J.D. Salinger’s 1951 classic short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” introduces Salinger’s favorite character, Seymour Glass – only to kill him some several pages later. The story starts in a posh seaside hotel room, where we overhear Glass’s wife on the phone with her mother discussing Seymour’s mental health. From there, we head to the beach, where Seymour is hanging out with a four-ish-year old girl named Sybil and telling her stories about the elusive “bananafish.” The story ends with Seymour returning to his hotel room and shooting himself in the head.
Seymour Glass, or, as Sybil calls him, “see more glass,” is a hotly contested short story character in American literature – which gives his oh-so transparent name all the more irony. People can’t seem to agree on what the guy is like, why he’s always hanging out with little kids, or, most importantly, why he decides to kill himself. There are three leading theories on the matter.
Theory One: Seymour is a bananafish. No, really. In the description he gives to Sybil, bananafish are fish that swim into holes and gorge on so many bananas that they get stuck and die. According to some, this is Seymour’s unorthodox but fitting metaphor for the materialistic consumer mentality of post-WWII American society – not that we’d know anything about that nowadays. This of course begs the question, what does Seymour’s suicide mean? Is going back to his fancy-shmancy hotel room and killing himself the human equivalent of diving into a banana hole and eating to death? That might explain why Sybil thinks she sees a bananafish – she could be talking about Seymour. OR, perhaps Seymour’s suicide is a way of overcoming the material world: by leaving it altogether.
Theory Two: Seymour is a pervert. Yup, all that befriending and swimming and story-telling is just his way of getting close to little girls. You’ll notice, for instance, that Seymour grabs Sybil’s ankles when he is lying on the beach, then again when he pushes her along the water. When he goes so far as to kiss the bottom of her foot, even four-year-old Sybil is weirded out enough to yell, “Hey!” probably remembering something she heard in preschool about a “red-light touch.” Embarrassed and/or frustrated, Seymour immediately ends their play date, heads back to the hotel, and kills himself in shame. The fact that sexual abuse is an ambiguous but recurring theme in J.D. Salinger’s other works, notably in The Catcher in the Rye, supports the possibility that something is wrong with Seymour’s libido.
Theory Three: Everybody has gotten way too P.C. A touch isn’t necessarily inappropriate, a kiss isn’t always sexual, adults and children can hang out in non-creepy ways, and literature doesn’t always have “erotic undertones.” Seymour is drawn to the innocence and guilelessness of children because his experiences in WWII have made him feel disillusioned with the adult world – not to mention, talking with Sybil lets him indulge in his creative side. Seymour makes up a great story about the lives and behavior of bananafish, and is tickled pink – in a non-sexual way – when Sybil plays along. Unfortunately, he has trouble dropping this mischievousness when he gets back to the hotel. He jokingly accuses the woman in the elevator of “staring” at his feet, and, in a stunt that only an adult would pull, the woman gets offended by the insinuation. The argument escalates until Seymour becomes genuinely angry instead of just pretend angry, and the woman flees from the elevator. Realizing that he just doesn’t gel with adults anymore, Seymour gives up hope of being happy and ends his life.
With so many questions from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” unanswered, it’s no wonder that Salinger went on to feature Seymour in four more stories, most importantly in the two-parter “[Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction].” In these two novellas, Seymour’s devoted little brother, Buddy, undertakes the challenge of putting Seymour to paper. The fact that his writing is often rambling, disjointed, and impossible to follow suggests that maybe we’re just not meant to know.