Back in my college days, I was often bored by my classwork, so I spent a lot of time hiding out in the stacks of the library, reading like a fiend. I first met Teddy (formally Theodore McArdle) there, hiding from my responsibilities, my student loan debt, myself. Precocious child Teddy was, for sure. But still, he had that other-worldly wisdom practically dripping from him, so there was no way I could ignore the boy.
I didn’t really know what to make of him. Some of the things he said—about getting out of the finite dimensions, about some crazy thing called Vedantism, about vomiting up the “apple”—seemed ridiculous, seemed like the make-believe world of a 10-year-old boy with an active, vivid, intellectual imagination. At first, in short, I wrote the damn kid off.
Being in the library anyway, I decided to delve into all those things they had stacked on all those shelves. Books, magazines, newspapers. Found everything I could on Vedantism and other Eastern philosophies. I read all the Salinger stories I could find, even the uncollected ones.
After all this extensive research, I came back to Teddy with a mind that had been grenade-blown wide open. With this new perspective, I could see that what he was saying was absolutely TRUE. It was NOT some fanciful fabrication of a hyper-intelligent kid. It was pure and beautiful truth.
“A few years ago, I published an exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a “gifted” little boy aboard a transatlantic liner….” — Buddy Glass, J.D. Salinger’s (most obvious) alter-ego.
There are a bunch of great essays on the web about Salinger’s “exceptionally Haunting, Memorable, unpleasantly controversial, and thoroughly unsuccessful short story about a “gifted” little boy aboard a transatlantic liner,” “Teddy.”
Orange Peels and Apple-Eaters: Buddhism in J.D. Salinger’s Teddy by Tony Magagna
Along This Road Goes No One: Salinger’s “Teddy” and the Failure of Love by Anthony Kaufman
Salinger's Teddy by Charles Deemer
The Grass Before It Was Green by Leslie English
What's Up With the Ending? on something called Shmoop.com
Teddy McArdle — Character Analysis on Shmoop
Professor Phillip Schultz in the Writers Studio’s CraftClass on “Teddy” and Salinger (Audio)
This being the case, I don’t really want to re-hash anything that these other fine essays have already gotten into. I’ll just reiterate for the uninitiated (and if you’re one, shame on ya) that Teddy McArdle, the “gifted” little boy mentioned above, advocates a Vedantic view of the world which espouses an unemotional approach to life. He (and it) champions the abandonment of desire—sexual, financial, and material— as a path to spiritual enlightenment. This is emphasized in the story by other characters’ obsessions with name-brand things: Leicas, and Gladstones, and Eastern-seaboard regimental outfits, and Ivy League educations. Teddy believes that a focus on these things prevents a person from making spiritual progress (by meditation) which eventually allows the person to become one with God, whereby that person would then stop the cycle of reincarnation and spend eternity in perfect bliss.
The main issue of contention about the story is its rather abrupt, controversial ending: What, exactly, happened? Did Teddy commit suicide? Did his kid sister push him into an empty pool? Did he push his sister into a full pool?
Here’s the exact concluding text [SPOILER ALERT — STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING SPOILED FOR YOU!]:
“At D Deck the forwardship stairway ended, and Nicholson stood for a moment, apparently at some loss for direction. However, he spotted someone who looked able to guide him. Halfway down the passageway, a stewardess was sitting on a chair outside a galleyway, reading a magazine and smoking a cigarette. Nicholson went down to her, consulted her briefly, thanked her, then took a few additional steps forwardship and opened a heavy metal door that read: TO THE POOL. It opened onto a narrow, uncarpeted staircase.
He was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream—clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls.”
What I’d like to discuss is something that I haven’t seen written about elsewhere (if anyone else has please point me to it)—Saint George and the Dragon. It’s mentioned in the story in a rather inconspicuous way. Specifically:
“Teddy passively looked up from his newspaper, but the woman had passed, and he didn’t look back. He went on reading. At the end of the passageway, before an enormous mural of Saint George and the Dragon over the staircase landing…”
It’s just mentioned in passing like that, with no apparent significance whatsoever to the plot. However, I don’t think it would be there if it had absolutely no meaning. The fact that Salinger mentions this detail at all seems to me like the man put it there for a reason. Perhaps even a big reason.
So, who is this Saint George fella and what’s the deal with the dragon? Turns out, it’s a legend. And, like all good legends, there’s a kick-ass lesson behind it.
“The town (Silene) had a pond, as large as a lake, where a plague-bearing dragon dwelled that envenomed all the countryside. To appease the dragon, the people of Silene used to feed it a sheep every day, and when the sheep failed, they fed it their children, chosen by lottery.
It happened (one time) that the lot fell on the king’s daughter. The king, distraught with grief, told the people they could have all his gold and silver and half of his kingdom if his daughter were spared; the people refused. The daughter was sent out to the lake, decked out as a bride, to be fed to the dragon.
Saint George by chance rode (his horse) past the lake. The princess, trembling, sought to send him away, but George vowed to remain.
The dragon reared out of the lake while they were conversing. Saint George fortified himself with the Sign of the Cross, charged it on horseback with his lance and gave it a grievous wound. Then he called to the princess to throw him her girdle, and he put it around the dragon’s neck. When she did so, the dragon followed the girl like a meek beast on a leash. She and Saint George led the dragon back to the city of Silene, where it terrified the people at its approach. But Saint George called out to them, saying that if they consented to become Christians and be baptized, he would slay the dragon before them.
The king and the people of Silene converted to Christianity, George slew the dragon, and the body was carted out of the city on four ox-carts. “Fifteen thousand men baptized, without women and children.” On the site where the dragon died, the king built a church to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint George, and from its altar a spring arose whose waters cured all disease.”
It is my belief that Salinger’s purpose for the story (which he admits was a failure, per the quote above) was to convert a large percentage of Americans into a Vedantic (or at least anti-materialistic) view of life. American Consumerism is the dragon, Teddy is Saint George, and the pool is the spring whose waters cure all disease coming from the worship of money and materialism — by being the cause of Teddy’s death. (Water is generally regarded as a symbol of life in stories or poems.)
It is also my belief that Teddy did actually die because, like all good prophets, his death was required for his cause to live eternally.
“Teddy” first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1953. The context of the culture at that time was that television was beginning its ascent to media domination in post-War America, as more and more households turned away from radio programming to get their entertainment needs met. This is also—as a way to subsidize that entertainment—the time when Madison Avenue advertising companies began to commodify the American Dream as something you can purchase at your local retailer. (This is currently being dramatized on shows like Mad Men.) If you just purchase the right brand of laundry detergent, the right brand of car, the right brand of cigarettes, the American Dream can be yours. No spiritual advancement required!
Living in the aftermath of those early, lying-for-profit efforts, in a hyper-materialistic, puddle-deep, attention-deficit, drug-addicted America, I’d have to agree with Mr. Salinger that this story, sadly, was an abject failure.
Maybe that’s why the guy wouldn’t come out from his dark hole prior to his passing. He couldn’t bear the light of truth that what post-War America has become is one non-stop orgy of Materialism and Nihilism.