"But what is the correct interpretation?"
English teachers have been plagued by this question since the dawn of time. Well... maybe not that long ago, but many students are stuck on finding the "correct" interpretation of a piece of literature. It is important for teachers to enforce how literature is subjective, and it is more important to discover a well-supported view than one that is blindly accepted. This lesson focuses on a story that is almost as ambiguous as its author: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger.
"Bananafish" gives the reader a lot of information but leaves us to connect the dots. Seymour Glass, the main character, is a very enigmatic figure. We receive a spattering of background information, yet a full portrait is never formed. The sheet provided above gives three popular interpretations of the story, each viewing Seymour in a different way. Although the interpretations could be given out before reading the story, it is more effective for students to come up with some initial thoughts after reading so that they do not rely too heavily on the interpretations. Keep in mind that "Bananafish" should be reserved for more mature readers: not only does it touch upon mature themes such as pedophilia and suicide, but the word "pussy" appears multiple times (in an innocent context, but it may prompt giggles).
After reading, explain that the author left the story ambiguous on purpose, and there is no "correct" reading. Instead, tell students that they can decide which interpretation is "correct." Have students choose an initial interpretation, and then have them record at least three pieces of textual evidence to support their reading (this lends itself well to the structure of the story: one quote from Muriel's scene on the phone with her mother, another from Seymour's interactions with Sybil, and finally from the closing of the tale). If they cannot find ample evidence, they must choose another. There is enough textual evidence to support all three readings, so personal choice comes into play here, and it could also give insight into the thought process of your class.
Applying the Interpretation
After collecting evidence, there are various activities that can take place:
- Students can write an essay proving their interpretation
- Students can take part in a debate to defend their reading against the rest of the class
- Students can do outside research about J.D. Salinger to decide which reading is most consistent with his personality
No matter how the interpretations are applied, students will learn how to use textual evidence to prove a personal reading. Many find Salinger's hermetic ways frustrating, but his clandestine nature makes this lesson particularly effective.