Just Before the War with the Eskimos by J.D. Salinger
In Just Before the War with the Eskimos by J.D. Salinger we have the theme of rejection, alienation, connection and change. Taken from his Nine Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Salinger may be exploring the theme of rejection. Franklin never made it into the army, having been rejected by the draft board due to his bad heart. Also Joan Mannox (Ginnie’s sister) never replied to any of the eight letters that Franklin sent her, which would suggest that Joan has rejected Franklin. Franklin himself also appears to reject society. This is noticeable when he is looking out the apartment window at the people below on the street and says ‘Look at ‘em, Goddam fools.’ It is also possible (and some critics have argued that) Eric is gay and that the writer that he is telling Ginnie about, who has left his apartment, may in fact be his lover. If this is the case (that Eric is gay) it is possible that Eric has been rejected by his lover just as Joan Mannox has rejected Franklin.
The theme of connection is also explored several times in the story. Despite Ginnie considering Selena to be no more than a convenience (because she brings the new tennis balls every Saturday), Salinger may still be suggesting that in some ways Selena and Ginnie are connected. They both come from middle class families, though it is possible that Ginnie represents ‘old money’ while Selena represents ‘new money.‘ Also Ginnie appears to make a connection with Franklin while she is talking to him. It may be that Salinger, through connecting both Ginnie and Franklin with each other is suggesting that both have something in common, both may have been alienated or rejected by society for different reasons. Ginnie because she represents ‘old money’ (and is perceived to be a snob) and Franklin, possibly because he was not able to fight in WWII has also been rejected by society (and by Joan). For this reason they are both able to connect with each other (though the connection may not be as apparent to Franklin as it is to Ginnie). The friendship between Franklin and Eric also suggests the idea of connection. It is possible that this connection between Franklin and Eric is also based on both having been rejected by society. Franklin, as mentioned, because he did not fight in WWII (and was rejected by Joan) and Eric because he is gay.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. The razor blades in the wastebasket that Franklin cuts himself with may symbolize society (at the time) and by having Franklin cut himself, Salinger may be suggesting that Franklin has been rejected by society (again possibly due to him having not been able to fight in WWII and Joan not answering his letters). The sandwich that Franklin gives Ginnie may also be significant. If anything it acts as a communion between both Franklin and Ginnie, it connects both characters. Also Salinger mentioning that it took Ginnie three days to remove the dead Easter chick from her wastebasket may be symbolic of Christ’s resurrection. If this is the case, Salinger may be suggesting that there is a possibility for Ginnie (at the end of the story) to resurrect or change her life. Something that appears to be more obvious to the reader when Ginnie refuses to accept the money for the taxi fare from Selena, despite having previously been insistent of getting the money.
By having Franklin drop out of college, Salinger may also be symbolically suggesting that Franklin in some ways has also dropped out of society and just as society may have rejected Franklin, he too appears to have rejected society. The reader’s discovery at the end of the story that Franklin refuses, despite his father’s wishes, to return to college may also symbolically highlight his continued rejection of society. At no stage in the story, apart from the fact that Franklin contributed to the war effort by working in the factory, does the reader sense that Franklin accepts society nor does it appear that society accepts Franklin, particularly if the reader considers the wastebasket and razor blades to be symbolic of society.
The ending of the story is also interesting as the reader never knows if the change that Ginnie will make is due to her becoming aware that she has been self-absorbed (wanting to get the money for the cab fare) or because she feels a connection between herself and Franklin. Despite telling Selena that she might come over to Selena’s apartment later that night, the reader doesn’t know for sure if it is to pursue a friendship with Selena, who she had previously considered to be a ‘drip’ or if she is returning to the apartment to continue her conversation (and possible courtship) with Franklin. Though what is clear to the reader is that Salinger is allowing Ginnie the opportunity to change, even if the reader is left unsure as to what that change may be.