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The “Little Things”: An Exploration of the Use of Gesture in J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories

Maxwell Donaldson
p. 71-80


Cet article analyse le concept de geste dans le recueil de nouvelles Nine Stories [For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories], de J. D. Salinger. L’héritage de ce dernier est accaparé, tant dans l’estime de la critique que dans celle du grand public, par son premier roman, publié en 1951, The Catcher in the Rye (L’Attrape-cœurs). Sept décennies après sa publication, les ventes de Catcher avoisinent les 70 millions d’exemplaires. Salinger était pourtant avant tout un nouvelliste. En effet, l’ensemble de sa production en dehors de Catcher se compose de brefs récits, initialement parus en magazine. C’est par une exploration des gestes corporels, verbaux et symboliques de Nine Stories que cet article met en évidence le besoin, pour la critique, d’aller au-delà de Catcher et de revisiter l’œuvre : c’est dans ces détails apparemment humbles, ces « petites choses », que l’on s’aperçoit à quel point Salinger n’est pas seulement l’auteur d’un roman à succès mais que l’ensemble de ses œuvres constitue son véritable chef-d’œuvre.

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1J. D. Salinger’s legacy is dominated by the one novel he published in his lifetime: The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Yet all of his work besides Catcher first appeared in short form, and Salinger himself claimed to be “a dash man and not miler” (“Backstage with Esquire”). The critical community tends to see him as a “one-hit-wonder” novelist, and only a handful of critics support the author’s self-assessment: Warren French argues that Salinger’s novel is “not necessarily the [work] most characteristic of his preoccupations” (21), and Dominic Smith describes Nine Stories (1953), Salinger’s first and only short story anthology and the primary focus of this article, as “the highpoint of [his] foreshortened publishing career” (693). Smith goes on to claim that this collection, published in the UK as For Esmé—with Love and Squalor, and Other Stories, “gave new life to the American short story” (693). One of the less-documented ways in which the collection did this was through its use of gesture.

2For the purposes of this article, “gesture” will be broken down into the following three categories: physical bodily movements of characters; deliberate acts of non-verbal communication; and performative speech acts. Although gesture is normally thought of in non-verbal terms, its scope has been extended to speech acts. Justification for this can be found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which defines gesture as “something said or done . . . as a symbol or token, or for its effect on the attitudes of others” (“gesture”). The physical and spoken acts of gesturing in Nine Stories serve as a means of enhancing various aspects of the fiction. To try and unpack this claim, I will begin by examining the use of physical gesture in the collection, considering what these seemingly humble details contribute to the wider narrative. I will then argue that Salinger’s dialogue can be read as a gestural medium, before highlighting some key examples from the text. Finally, I will touch upon the metaphorical function of gesture and its relation to the collection’s recurring theme of communication. It is worth noting that gesture is not an entirely new idea amongst Salinger scholars; in fact, the author’s obsession with detail led Alfred Kazin to half-jokingly assert: “Someday there will be learned theses on The Use of the Ashtray in J. D. Salinger’s Stories” (45). As yet, nobody has written these theses, and beyond Kazin’s throw-away remark, little consideration has been given to the importance of gestural detail in Salinger’s fiction. The present article aims to show the versatility and importance of gesture in Nine Stories, thereby encouraging scholars to reconsider Salinger’s work beyond Catcher. When added-up, the “little things” in these stories reveal a broader need to rescue the author from the column of one-hit-wonder novelists.

3Physical gesture is central to Salinger’s character construction. The characters in Nine Stories register their existences by occupying and negotiating space. A key manifestation of this is the bodily tic. Characters endlessly prod, scratch, examine, and pick at themselves in unattractive ways. A famous example in Catcher is Holden’s schoolmate, Ackley, who scrapes and cuts his fingernails all over Holden’s bedroom (27-28). In “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” the fifth of the Nine Stories, Franklin Graff is seen behaving in a similarly off-putting manner. After watching him “picking at” his cut finger repeatedly, Franklin’s younger sister’s tennis partner, Ginnie Mannox, demands that he “[s]top touching it” (Esmé 32); instead, Franklin inserts “the nail of his uninjured index finger into the crevice between two front teeth . . . removing a food particle” (33). This unappealing behavior humanizes Salinger’s characters: Franklin and Ackley are made real by their unhygienic fidgeting.

4As well as lending authenticity, physical gestures also function as a way to telegraph a character’s feelings about the situation (i.e. “body language”). Salinger uses bodily cues to indicate a character’s insecurity or discomfort. Esmé, in “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” who strikes up conversation with an American soldier in a Devonshire tearoom, self-consciously rearranges her hair throughout the encounter (70-77). In “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” while Lee speaks to his distraught friend Arthur on the telephone, he and his unnamed lover repeatedly fiddle with cigarettes, the telephone cable, and an ashtray (90, 91, 95, 97). John Gedsudski, leader of a boy-scout-esque organization called the Comanche Club in “The Laughing Man,” repeatedly buttons and unbuttons his jacket in front of his girlfriend, Mary Hudson (50). In all three examples above, the repetitive, gesticulating body language of the characters reflects underlying insecurity: Esmé is out of her depth or unsure about the situation, Lee and his lover are visibly uncomfortable about the telephone call, and Gedsudski (aka “the Chief”) is anxious about his impending conversation with Mary Hudson. While their gestures indicate discomfort, Salinger ensures that the reason for that discomfort is always ambiguous. Esmé’s anxious behavior could be a sign of her desire to be perceived as mature and sophisticated, or could be a sign of the evacuee’s war-jitters, or any number of the other things Salinger gives her to worry about. In “Pretty Mouth,” the ashtray antics potentially suggest that Lee’s bedfellow is Arthur’s adulterous wife, Joanie. Yet it could just as easily be a sign of general discomfort at the situation, or boredom, as one of culpability—the story never confirms the reader’s suspicions. Likewise, the narrator’s childhood impressions leave the reader unsure why Gedsudski is nervous beyond the fact that he has something serious to discuss with Mary Hudson—whatever it may have been, it ends in heartbreak.

5Salinger balances the implied insecurity of his characters’ physical gestures with an interpretative ambiguity reminiscent of early Hemingway short stories. Yet, as Maxwell Geismar points out, the anxious, vulnerable characters who populate Nine Stories are “a symbol of protest against the compulsive virility of the Hemingway school of fiction” (88). The reality is that unlike Hemingway, Salinger forgoes the sparsity of modernist prose, filling his stories with abundant details of gesture that add human depth to his insecure characters. Muriel Glass, for instance, one of the few physically elegant and self-assured characters in Salinger’s writing, is brought to life by her movements in the congested opening scene of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”:

With her little lacquer-brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left—the wet—hand back and forth through the air. With her dry hand, she picked up a congested ashtray from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood. She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds and—it was the fifth or sixth ring—picked up the phone. (1)

6This vivid passage breathes life in the graceful, insouciant young woman. Her every gesture reinforces the fact that, as the narrator says, “[s]he was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing” (1). Salinger’s fixation with details of gesture and setting adds an element of realism to the narrative; before Muriel can answer the phone, she is forced to negotiate the finicky particulars of the world she inhabits. John V. Hagopian notes in his reading of “Pretty Mouth” that such gestural precision works to create “flesh-and-blood characters who exist in a fully-rendered, specifically-detailed world” (350). In later works, like “Zooey” (1957), this digressive detailing technique almost replaces conventional narrative progression. As Monika Gehlawat puts it, Salinger’s “prose reads like stage directions, with the smallest movements, expressions, and gestures . . . described in detail” (72). In Nine Stories it is the intricate details of physical gesture in particular which give legitimacy to Salinger’s characters and the world they inhabit. The author harnesses the lightness of touch, and depth of ambiguous implication found in stories like “Hills Like White Elephants” (1927), whilst taking the time and space to foreground—through gesture—the awkward intricacies of the human condition.

7Another key contributor to the overall authenticity of these stories is their dialogue. Characters speak in believable ways that reveal their personalities and values. David Stevenson praises Salinger for his “unerring sense of the appropriate details of gesture” and the “apparently effortless verisimilitude” of his dialogue (40). One of the author’s main strategies for achieving realistic speech is the use of animated, emphasis-laden language. A prime example comes in “Pretty Mouth,” when Lee hangs up the telephone after spending a considerable time reassuring a friend, Arthur, that his (Arthur’s) wife, Joanie, is not out having an affair. The woman lying next to Lee—who is probably Joanie—says, “I’m limp. I’m absolutely limp. Look at me” (95). Though seemingly distressed by the current situation, she is distracted by some cigarette ash on Lee’s hand just seconds later: “Darling—Excuse me . . . I think you’re on fire” (95). Then, remembering herself, she returns to theatrical declarations of guilt: “God, I feel like an absolute dog!” (95). By juxtaposing these lines of dialogue, Salinger creates a humorous, almost satirical, insincerity to her character. He undermines the legitimacy of what Joanie says by side-tracking her with something as banal as cigarette ash. Yet, the legitimacy of how she speaks is never in doubt, despite the inherent theatricality of what she says. “Bananafish” offers an even more exaggerated instance of hysterical verbal performance. Determined to drive a wedge between her daughter and war-damaged son-in-law, Muriel’s mother embarks on a tirade against the latter:

“Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital—my word of honor. He very definitely told your father there’s a chance—a very great chance, he said—that Seymour may completely lose control of himself. My word of honor. (3)

8The floundering, circular language manages to verge on caricature without losing its sense of plausibility. Meaningful communication is undermined by an exaggerated, theatrical manner of speaking with female characters like Joanie and Muriel’s mother—they say a lot but mean very little. This does not, however, reflect some sort of misogyny on the part of the author; in fact, a number of Salinger’s men are equally performative and similarly unsuccessful at communicating. The delivery mechanisms of linguistic failure differ superficially in male characters, but these foul-mouthed, slang-speaking posers are no different to their female counterparts. A perfect example is Holden Caulfield, who epitomizes the vacuous potential of speech more vividly than any other character in Salinger’s writing. He spends the majority of The Catcher in the Rye calling people “Goddam phonies,” and describing things as a “helluva” something, “for Chrissake.” In Nine Stories one finds something similar in Franklin, who speaks with a vernacular style, saying things like: “‘Jeat jet?’ . . . ‘You just played tennis, for Chrissake. Aren’tcha hungry?’” (33). His brash, faux-masculine manner can be downright offensive at times. After knowing Ginnie for only a matter of minutes, he calls her elder sister (a former crush of his) a “goddam snob”—“Queen of the goddam snobs” (31). Another character who puts on this sort of bravado is Mr. McCardle, Teddy’s father. He repeatedly threatens to beat his son, using implicit verb substitutions in an attempt to be witty: “I’ll exquisite day you, buddy” (125), “I’ll Queen Mary you, buddy” (127), and, “I’ll qualify you, buddy, if you don’t get the hell off that bag” (128). Like Holden, these characters employ hypermasculine posturing as a means to hide their vulnerability: McArdle is threatened by his son’s intelligence, and Franklin is bitter at Ginnie’s sister’s rejection. Both the men and women of Nine Stories try to cover up insecurities through exaggerated linguistic gesturing, but Salinger allows the reader (and to an extent the fellow characters) to see through their bluff and bluster. Some individuals are exposed as callous and self-centred, others as oversensitive and insecure; in all cases, the characters are brought to life, rendered human, through the cadences of their speech. Salinger’s characters “are wholly present in devastating dramatic immediacy, in everything they say” (Mizener 94), and the dialogue in Nine Stories is “impressively—at times excruciatingly—realistic” (Madigan 156). Verbal gestures, like their physical analogues, are essential to developing character and creating a sense of realism in Salinger’s writing.

9If the little details were not already working hard enough, some gestures even have a symbolic function on top of everything else. They provide insight into the underlying themes of communication and human connection in Nine Stories. The disingenuous speech acts discussed up to now, indicate the failure of most attempts to communicate in Salinger’s fiction. Yet, on rare occasions, heartfelt gestures break through the ubiquitous web of “phoniness,” producing moments of real connection. Actions like these are dotted throughout Salinger’s fiction, and Ihab Hassan calls them “quixotic gestures” (140-41). Without doubt the most famous example of the quixotic gesture is Esmé sending Sergeant X her father’s watch (Esmé 84). The device itself is outdated, impractical, and severely damaged in transit but, as Julie Ooms points out, “whether or not the watch performs a prescribed function does not matter” (62). In the aftermath of WWII, at a time when his own family have written only to ask for cashmere yarn or Nazi memorabilia, Esmé’s gesture reaffirms X’s will to live. It reminds him of the possibility of real connection. Unlike the watch example, many of the other powerful symbolic gestures in the collection appear as “little things.” One interaction between Mary Hudson and the narrator of “Laughing Man” illustrates this well. When she first waves and smiles at him, he either completely ignores her, or uses body language to show his disdain towards the Chief’s new girlfriend: “I could feel Mary Hudson smiling at me. For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree” (47). But before long, it emerges that there is more to Mary Hudson than intimidating beauty: she also happens to be a wily baseball player. Faced with the realization that he has at least one thing in common with her, the narrator experiences a quiet moment of personal growth. When Mary gestures to him, he responds in kind:

Over on third base, Mary Hudson waved to me. I waved back. I couldn’t have stopped myself, even if I’d wanted to. Her stickwork aside, she happened to be a girl who knew how to wave to somebody from third base. (48)

10There is a warm humor in both the display of boyish fickleness, and the implication that the narrator has discovered the attraction of girls “who [know] how to wave to somebody from third base.” More importantly though, the wave is a symbol of acceptance. It is no longer a problem that Mary Hudson is an older, sexually-intimidating, upper-middle class girl—nor even that she is a complete stranger. The fact that she can hit a baseball and steal third is enough. “The Laughing Man” ends on a note of communicative failure; the Chief projects his pain at losing Mary Hudson into a story he is telling, killing off the Comanches’ fictional hero, the Laughing Man. The reciprocal waving between Mary and the narrator serves as a symbolic counterpoint to the severing of human connection in the story’s ending. Bernice and Sanford Goldstein describe the harsh ending of “Laughing Man” and many other pieces in Nine Stories as “the destruction of the spontaneous, irrational, and imaginative world of a child” (173). That being said, just as many of the stories in the collection finish with a moment of restoration—facilitated by a quixotic gesture. Perhaps the “humblest” of all the restorative acts in Nine Stories comes in “Eskimos.” Faced with disinfecting his cut finger in iodine, Franklin says, “‘I don’t like it when it stings,’” forcing Ginnie to admit that “‘Nobody does’” (32). In that moment, something as trivial as the pain of disinfecting a cut allows two characters to appreciate their shared human frailty. In Salinger’s trademark, understated fashion, Franklin acknowledges this fleeting moment of deepfelt connection by offering Ginnie a leftover chicken sandwich. Whilst having no desire to eat it, Ginnie accepts the odd gift (itself a quixotic gesture) because of the intent behind it: the sandwich is a token of solidarity between individuals, who against the odds, share something meaningful. Like Esmé’s wristwatch, it is the act of offering something with sincere intent that proves life affirming. In Salinger’s fiction it is often the unremarkable or unnecessary act that becomes the vehicle of human kinship.

11Gesture is one of the most important, and versatile components of Nine Stories. It verbally and physically legitimates characters who inhabit an immediate, realistic world. As well as the world around them, gesture gives humanizing psychological depth to Salinger’s characters. People like Franklin and Mr McArdle shroud their self-doubt in masculine bravado, while the likes of Muriel’s mother and Arthur’s wife substitute genuine interaction with theatrical performance. Body language and verbal mannerisms highlight the very human shortcomings of these characters—irrespective of gender. On a thematic level, all of this disingenuous behavior enhances the alienation that threatens Salinger’s oversensitive protagonists. Occasionally, however, gesture can become the vehicle of meaningful communication. Salinger’s respect for the power of “little things” is summed up in “Teddy”—the final story in the collection. In his diary, the eponymous boy-guru reminds himself to look up the definition of “gift horse” (135). Hidden in amongst his rambling entry for the following day, Teddy leaves this standalone line: “Life is a gift horse in my opinion” (136). Looked at in the mouth, broken watches and day-old chicken sandwiches may seem no match for life’s destructive potential, but in Salinger’s fiction they are the currency of human affinity. Ihab Hassan contends that “when the rare, quixotic gesture” materializes, “we see Salinger for what he is: an American poet” (163). On the basis of this examination one might be inclined to broaden Hassan’s statement, since in all the varied uses of gesture found in Nine Stories, we see Salinger for the exceptional literary artist that he is. Whether it be his only novel, or one of his many short stories, the success of his prose often lies in the humble details—the “little things.” The significant critical and popular attention that Catcher has sustained over the past seven decades is undoubtedly justified, but it ought not to be at the expense of Salinger’s wider body of work. Eudora Welty hits the nail on the head when she says that all of The Catcher in the Rye’s best qualities “can be had in a short story by the same author, where they are somehow more at home” (91-92). As this brief consideration of gesture shows, at lot remains to be said about Salinger’s work—especially in the works now at risk of being left behind: Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction, and dozens of uncollected short stories.

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French, Warren G. “The Phony World and the Nice World.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4.1 (1963): 21-30. Print.

Gehlawat, Monika. “Desperately Seeking Singularity in Franny and Zooey.” Literature Interpretation Theory 22.1 (2011): 59-77. Print.

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Ooms, Julie. “‘Some Quick, However Slight, Therapy’: Neighborliness and Rebuilding Community after War in J. D. Salinger’s War Stories.” Christian Scholar’s Review 46.1 (2016): 43-63. Print.

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---. The Catcher in the Rye. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958. Print.

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Stevenson, David L. “The Mirror of Crisis.” Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait. Ed. Henry Anatole Grunwald. London: Peter Owen Publishers, 1964. 36-41. Print.

Welty, Eudora. “Threads of Innocence.” 1953. If You Really Want to Hear About It. Ed. Catherine Crawford. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006. 91-92. Print.

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Maxwell Donaldson, « The “Little Things”: An Exploration of the Use of Gesture in J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 77 | Autumn 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2023, consulté le 15 juin 2024. URL :

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Maxwell Donaldson

Maxwell Donaldson is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen. His work focuses on J. D. Salinger and The New Yorker with an emphasis on textual editing. His research interests include American periodicals, short fiction studies, and the publishing industry in the twentieth century. He has written for the Women’s History Network, is an editor for The Elphinstone Review, and has recently taken up a co-editor position on the short fiction biannual, Causeway/Cabhsair. In his spare time, he works as a freelance style and content consultant. He intends to pursue a career in publishing after completing his PhD.

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