"A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is a short story by J. D. Salinger, originally published in the January 31, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. It was anthologized in 1949's 55 Short Stories from the New Yorker, as well as in Salinger's 1953 collection, Nine Stories. The story is an enigmatic examination of a young married couple, Muriel and Seymour Glass, while on vacation in Florida. It is the first of his stories to feature a member of the fictional Glass family.
When twenty-eight-year-old Salinger submitted the manuscript to The New Yorker in January 1947, titled "The Bananafish", its arresting dialogue and precise style were read with interest by fiction editor William Maxwell and his staff, though the point of the story, in this original version, was deemed incomprehensible.
At Maxwell's urging, Salinger embarked upon a major reworking of the piece, adding the opening section with Muriel's character, and crafting the material to provide insights into Seymour's tragic demise. Salinger, in frequent consultation with editor Gus Lobrano, revised the story numerous times throughout 1947, renaming it "A Fine Day for Bananafish". The New Yorker published the final version as "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" one year after Salinger had first submitted the manuscript.
The effort was met with immediate acclaim, and according to Salinger biographer Paul Alexander, it was "the story that would permanently change his standing in the literary community." Salinger's decision to collaborate with Maxwell and The New Yorker staff in developing the story marked a major advance in his career and led to his entry into that echelon of elite writers at the journal.
The story opens in an upscale seaside hotel room in Florida. A young woman, Muriel Glass, is preening herself while waiting for the hotel switchboard operator to put a long-distance phone call through to her mother. Self-absorbed and complacent, she is "a girl who for the ringing of a phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually since she reached puberty."
Speaking with her mother, the central topic is Muriel's young husband, Seymour, a World War II combat veteran recently discharged from an Army hospital, where he was presumably evaluated for psychiatric disorders. He has gone down to the beach for the afternoon. The mother-daughter exchange includes a good deal of banter about clothing and fashion, as well as disparaging remarks about the quality of the hotel guests. The mother is disgusted and incensed, as well as possibly frightened for her daughter's safety, by reports about her son-in-law's increasingly bizarre and anti-social behavior – acting "funny" – and she persistently warns Muriel that Seymour "may completely lose control of himself". Muriel dismisses her remarks as hyperbole, regarding her husband's idiosyncrasies as benign and manageable. Neither of the women express concern that Seymour's irrational behavior may indicate that he is suffering emotionally.
The scene switches to the beachfront area reserved for hotel clientele. We meet the four- or five-year-old Sybil Carpenter ("She was wearing…a two piece bathing suit, one piece of which she would not be needing for another nine or ten years.") The little girl's mother, after applying suntan lotion to the child, departs for the hotel lounge to drink martinis. Unsupervised, Sybil seeks out an adult acquaintance, Seymour, who has retreated from the hotel – and his wife – a quarter of a mile away, to lie in solitude on a public beach.
There, the two engage in an intriguing conversation, while Seymour prepares to go for a swim. Sybil selfishly reproaches Seymour for permitting another little girl, the "three and a half" year old Sharon Lipschutz to sit with him while he entertained guests performing on the lounge piano previous nights. Seymour, with mock-seriousness, attempts to placate the spoiled child, but to no avail.
At this impasse, Seymour casually proposes that they "catch a Bananafish" but Sybil coyly insists that Seymour choose between her and Sharon Lipschutz. He gently, yet pointedly, informs her that he observed Sybil abusing a hotel patron's tiny dog and the chastened girl falls silent. Seymour wades into the ocean and, placing the girl on a rubber raft, proceeds to tell her the whimsical tale – "the very tragic life" – of the bananafish: in their gluttony, they gorge themselves on bananas, and swollen too large to escape their feeding holes, die. The child, unfazed by the story, claims that she sees a bananafish – six bananas in its mouth. Seymour affectionately kisses the arch of one of her feet, and returns her to shore, where she departs "without regrets."
Seymour returns to the hotel, where his wife is taking a nap. He retrieves a pistol from his luggage and takes his own life.
Like the eldest son of the Glass family, Salinger was deeply affected by his experiences as a combat soldier in WWII, and these informed his writing. Kenneth Slawenski reports that Salinger, in his Seymour – An Introduction (1959), confesses that the young man in Bananafish "was not Seymour at all but... myself." Traumatized by the Battle of the Bulge and the Nazi concentration camps, Salinger "found it impossible to fit into a society that ignored the truth that he now knew."
Children figure prominently in Salinger's works. Seymour's sympathetic and affectionate interaction with children is contrasted with the detached and phony behavior of adults. In the aftermath of his interlude with Sybil, Seymour "has drawn his own conclusions regarding the makeup of human beings and the world around him" and commits suicide.
Salinger quotes a verse from the poem The Waste Land by poet T. S. Eliot in the following exchange between Seymour and Sybil, regarding the little girl's young rival, Sharon Lipschutz:
"Ah, Sharon Lipschutz", said the young man. "How that name comes up. Mixing memory and desire." He suddenly got to his feet. He looked at the ocean. "Sybil," he said, "I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll see if we can catch a bananafish."
"A bananafish," he said... [emphasis added]
The stanza that contains the verse is from Section I of The Waste Land – "The Burial of the Dead":
"The Burial of the Dead" begins with an excerpt from Petronius Arbiter's Satyricon, which reads: "For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she answered, 'I want to die.'"
Slawenski argues that Salinger's choice of the name Sybil for the little girl establishes an "unmistakable" correlation between Eliot's depiction of the Cumaean Sybil of Greek myth and Seymour's story of the bananafish. The bananafish are "doomed by greed" and thus share the fate of Eliot's Sybil, "cursed by relentless existence."