims of war. The childish innocence of Esme and Charles, her sincerity and generosity towards a man she has only met once through complete coincidence, and her heartfelt token of love in the form of her father’s watch, talismanic only because of the purity of feeling that it embodies, is enough to heal even the scariest of wounds. Through their inherent purity and goodness, children like Esme embody the humanity that is missing from an adult society ravaged by war.
For Esme – With Love and Squalor | Characters
Esme – The titular character and one of the two protagonists of the story, Esme is the bride whose wedding invitation to the narrator forms the frame narrative. In the story, she is an orphaned girl of thirteen – confident, precocious, exceptionally intelligent, assertive, and generous. Despite her ladylike poise and precociousness, her curiosity and self-importance betray her innocent nature. Although her aunt is kind, her comment on Esme being “extremely cold” has a lasting effect on her, which she tries to undo in her meeting with the narrator. However, this assessment is very far from the truth, as it is Esme’s warmth and the sincerity of her feeling embodied in her gift to the narrator, that heals him from his battlefield experiences.
The narrator/ Staff Sergeant X – In the first part, the first-person narrator is introverted but confident, charming, and humorous, easily winning the hearts of two young children at least one of whom is quite hard to please. In the second part, however, Sergeant X appears to be a completely different character, transformed by the horrors of his battlefield experiences and suffering from Combat Stress Reaction. He has lost his confidence and humor, and what remains is a sarcastic shell that hides his bitterness toward the rest of the world.
Clay – Corporal Clay is the narrator’s compatriot, having been with him throughout the war. Although he tries his best to be a supportive friend, he is in denial about his own trauma and as a result, fails to understand the narrator’s problem. However, he fails to defend his friend against the insensitivity of his fiancée, becoming defensive instead when X calls out her short-sightedness.
Loretta – Clay’s fiancée, Loretta, is a psychology major who, ironically, is extremely insensitive to the severity of war trauma, and trivializes the narrator’s experiences, labeling him as ‘unstable’.
For Esme – With Love and Squalor | Significance of the Title
The title “To Esme – With Love and Squalor”, represents the two dominant emotions that rule the text, love, represented by the connection between the thirteen-year-old Esme and the narrator, her warmth, generosity, kindness, and understanding, and squalor, a theme she is interested in and demands to be included in her story, which is mirrored by the post-war conditions of the second part of the story.