Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.
Browne and King advise that when using the first-person point of view, the character must be distinct enough to keep the reader’s attention, but not eccentric enough to make readers “trapped inside his or her head.” This issue can be characterized as one of tempering alienation: if the reader must deal with being alienated by every action or sentence that the first-person narrative produces, then the act of reading becomes laborious. However, as we see in Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”, alienating the reader can produce an unlikeable sincerity; between the lines of the main character’s cynicisms exists a nimble exploration of ego and perception.
This nimbleness exists in John Smith’s lively descriptions of his actions and dreams, especially after having sent a hugely caring letter to his star pupil, Sister Irma:
I would listen, listen, listen, with my head in my hands–till finally, unable to stand it any longer, I would each down into Mme. Yoshoto’s throat, take up her heart in my hand and warm it as I would a bird. Then, when all was put right, I would show Sister Irma’s work to the Yoshotos, and they would share my joy.
There is a solipsistic self-righteousness to Smith’s outlook on the people that surround him: he is insulted by M. Yoshoto’s proofreading assignments and by two of his pupil’s less-than-stellar bodies of work. Yet his adoration of Sister Irma becomes a vindication of his existence, and more materially his ego: through Irma’s accomplishments does this character gauge his own worth. This validation is much needed after his pessimistic interpretations of his relationship with the two Yoshotos:
I gave away a lulu of a Picasso story that had just reached me, one that I might have put aside for a rainy day. M. Yoshoto scarcely lowered his Japanese newspaper to listen to it, but Mme. Yoshoto seemed responsive, or, at least, not unresponsive.
The limitations of the first-person viewpoint enhances John Smith’s perceptions of the Yoshotos as passive indictments on his quality of person. Throughout the story, Smith seems to be surprised how much he could trick everyone around him to believe he is De Daumier-Smith, but tempers his success with the anxieties of being discovered by his hosts and student for his true nature. In his world, these characters are obstacles to realizing his wants and desires for something more.
However, events such as Irma leaving the school or the revelation that M. Yoshoto’s school was not even licensed reveals a much larger universe that exists outside of his control and intellect; the first-person viewpoint becomes a powerful tool for exploring the limitations of human experience. With enough descriptions from John Smith, these characters are filled with thought and emotions, but we are left with the sneering descriptions and clever insults from Salinger’s first-person narrative.
Without overt introspection, J.D. Salinger invites the reader into the very limited world of John Smith: limited in length (at only about fifteen pages long), limited in scope (about two or three main settings), and strongly limited in point of view, as the reader is stuck in the head of a 19-year-old protagonist, whose age may contribute to his lack of emotional intelligence and his bleak judgment on all those around him. But Salinger deliberately utilizes the first-person perspective to transform the broader world into an opaque glass that merely blinds the teenager instead of letting him peer in.