Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Today In Literature takes a look at the short stories of J. D. Salinger today. Included is a great passage from "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" and discussion of "Teddy," a story that I believe is completely misinterpreted most of the time, still. I believe this so strongly that in 1976 I wrote a story called "Teddy At The Pool" in which I clarify the ending to Salinger's story in the only way that makes sense to me.
The question is: what happens at the end of Salinger's story? One critic summarizes the standard interpretation this way: "In another well-known story in the collection called “Teddy,” a jealous sister pushes a child prodigy into an empty swimming pool. Here the little genius has anticipated and even welcomes his own death." (Maxwell Geismar, “The Wise Child and the New Yorker School of Fiction”).
My interpretation is completely opposite from this! I believe in the ending of Salinger's story, Teddy pushes his sister into a full swimming pool (!) and no one dies.
Wow. Talk about a difference. Why do I believe I'm right and all these literary critics are wrong? Because they took Salinger's bait (he's a Zen clown, after all). All the evidence is in the story, as it must be.
Here's the first question: is the swimming pool full or empty? What we know from the story is this: the story occurs not on the usual day for draining and cleaning the pool. That's clear enough. Then how does it suddenly become empty? Only because Teddy, in telling a story, says, in effect, Let's say this was the day they cleaned the pool and it was empty. He needs an empty pool to make his point. But it is clear it is not the cleaning day. There simply is no justification for believing the pool is empty unless you believe that just because Teddy, in telling a story, says Let's pretend it's the cleaning day, it suddenly becomes the cleaning day in fact. This is ridiculous. The pool is full. There is no rational alternative.
So if the pool is full, what happens? We know we hear a girl scream. We know it is Teddy's sister who screams. Moreover, Salinger gives us the clear definitive image: the sound of her voice is reverberating between tiled walls. Where are tiled walls? Above the water level of a swimming pool. In other words, her head is within this space, which is to say, just above the water level. We know she can't swim. She herself is in the water, screaming her bloody head off.
How did she get there? Teddy pushed her. Why? Because he has emotions after all. He spends a lot of time arguing about the inappropriateness of putting emotions into things that don't have them, which is what happens in a lot of poetry, and Teddy tries to put himself above all that. But guess what? Despite his genius, he's an emotional being after all, he loses it, gets tired of his snotty sister, and in a spontaneous moment of emotion, pushes her into the full pool, full because it's not the cleaning day.
This is what the story is about. The evidence in the story can have it no other way. Salinger, the Zen clown, the superb craftsman, knows that a simplistic view will jump at Teddy's explanation (which makes for a boring story, the protagonist telling us the ending ahead of time!), he's cynical enough to suspect, I think, many will do just this -- but his story has a rich complexity and a complete twist at the end, all perfectly and clearly set up for the careful reader. It's a brilliant and extraordinary story. The standard critical reading, in contrast, turns it into a predictable, didactic, boring lesson in eastern philosophy. No way. This is great stuff, and Salinger knows exactly what he is doing. He knows, like any good storyteller knows, that the old cliche is true, that actions speak louder than words. What Teddy says is one thing but what he does is another.
Here's how I make this argument in a more dramatic way, in Teddy At The Pool.
Posted by Charles Deemer at 9:07 AM