The main character in the story is a sergeant in the army during World War II, a man who’s incredibly lonely and isolated. (In the story, we come to know him as Sergeant X.) He and the other guys in his military unit are all loners, spending their time writing longhand letters to people back home, and only talking to each other when they have to. The story turns out to be a lonely man’s plea for connection, and also a reminder that we are all connected—that you just have to be able to look beyond the end of your nose.
By chance, he meets Esmé, a precocious 13-year-old, who lives under the watchful eye of a governess. We learn her father has been killed in North Africa, and it’s clear she’s experienced a good deal of loss and grief. And yet she has this incredible curiosity. It’s a quality she shares with many of Salinger’s child characters—a sadness combined with this intense desire to better know the world. I think that’s Esmé’s appeal to Sergeant X, and to Salinger, and to us: She reminds us that one can be curious, and optimistic, and open-minded, and at the same time disappointed, depressed by man’s cruelty. Ultimately, that realization helps save the sergeant as he’s recovering from his traumatic experience of the war. Salinger was very influenced by Buddhism at the time he wrote “For Esmé,” and there’s something very Buddhist about this: It’s an insistence that we can hold great suffering and wonder in ourselves at once.
It’s somewhat Buddhist, too, the way that these characters have only the most transient of encounters, one that nonetheless manages to have long-lasting implications. In the story’s present frame, the sergeant has an opportunity to attend Esmé’s wedding in London, years later. Ultimately, he chooses not to go—and so, in the end, “For Esmé” is the story of a missed connection. X doesn’t need to go to Esmé’s wedding. They don’t need to be friends, or take up any kind of daily place in one another’s lives. Their single, short interaction—we learn, later, that it only lasted half an hour—somehow contains enough connection for a lifetime. Perhaps that’s the symbolism of the watch Esmé mails to Sergeant X, as a “lucky talisman.” The watch crystal has been broken in transit, and maybe that’s fitting. In a way, both characters’ clocks stopped on that day in 1944. It’s a moment that exists strangely out of time, one they’ll both forever return to.
I tried to explore this idea in my story “The National Caged Bird Show,” which is a kind of homage to “For Esmé.” The two main characters in my story, a grief-stricken soldier stationed in the desert and a girl on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, end up meeting in a chat room for lovers of budgies, a nickname for parakeets. To me, it was interesting and heartbreaking that they both went to a place, this budgie chat room. It was about innocence, and nature, and a kind of purity, a topic that provided comfort from what was happening in the rest of their lives. And even though one was defusing IEDs in a war, and another was a girl trying to grow up in a world that was not hospitable to her, they both had something to offer each other. As in “For Esmé,” these characters have the opportunity to meet one another in person, but they don’t pull it off in the end. And yet you get the sense that that’s okay. They were both in uncomfortable situations where they had no sense of agency, and their brief moment of connection helped to make things better.