By the way, if you’re frantically browsing a fishing website trying to work out what a bananafish actually is, you’ll have to rely on the description given in the story by Seymour, a soldier returned from World War II. According to him, they are “very ordinary-looking fish” but when they swim into a hole where there’s lots of bananas, they act like pigs and eat them all. So all you can do is trust him that such things exist.
Thousands of young men left for World War II and more than a few were broken on return. Bananafish is a short, short story, and starts with Muriel speaking to her mother long distance from a hotel. She and Seymour, her husband back from the war, are spending time on the coast. Muriel’s mother is concerned, a number of incidents are alluded to, such as Seymour driving a car at the trees on the side of the road, but since the pair have left Muriel’s parents house, there have been no more incidents, and Seymour just spends his time lying on the beach.
Outside, Seymour is lying on the sand. A five year old girl staying at the hotel comes up, and the two go out into the ocean. He speaks of the peculiar bananafish, and the girl is convinced she sees one swimming by in the ocean. At this stage, it’s probably better you go out and find a copy and read the ending. It does end with an intensity that Salinger exhibits in his other work.
Sometimes it’s impossible to separate an artist from his or her back story. Would Vincent Van Gogh capture the imagination as much if he lived to 80 in a small house in the French countryside? If he hadn’t cut off his ear, but had a wife and six children? Salinger’s output was slight. He was hailed as a genius after the release of Catcher in the Rye, one that he only exacerbated by the bizarre lengths he took to avoid the spotlight. He provided the public the definition of a reclusive author, and the more he did to avoid his fans and reporters, the more he intrigued them.
Salinger himself went to war, and whatever underlying anxieties he had were not helped by having to see action at the front. The alienation he felt on return is apparent through this story. Seymour can no longer relate to normal society. But if the character is anything like Salinger, he couldn’t relate to begin with. It is fascinating to see a literate, intelligent, young man express through his writing his inner world, one that comes across in his writings far better than any clinical description of how he might be feeling.