Down at the Dinghy by J.D. Salinger
In Down at the Dinghy by J.D. Salinger we have the theme of acceptance, innocence, sensitivity, escape, connection and racism (or anti-Semitism). Taken from his Nine Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story it becomes clear to the reader that Salinger is exploring the theme of acceptance. Through Sandra and Mrs Snell’s conversation there is a sense that what Sandra has said (about Lionel’s father) is acceptable to not only Sandra but to Mrs Snell too. At no stage of the conversation does Mrs Snell condemn or give out to Sandra for what she has said about Lionel’s father. This lack of condemnation may be important as it is possible that Salinger is suggesting, that at the time the story was written (post WWII), anti-Semitism was acceptable in America. It is also possible that by having two (Sandra and Mrs Snell) of the four characters in the story appear to accept what has been said about Lionel’s father, Salinger is also suggesting that anti-Semitism was widespread in America (again at the time the story was written).
Salinger also appears to be exploring the theme of escape. Lionel, from a very early age has been running away when confronted with adversity or difficulty. Firstly he ran away (at the age of three) when another child in the park suggested to him that ‘You stink, kid.’ Also when he was a little younger (two and a half) he hid under a sink in his parents’ apartment when another child suggested that ‘she had a worm in her thermos.’ Both these incidents may be significant as they suggest that Lionel is a sensitive child who has yet to learn not to take on board what other people say. This sensitivity also suggests that Lionel is innocent of the world around him, he still has to learn that other people will say things which may not necessarily be true. Through his innocence Lionel appears to believe everything that people say.
The fact that Boo Boo pretends to be an admiral when she is talking to Lionel may also be important. By pretending, Boo Boo, is in many ways trying to connect with Lionel or at least attempting to understand what is wrong with him but doing so on terms that will appeal to Lionel’s imagination. If anything, Boo Boo is allowing Lionel to be a child, which in turn suggests she is allowing him to remain innocent. Though she is still unaware (till the end of the story) as to why Lionel is upset, she understands that he is a sensitive child. Also by pretending to play the bugle, Boo Boo is again attempting to appeal to Lionel’s imagination. Of all the characters in the story, Boo Boo appears to be the only one who is aware of how sensitive Lionel is. When Sandra displays some concern for Lionel, after hearing that he has run away again, the reader suspects that she is doing so, not out of concern for Lionel but rather to portray herself in a favourable light and minimize her chances of being dismissed from her job over her remarks about Lionel’s father.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. By having Lionel throw the goggles that once belonged to his Uncle Seymour and Uncle Webb into the water it is possible that Salinger is suggesting, at least symbolically, that Lionel is rejecting an adult world. If this is the case (rejecting an adult world), Salinger may also be suggesting that Lionel wants to remain innocent (or a child) and does not wish to understand life as an adult would (without innocence). Salinger may also be using the keys that Lionel (like the goggles) throws into the water as symbolism. Keys are usually used to open doors and it is possible that by giving the keys to Lionel, at least symbolically Boo Boo is opening a door for Lionel to better understand the world. Though by throwing the keys into the water, it is possible that Salinger is again suggesting that just like the goggles, Lionel is continuing to reject an adult world, preferring to remain a child and innocent of the world around him.
The ending of the story is also interesting and in many ways highlights Lionel’s continued innocence. After he tells his mother that ‘Sandra – told Mrs Smell – that Daddy’s a big – sloppy – kike’, Boo Boo asks Lionel does he know what a kike is. The fact that Lionel confuses the word kike with kite suggests that Lionel is innocent, he has not yet been corrupted by others. The realities of the world have not fully changed him. It may also be important that Lionel wins the race back to the house, as by allowing Lionel win the race, Salinger may be suggesting (at least symbolically) that in life too, Lionel will win. Despite the anti-Semitic opinions of Sandra.