Short story: “Teddy”

by look i have opinions

“Teddy,” by J. D. Salinger

First appeared in the January 31, 1953 New Yorker; also here (I think that site omits Salinger’s great expressive italics, though)

Apparently 9,320 words, although it doesn’t feel that long

I just read a really fascinating essay on this story, “‘Along this road goes no one’: Salinger’s ‘Teddy’ and the Failure of Love,” by Anthony Kaufman (anthologized here and also found here). I always took Teddy’s mysticism at face value, so it didn’t occur to me that it could be a defense mechanism for an unhappy kid.

This is one of the pitfalls of interpreting a piece of fiction through an understanding of its author. A while back I said I thought “Francis Macomber” presented its images of masculinity with a heavy dose of irony. I’m pretty sure this is a minority reading, since Hemingway is generally seen as an unironically macho writer. Like Hemingway’s machismo, Salinger’s enthusiastic mysticism is well known and influences the way we read his work. So it’s easy to read “Teddy” as authorial wish fulfillment: a saintly genius obeying his destiny and letting himself be removed from the unspiritual world he lives in.*

But Kaufman makes “Teddy” seem more interesting and more intelligent, and his reading is supported by the text. Is the story better if we ignore its authorship? Or do we really have to ignore its authorship? I would argue that we don’t. I think a good story transcends its author, or rather, that a good story is a distillation of the writer’s wisest and smartest impulses. I’m not even convinced that the writer of a good story necessarily understands it.

One point I think Kaufman gets wrong is that he thinks Teddy jumped. I think Teddy actually succeeded in getting his sister to push him in. She’s exactly the kind of child who, seeing her brother standing at the edge of the pool, would predictably run up and give him a hard shove. This seems like a neater ending. (Though a slightly crueler one.)

Not directly related: I really like the type of opinionated omniscient narration Salinger uses here and elsewhere. I hesitate to say omniscient, since we get almost no direct access to the characters’ experiences, but it would be even odder to call it objective, since the narrator is highly judgmental and brimming with biographical details. We don’t know except by inference what Teddy thinks of his parents or Bob Nicholson or his own looks, but oh boy do we ever know what the narrator thinks. I have the impression that opinionated third person is out of style. (I’ve never successfully written in this mode myself. I’ve also, more ambitiously, tried to write opinionated narrators in close third-person limited, with the narrator’s opinions being completely different from the character’s. That doesn’t work because the reader has no obvious way to distinguish the two.)

*I’m assuming what happens at the end is that Teddy dies by hitting his head on the bottom of the empty pool. There’s a great 2007 blog post by Charles Deemer here offering an alternate interpretation that, like Kaufman’s, treats Teddy’s mysticism as a defense mechanism. But I don’t find Deemer’s reading completely believable. I feel sure that if Salinger meant to imply that the pool was full, he would have included something watery in that last paragraph, something about splashing or acoustic muffling. So I think when Teddy says, “This might be the day they change the water or something,” he’s actually talking about something he knows for certain, that today’s swimming lesson is canceled or postponed; it’s not at all surprising that his family has forgotten or failed to notice that fact. Also, “reverberating within four tiled walls” doesn’t have to imply that the screamer is in the pool, although I’ll admit it’s strongly suggestive. Indoor pools do often have tiled walls above the pool, and even if the four tiled walls refer to the walls of the sunken pool itself, it still makes sense to picture the screamer standing at the edge and looking down, as would be natural under the circumstances.