When "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" appeared in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were stunned. The American version of French existentialism drew on the tradition of understated narrative and idiomatic language that began with Twain's Huckleberry Finn and appeared again in Hemingway's fiction. Salinger's story of the damaged World War II veteran Seymour Glass gave readers everything they needed to understand its characters, but in near-comic scenes that bore little relationship to the tragic suicide that closed the story.
The story begins with description of of Seymour Glass's young wife, Muriel, waiting to place a call to her worried mother in New York. Reading women's magazines and doing her nails, Muriel epitomizes the beautiful but dumb woman, hungry for attention and pleasure. The phone conversation makes clear that Seymour, recently returned from war, is terribly disturbed—clearly paranoic—but in the vacuous women's eyes, not much changed from his prewar self. The real object of satire in the scene is not Seymour but rather the women, and their elite culture, that fails to recognize a troubled psyche. Salinger's juxtaposition of the mother's questions about fashionable hem lengths and her instructions that Muriel fly home to escape the madness of her husband creates such an absurd text the reader is bewildered. If people are worried about Seymour, why is Muriel alone, on vacation, with him? Toward the end of the conversation (which is the longest section of the story), Muriel reproves her mother ("you talk about him as though he were a raving maniac—"), but then describes him lying on the beach, covered by his robe so that no one will see his tatoos (which are non-existant). Salinger has prepared his reader well for the obviously comic closing line from Muriel's mother, "Call me the instant he does, or says, anything at all funny—you know what I mean."
By now alerted to the fact that the war veteran is seriously disturbed, the reader is next introduced to another dialogue scene, this one between the six-year-old Sybil Carpenter (known as Pussy) and her fashionable mother. Sybil-Pussy, whose name introduces what is going to become a sexualized text as she is taught what beach beauties do and are, is chanting the name of her new friend, "See more glass." As she runs to the beach to find her bath-robed buddy, her primary motivation is jealousy: Seymour has allowed a 3-year-old girl to sit beside him on the piano bench.
As Sybil flirts through the child-adult dialogue with Seymour, Salinger's pattern of non-sequiturs increases the sexual intensity, and Glass—calling Sybil "Baby"—creates the metaphor of the title. Because it is, he says, "a perfect day for bananafish," he is going into the ocean. The bananafish are ogres, stuffing themselves on so much of the underwater fruit (found only in banana holes) that they later swell and can never escape the hole. Although the child misses the sexual allusions in the nonsense, Seymour's courtly treatment of her in the water, placing her carefully on his inflated float and forcing her over a wave until "her scream was full of pleasure," continues the analogy. The bananafish metaphor suggests that Glass's sexual hunger for Muriel led him into the hole of this mindless, irrelevant life; and his bitingly ironic answer to Sybil's question of where "the lady" (Muriel) is confirms his angst. Seymour explains, using the same comic tone of the rest of their dialogue:
"The lady?" The young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. "That's hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser's. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children, in her room." Lying prone now, he made two fists, set one on top of the other, and rested his chin on the top one. "Ask me something else, Sybil," he said. "That's a fine bathing suit you have on. If there's one thing I like, it's a blue bathing suit."
Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. "This is a yellow," she said. "This is a yellow."
"It is? Come a little closer."
Sybil took a step forward.
"You're absolutely right. What a fool I am."
Seymour's "What a fool I am" is his only comment on his life, the only information the reader gets before he returns to his and Muriel's room, looks at her asleep on the bed, takes out his automatic, "and fired a bullet through his right temple."
Salinger created texts that purposefully engaged readers to think past their endings. Rather than follow the traditional paradigm of beginning action, rising action leading to climax, and denouement, he chose to arrange events to reflect a kind of systematic chaos. As the reader felt more and more bewildered, he or she began to construct an alternative narrative—a kind of "what if?" construction. In this fiction, the reader could wonder what would have happened if Seymour had gotten the kind of helpful attention he needed; or, more darkly, what would have happened if he had shot Muriel too, or instead of himself; or if he had taken his anger out on Sybil so far from the hotel beach that no one would have seen him. The immediacy of Salinger's narratives, the way they pulled the reader into the act of reading and deciphering, paralleled his interest in zen and the involvement of the human psyche in thought. Salinger's writing anticipated the experimentation, the questioning, and the freedoms, of the 1960's to come.
"A Perfect Day for Bananafish," collected in Nine Stories in 1953, is in some respects a typical Salinger story. For the next decade, his New Yorker stories of the Glass family and his immensely popular novel, the Holden Caulfield story, The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, gripped American readers. But as Salinger became reclusive, and forbade his fiction to appear in anthologies and collections, his enigmatic fiction became less popular.