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When people feel rejected by a cruel world, very often they employ a defense mechanism of isolating themselves further, terrified of being hurt. The short stories “For Esmé-With Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger and “Seventeen” by William Saroyan discuss what happens when lonely characters try to reach out from isolation. The stories are connected by the theme of a lonely individual attempting to connect with others in a world in which they feel ostracized. The difference between the stories is that in “For Esmé,” Sergeant X is able to find solace while Sam Wolinsky from “Seventeen” is unable to find it.
The reason Sergeant X is able to connect with Esmé is because he understands love while Sam cannot.
Due to his home life and a bleak future ahead of him, Sergeant X feels lonely and depressed. To find some compassion in a world he feels alone in, X attempts to reach out to Esmé . Despondent and apathetic with death, Sergeant X is not thrilled in the least to be heading into war.
Before he meets Esmé, he mentions that while packing for D Day he threw his gas mask out the window, stating that “if the enemy ever did use gas I’d never get the damn thing on in time.” This shows how resigned he is in his fate and probable death. Furthermore, Sergeant X feels unable to connect with those at home or any of his war buddies. When Esmé asks him if he is “deeply in love with your wife,” X chooses not to reply.
This is also revealed in how his brother, completely unsympathetic to Sergeant X’s trauma, asks him to send home “a couple of bayonets or swastikas,” treating his war time as just souvenirs for the kids. Furthermore, X’s companion, Corporal Z, could not be more unlike him. While Corporal Z is barely affected by the horrors of the war, Sergeant X undergoes severe PTSD. X recognizes, however, that hell and its loneliness is “the suffering of being unable to love.” Although Sergeant X feels unable to connect with anyone at home or at war, he is still able to love and can find solace through Esmé.
Sam feels lonely because he believes he is hated and that he is far more superior than his peers. Instead of reaching out to others his age, Sam goes searching for an ultimate evil to connect with the outside world. “Seventeen” begins with Sam reflecting on how much better he is than others because he wasn’t “weak like other people,” and that he, “hadn’t once cried in ten years.” Sam continues on how even all his friends hate him and that, “He was alone.” By disdainfully writing off all the teenagers in the park, saying that his town was “small and petty, full of the weaknesses of man,” Sam feels superior but at the same time is self-inflicting loneliness upon himself. After having sex with the prostitute, Sam feels dirty and recognizes the true ugliness of what he did. Sam believes that he could have overcome this evil, as he believes himself to be something enormous in the world. By the end, however, “he saw himself as he was, small, the size of a small man… and everything despicable.” Due to his experiences and self isolation, Sam feels even more cut off from the rest of the world. Furthermore, his parents do very little to comfort Sammy, just glad to finally see their son crying like a normal person, keeping Sammy in isolation.
The reason Sergeant X is able to find solace through Esmé at the end of the story is because he can love while Sam cannot. Instead of joining any of the teens his age or looking for someone who will understand him, Sam goes looking for a “professional evil.” Sam is so filled with hatred and superiority that he believes he fully understands love. Sam explains that, “Love was purely physical; all the rest was imaginary, stupid, fake… any man who got soft inside about the lust that was in him was a fool.” He realizes he is wrong, however, when he tries to prove himself that he is above all evils and that he can fulfill his need for love through sex. This is all done in an attempt to destroy what little tenderness in him he still had. All Sam really needs is to do is build off of this tenderness. It is not weakness, as he believes, it is the true ability to love and find solace. But instead, Sam just seeks more evil.
Sergeant X, on the other hand, truly understands love. This truth is that the absence or inability of love becomes hell and that love is not something merely physical. Sergeant X does not really love his wife or any of his war buddies. But he loves Esmé. Only Esmé really understands Sergeant X, wishing him well and hoping that he returns “with all your faculties intact,” or his sanity and life. Nearing the end of their conversation, the Esmé recognizes how dire and stressful X’s situation is, mentioning that it is “a pity that we didn’t meet under less extenuating circumstances.” At the end of the story, X is unable to finish reading any of the letters, including his brother’s, lying on his desk. However, as he reads Esmé’s letter, it is significant that it was only Esmé’s letter that X was able to read completely through. It is only Esmé who can commiserate and get through to X and it is only Esmé Sergeant X can love.
Sam, unlike X, is unable to find someone to relate to because of his inability to understand love. By the end of “For Esmé,” despite the traumas that Sergeant X has undergone, he is able to find some hope and compassion in Esmé. In “Seventeen,” Sam searches for human contact to escape loneliness in the worst place possible, resulting in his breakdown at the end of the story. These two tales are connected by loneliness and how to escape it, a kind of pain that Sergeant X recognizes in his most wretched state, “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love,” and that Sam cannot understand when he thinks he is at his biggest and best, “A man had to be alone.”
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