Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"Along This Road Goes No One": Salinger's "Teddy" and the Failure of Love

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

"Along This Road Goes No One": Salinger's "Teddy" and the Failure of Love

Article excerpt

The reputation of J. D. Salinger rests largely on two relatively short works: The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories. The Nine Stories collection is brilliant, but it is seemingly marred by the final story, "Teddy." Salinger himself seems to dismiss the story. In what can be read as his own commentary, Salinger, through his arch, uncertain disguise as Buddy Glass, in Seymour--An Introduction, calls "Teddy" "an exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story" (205). Critics have generally agreed, objecting particularly to the seemingly contrived character of Teddy who claims that he is a 10-year-old perfect master, equipped with clairvoyance, and to the ambiguity of the conclusion, where it is not entirely clear what happens. (1)

But despite these seemingly well-founded objections, I will argue that the story is highly successful--indeed deeply moving--when we understand that "Teddy" is the story not of a cool and detached mystical prodigy, but of an unloved, frightened 10-year-old. Teddy has reacted defensively to an exploitative adult world by intuitively developing the persona of the mystic and clairvoyant both to gain the love he desperately needs and, paradoxically, to distance himself from his uncaring family and the grown-up world. Although critics have in general taken straight the premise that Teddy is indeed a little swami and analyzed in depth the importance of Zen to this story and to Salinger generally, it is only when we peel away the overlay of mysticism that the story becomes coherent and moving--and only then does "Teddy" become a valid and satisfactory conclusion to the Nine Stories collection. We will see, however, that the mystic elements of the story are indeed crucial, although not in the way that critics have suggested.

What has happened is this: in defensive reaction to the egotism, lovelessness, and incessant hostility of his parents toward each other and toward their children, and reinforced by his sense of the vulgarity, selfishness, and materialism of grown-up life, Teddy has instinctively felt his way to creating his persona of the mystic savant. That is, based on his precocious acquaintance (perhaps through Allen Watts and Dr. Suzuki?) in Eastern philosophy, he has convinced himself (and some of the grown-up world) of his mystic powers. (2) The benefits of this disguise to Teddy are several: not only can he withdraw from his parents, and the adult world more generally, and ward off feelings of anxiety and depression that any 10 year old might experience in his difficult family situation--he can also vent his feelings of anger toward them through his pose of studied responsibility and tolerant acceptance of their faults. He can feel distanced from a frightening world, sought-after, superior. He can believe that he has control of his 10-year-old world. His disguise of perfect master (although extreme) has affinities with the defensive use of the imagination by other children in the Nine Stories collection: Romona's imaginary lover and defender Jimmy in "Uncle Wiggley in Connecticut," the precocious adult-like attitude of Esme, and the pretentious self-presentation of De Daumier Smith.

Thus the story "Teddy" works in two ways, both to portray Salinger's characteristic child victim (and thus it forms a satiric comment on the adult world), and also to create an interesting and credible study of the way in which a 10-year-old has intuitively defended himself against the ego, anger, and indifference that his parents and the adult world have inflicted upon him. In its portrayal of the underloved child, "Teddy" embodies the Salinger masterplot as seen in Catcher and the other stories of Nine Stories.

Yet Salinger makes another, highly important use of the mysticism Teddy explains and advocates. The doctrine of love he preaches represents a valid and necessary response to the world and suggests the author's putative answer to the problems seen throughout Nine Stories and, indeed, all of his published fiction. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.