Teddy by J.D. Salinger
In Teddy by J.D. Salinger we have the theme of dysfunction, acceptance, materialism and spirituality. 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 suspects that Salinger may be exploring the theme of dysfunction. Teddy’s parents appear to have a loveless marriage, something that is noticeable when Mr McArdle tells his wife, while Teddy is standing on the luggage case, that he would like to ‘kick your (Mrs McArdle’s) goddam head open.’ Also there is a sense that when Mrs McArdle tells Teddy to continue standing on the luggage case, she is doing so not out of support for Teddy but rather it seems to annoy her husband. At no stage in the story does the reader believe that Teddy’s parents live a happy life, rather the reader suspects that the anger that both show towards each other at the beginning of the story may in fact be the norm for Mr and Mrs McArdle. Though it is not clearly stated in the story, the dysfunction in the McArdle’s marriage may also be the cause of Booper’s cruelty towards other people (noticeably Myron).
What is also interesting about the story is the acceptance that Teddy has when it comes to dying. While talking to Bob Nicholson he tells him that ‘It’s so silly. All you do is get the heck out of your body when you die. My gosh, everybody’s done it thousands and thousands of times.’ Teddy’s acceptance of death is not mirrored by his parent’s acceptance of either him or Booper. Teddy telling Nicholson ‘they (Teddy’s parents) don’t seem to be able to love us unless they can keep changing us a little bit.’ This line may be important as it not only highlights Teddy’s parent’s inability to accept him and his sister as they are but it also suggests that Mr and Mrs McArdle wish to change Teddy and his sister. It may be a case that rather than focusing or trying to repair their marriage both parents wish to instead change their children.
Salinger also appears to be exploring the theme of materialism. Teddy’s father is overly concerned that Teddy, while looking out the porthole, is standing on the expensive Gladstone luggage case. Similarly when he discovers that Booper has his expensive Leica camera he tells Teddy to get it from her and bring it back to the room. By mentioning these items in the story Salinger may be putting a spotlight on American society in general and suggesting that rather than personal enlightenment (which Teddy appears to be attempting to achieve) people at the time the story was written (and possibly still today), were more concerned with material gain rather than with personal or spiritual development. The fact that the deck chairs each have a passenger’s name on them may also suggest the preoccupation that society had (or has) with personal gain, possession or ownership. It may also be important that Teddy tells Nicholson ‘it’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America. People think I’m a freak, in a way.’ It is possible that by introducing this line into the story, Salinger is further suggesting the preoccupation that American society had (or has) with personal gain (or chasing materialism) rather than attempting to live a spiritual life (again as Teddy appears to be doing).
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. The orange peels that Teddy sees in the ocean may symbolise the Buddhist belief of impermanence. Just as the orange peels disappear from Teddy’s vison, likewise Salinger may be suggesting that nothing lasts for ever that things, including life, are temporary. The fact that Teddy’s parents remain in bed throughout the story may also be important as symbolically Salinger may be suggesting that both (particularly Teddy’s father) will remain paralysed (in life) through their continued pursuit of material gain (expensive camera, luggage case). The large shuffleboard discs that Booper is playing with and which she hopes will impress Teddy may also be important as again Salinger could be symbolically suggesting the need of the individual (or society) to own or possess things. It is also possible that Salinger is suggesting that Booper (or society) allows material objects to define them.
Despite the passing of time (since the story was written) the ending of the story remains controversial mostly because the reader never knows for certain as to what happens Teddy. Some critics suggest that Booper pushes Teddy into the swimming pool, which results in Teddy being killed, while other critics suggest it is Teddy who pushes Booper into the pool, killing her. Though the reader cannot say for certain what happens, Salinger does appear to be using some foreshadowing in the story to suggest that it is Booper who pushes Teddy into the pool and kills him. As Teddy is leaving his parents room he tells them ‘After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of my acquaintances.’ Later Teddy writes in his diary ‘It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen.’ Both these lines are important as they suggest that Teddy is aware that something will happen him. What that something may be is a little clearer (though not definite) when Teddy tells Nicholson that Booper could, when Teddy goes down to the pool, push him into the empty swimming pool resulting in Teddy fracturing his skull and dying instantaneously. Though again the reader cannot say for certain if this is what actually happens.