First published in the New Yorker on January 31, 1948, and later the first story in the 1953 collection Nine Stories, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” begins with Muriel Glass sitting in a Florida hotel room fielding a telephone call from her overconcerned mother. As is typical of J. D. Salinger’s work, dialogue between characters moves the plot forward; the speech is sufficiently vague to leave the reader interested in what the characters refer to but never explain. Salinger spends little time describing a particular scene, preferring to let the character’s words set the pace as well as the mood of a work.
The first section of the story revolves around Muriel and her mother’s conversation, with elliptical references to German books, the war, and Muriel’s terribly pale husband, Seymour, who has yet to enter the story. It is implied that the war, World War II, has set Seymour on edge, although Muriel reassures her mother that he is fine. The story implies that the reader should doubt Muriel’s assertion.
Seymour is introduced to the story through Sybil, a young child who, with her mother, is staying at the same hotel. Sybil recognizes “see more glass” on the beach after she is sent away by her mother (Nine Stories 10). Seymour and Sybil enter the water, Sybil on a small fl oat and Seymour simply standing in the water, making elliptical small talk. He tells Sybil about strange creatures called bananafish. Bananafish, Seymour explains, are perfectly normal until one swims into a hole filled with bananas. The perhaps-lucky bananafish then overeats until it is too stuffed to swim back out of the hole, eventually dying of banana fever. Sybil, as a typical Salingerian wide-eyed child, plays along with Seymour’s game, claiming to see one eating six bananas at once.
As in many of Salinger’s other works, the wisest words emerge from the mouths of children. The adults in this story, beaten down and resigned to their lives, either send their children to play on the beach or fend off their mothers on hotel room telephones. Sybil is the lone character in the story, who seems to understand Seymour and the only one with whom he actually communicates. A later exchange, in the final section of the story that ends with Salinger’s matter-of-fact scripting of Seymour’s sudden suicide, illustrates the man’s total inability to communicate with adults in any logical manner. Isolation and desperation are themes that constantly appear in Salinger’s work: the idea of sheer beauty in the midst of human squalor and the innocence of children contrasted with the weight of adult life.