The Laughing Man by J.D. Salinger
In The Laughing Man by J.D. Salinger we have the theme of innocence, escape, change and coming of age. Taken from his Nine Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator, who is looking back at a period of his life when he was nine years old. The story itself is a frame narrative (story within a story) and after reading the story the reader realises that there are similarities between the Chief and The Laughing Man. If anything it would appear that the Chief, by telling the narrator and the other Comanches about The Laughing Man, is in some ways describing his own life (though he is doing so through fantasy). The sadness The Laughing Man feels, particularly at the end of the story when his companion Black Wing dies, is mirrored by the sadness that the Chief feels when Mary Hudson leaves him.
Though the narrator does not appear to be aware of this connection between the Chief and The Laughing Man there does seem to be further similarities between both. Just as the narrator tells the reader that The Laughing Man’s face was disfigured (and possibly made to look ugly), the narrator’s physical description of the Chief also appears to be unflattering. Though it is interesting and possibly due to being in awe of the Chief, that the narrator after describing the Chief’s physical appearance also suggests that the Chief had ‘all the most photogenic features of Buck Jones, Ken Maynard and Tom Mix’ (actors in the 1920s and 30s). It may also be a case that by creating The Laughing Man (who is a hero to the narrator and the other Comanches), the Chief likewise wishes to be seen as a hero (to the narrator and the other Comanches).
The fact that the Chief does not appear to have any friendships with people of his own age, apart from his friendship and relationship with Mary may also be important. It is possible, that by not providing this information to the reader, Salinger is also suggesting that the Chief lives for the time he spends with the Comanches (and with Mary). If anything the Comanches allow the Chief to escape into a world whereby the realities of his life (no friends) can be avoided. Although it does appear at the end of the story that the Chief is unable to escape from the realities of the world when his relationship with Mary comes to an end.
Salinger also appears to be exploring the theme of innocence. By having the Chief kill off The Laughing Man at the end of the story it is possible that Salinger is suggesting that the narrator’s (and the other Comanches) innocence has also come to an end. No longer do they have a hero to love and follow now that the Chief has abruptly ended The Laughing Man’s life. It may also be a case that the Chief too, loses his innocence. His once happy relationship with Mary has come to an end and no longer does he see his (or the Laughing Man’s) world as being a happy place. If anything it would appear that for the first time in his life, the Chief is experiencing heartbreak.
Though it is not said in the story as to why the Chief’s relationship with Mary has come to an end, some critics have suggested that the end of the relationship has been caused by Mary becoming pregnant. This suggestion (by critics) appears to be based on the fact that while Mary is looking at the Comanches playing baseball, she sits between two nursemaids with baby carriages. Critics considering that Salinger, through the symbolism of the baby carriages, is suggesting that Mary is pregnant. If this is the case, that Mary is pregnant, the fact that the narrator appears to be unaware of this may also suggest his innocence when it comes to adult relationships. Though the narrator is aware that the Chief and Mary have had a fight, he never knows as to why they have fought.
The end of the story is also interesting. The narrator tells the reader that, as he was getting off the Comanche’s bus, ‘the first thing I chanced to see was a piece of red tissue paper flapping in the wind against the base of a lamppost. It looked like someone’s poppy-petal mask.’ This line may be important as it is possible that Salinger is suggesting that no longer does the narrator (or the other Comanches) have The Laughing Man’s mask to hide behind (having previously considered themselves to be successors to The Laughing Man) but rather they must now face the realities of the world, without the protection of The Laughing Man’s mask. Just as the Chief’s life has changed due to the end of his relationship with Mary, likewise the narrator’s (and the other Comanche’s) lives may have also changed.