Analyzing Reader-Response in J.D. Salinger's The Laughing Man

By Nicole Holmen
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

J.D. Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” is a classic frame story which displays the parallels between a storyteller and his real life.  The narrator of the story, along with his friends, acts as the “readers” of this story and respond psychologically to it, just as a reader of Salinger’s story will respond psychologically to the events presented to them.  This article will analyze “The Laughing Man” using psychological reader-response theory to discover the similarities between Salinger’s readers and his “readers” within the story and to ascertain who the real “hero” of the story actually is.

“The Laughing Man” begins with a description of the young narrator’s after-school activity; he belongs to a group called the Comanche Club, a group of boys led by a 22-year old law student known as the Chief.  The Chief takes the boys around New York City in his dilapidated old school bus, refereeing them in games of “football or soccer or baseball, depending (very loosely) on the season,” or taking them to the Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art on rainy days (Salinger 56).  The Chief always ends the day’s adventures with another installment of his ongoing story about the Laughing Man, an intelligent and cunning villain who, despite his horribly disfigured face, the boys view as their hero, and something of a surrogate father.  The reader is sufficiently drawn in by this introduction, quickly recalling memories from his or her own childhood:  days spent on the baseball diamond after school, or else time spent listening to a storyteller bring a similarly enticing tale to life for his or her imagination to consume.  This is the beginning of the “transaction” between reader and text that psychoanalytic critic Norman Holland’s method of transactive analysis is based on.

“Holland believes that we react to literary texts with the same psychological responses we bring to events in our daily lives” (Tyson 182).  So, when a reader first enters the world of “The Laughing Man” that Salinger has created, that reader responds to the story by flashing back to memories of their childhood, when life was as simple and imaginations ran as wild as they do for the nine-year old narrator in the story.  Also, since Salinger’s story is a frame story, the narrator and his friends can be thought of as “readers” of the tale of the Laughing Man as told to them by the Chief in the same way that people in the real world are able to read “The Laughing Man.”  In this way, the narrator and his friends are creating a “transaction” with the Chief through his storytelling.  This “transaction,” perhaps better thought of as a connection, is what leads the children to become so attached to the Laughing Man, and to think of him as a role model and father figure.  The further the reader, as well as the “readers,” gets into the story, however, the more this “transaction” is revealed to be a rather dangerous one.

What is unusual about the story of the Laughing Man is that the protagonist is an entirely villainous character.  Perhaps his only redeeming qualities are that he doesn’t kill his enemies if he can help it, and that he cares for his extremely loyal sidekicks:  “a glib timber wolf named Black Wing, a lovable dwarf named Omba, a giant Mongolian named Hong,…and a gorgeous Eurasian girl” (Salinger 61).  Other than that, the Laughing Man is singularly concerned with crime, thievery, and consistently outwitting the Parisian detective Marcel Dufarge and his daughter.  This is unusual for the reader not because he or she would not have encountered a hero with such unpleasant character traits (some popular Disney characters come to mind), but because those “villainous heroes,” for lack of a better term, usually always use those traits to outwit the “real” bad guys.  The reader will instantly recall examples of these heroes such as Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor, and will compare them to the Laughing Man, who stole simply because he wanted to.  The reader, therefore, is confronted by the idea that the people who are most dangerous to them cannot always be defeated, especially when those people are made out to be the heroes they are supposed to rely on.  The reader can see this in the “readers” of the story, who are so enthralled by the idea of the Laughing Man that each of them “regard[s] [him]self not only as the Laughing Man’s direct descendant, but also as his only legitimate living one” (Salinger 61).

This idea that a villain is made into a hero is one that the reader most likely has not encountered before in his or her real life, where the people of the world are controlled by state and national laws and where the people who break those laws are punished.  So, the reader’s defenses are triggered by the Laughing Man, who the reader would fear because he is an unheard of occurrence.  This is where another of Holland’s ideas comes in:  that when the reader is put on guard by an aspect of the story they are reading, they must find a way to deal with that problem.  “When we perceive a textual threat to our psychological equilibrium, we must interpret the text in some way that will restore that equilibrium” (Tyson 183).  The reader can do this by finding a way to minimize the threat of the idea of the Laughing Man:  perhaps he’s not really as bad as he seems, maybe he is a character to be pitied instead of feared because he simply can’t stop himself from stealing things.  The reader finds this idea of minimization echoed in the text itself, when the narrator determinedly clings to the Laughing Man’s few positive qualities, and indeed, exalts them above his own:  “[The bandits] escaped from time to time and gave [the Laughing Man] a certain amount of trouble, but he refused to kill them.  (There was a compassionate side to the Laughing Man’s character that just about drove me crazy.)” (Salinger 60).

As the story progresses, though, the reader discovers that there are some distinctly familiar, though perhaps no less threatening, aspects still to be presented by Salinger.  The Chief introduces to the boys, first through a photograph pinned to the rear view mirror of his bus, and then in person, the character of Mary Hudson, who will eventually become the downfall of the Chief as well as of the tale of the Laughing Man, for the two are irrevocably connected.  Mary Hudson represents the idea of love and relationships, both of which are things that the reader, as well as Salinger’s “readers,” has trouble comprehending.  For the reader, Mary Hudson is exactly the kind of character who would bring up psychological defenses.  The reader, upon encountering Mary Hudson, would immediately recall memories of past relationships, both good and bad.  In this case, however, she is responded to as a threat to the sanctity of the Comanche Club, which is supposed to be strictly boys-only.  Mary Hudson is an intruder, and so the reader must try to interpret her character in a way that becomes less threatening to his or her psychological equilibrium.  The reader may put her off to the side, instead focusing only on the Chief and the story of the Laughing Man; or perhaps Mary Hudson would be made into a sort of secondary villain who deserves the ending that she receives in the story.  The members of the Comanche Club, the other “readers,” must also find a way of coping with the presence of Mary Hudson, only they have a much simpler time of it:  she is regarded at first as a threat similar to the one encountered by the reader, until she proves that she is a very competent baseball player and all is forgiven.

The ways in which both the reader and Salinger’s “readers” interpret Mary Hudson, as well as other aspects of the story, are referred to by Holland as that person’s identity theme.  A person’s identity theme is “the pattern of our psychological conflicts and coping strategies,” and Holland believes that “when we read literature, we project our identity theme, or variations of it, onto the text.”  So, an identity theme isn’t so much about interpreting a text, but more about what that interpretation reveals about the reader (Tyson 183).  The narrator of “The Laughing Man,” for example, has the identity theme of a person who accepts the presence of Mary Hudson, but does not really take her seriously as a character.

At this point in “The Laughing Man,” the reader has realized that the Chief and Mary Hudson are a couple and, if he or she is reading closely, will have noticed a certain sense of foreboding about the rest of the story.  The tale of the Laughing Man has taken a turn for the worst, a direct product of the events in the Chief’s life.  The Laughing Man’s sidekick, the timber wolf Black Wing, has been captured by the Dufarges, and the Laughing Man willingly trades his own life for that of his comrade.  The Dufarges, of course, have tricked him:  they have replaced the real Black Wing, who has been killed, with a convincing fake, and the Laughing Man finds himself tied with barbed wire to a tree with no hope of rescue.  In a last-ditch effort at escape, he manages to nudge off his red poppy mask, revealing a face so horribly disfigured that Dufarge’s daughter faints immediately.  By a lucky chance, Dufarge himself is spared the sight and realizes what has caused his daughter’s collapse.  “Shielding his eyes with his hand, [Dufarge] fired the full clip in his automatic toward the sound of the Laughing Man’s heavy, sibilant breathing” (Salinger 68).  The latest installment of the story of the Laughing Man ends here, and the Comanche Club is left to wonder what is to become of their beloved hero.

The reader will respond to this part of the story by remembering other times when a hero, whether from any number of books or movies or from their own experiences, has faced such a seemingly inescapable and deadly confrontation.  He or she will instantly feel pity for the captured Laughing Man, and will wish for some miraculous escape to take place so that the legend of the character will end in tragedy.  Moreover, though the reader is caught up in all the drama and peril, he or she will never truly consider an ending where their hero does not emerge victorious.  Literary history has taught the world that the protagonist, despite all odds, can escape relatively unscathed from any situation.  After all, who would people believe in if their heroes are proven to be just as mortal as they are?  The same sentiment is reflected in Salinger’s “readers:” the narrator and his friends, though they seem to realize that all is not well with the Chief and Mary Hudson, are not aware that their hero is about to be killed off permanently.

The connection between the turmoil of the Chief and Mary Hudson’s relationship and the death of the Laughing Man is a very important one.  The Chief’s suffering is directly related to the Laughing Man’s suffering as he remains tied to a tree with the Dufarges at his feet, two bullet wounds bleeding from his chest.  This is obviously symbolic:  the Chief, in a sense, has also been shot in the heart, by the thought of Mary Hudson leaving rather than by an actual gun, and he takes it out on his characters.  The reader may well realize the significance of witnessing Mary Hudson’s departure prior to finding out what happens to the Laughing Man, for it is a very human reaction that the Chief has.  He is heartbroken, and so the Laughing Man must also be, literally, “heartbroken.”  The “readers” in the story will not realize this; they are too shocked by the loss of their hero and father figure to even begin to imagine what caused the Chief to end the story so sadly and abruptly.

This interpretation of “The Laughing Man” by a reader can be divided into three stages, based on Holland’s definition of interpretation.  “First, in the defense mode, our psychological defenses are raised by the text” (Tyson 184).  This is best exemplified by the reader’s first encounter with Mary Hudson, where he or she is reminded of past experiences with relationships and will recognize the inclement danger of introducing her character into the story of the Laughing Man and of the Chief.  The “readers” also go through this stage when they meet Mary Hudson.  The second stage, called the fantasy mode, occurs when the reader interprets the text in such a way that he or she is able to regain a state of psychological equilibrium (Tyson 184).  An example of this would occur just after the reader meets Mary Hudson, where they would write her off as an unimportant character or would not pity her for the ending she receives.  In this way, she is less of a danger to the reader’s sense of equilibrium.  This occurs for the “readers” too:  the narrator is willing to accept Mary Hudson on his team because she is good at baseball.  Though he is still wary of her presence among the Comanche Club, he is willing to disregard this in favor of having a good batter and, of course, in favor of keeping his state of psychological equilibrium.  The third stage is the transformation stage, where “we transform the first two steps into an abstract interpretation so that we can get the psychological satisfaction we desire without acknowledging to ourselves the anxiety-producing defenses and guilt-producing fantasies that underlie our assessment of the text” (Tyson 184).  This would occur at the moment the reader realizes that their hero, whether that be the Laughing Man, the Chief, or the narrator of the story, is just as mortal as his- or herself.  The Laughing Man’s death is an especially poignant reminder that the reader is just as vulnerable, if not more so, as the Laughing Man is in death.  The “readers,” at this point in the story, are having a hard time dealing with the exact same concept:  “The story ended there, of course.  (Never to be revived.)  The Chief started up the bus.  Across the aisle from me, Billy Walsh, who was the youngest of all the Comanches, burst into tears.  None of us told him to shut up.  As for me, I remember my knees were shaking” (Salinger 73).  The reader, however, has a ready-made response to this surprise ending:  he or she can simply blame the whole thing on that dangerous character Mary Hudson, who caused the death of the Laughing Man by ending her relationship with the Chief.  Salinger’s “readers” have no such escape.

In this case, then, Holland’s transformation mode is epitomized by the presence of Mary Hudson.  The character who caused the reader’s defenses to be raised in the first place is the same one who is able to help him or her cope with the ending of the story.  “…in the transformation mode, we focus on an intellectual interpretation of the text in order to avoid our own emotional response to it,” theorized Holland.  “…we ignore the fact that our intellectual interpretation grew out of our emotional response” (Tyson 184).  Mary Hudson is both the reader’s problem and solution.  Without her, there would be no need for raised defenses or for the strategies needed to return the reader to psychological equilibrium.

The final scene of “The Laughing Man” is striking in its simplicity, and serves as a parting shot to the reader’s psychological defenses:  “…when I stepped out of the Chief’s bus, the first thing I chanced to see was a piece of red tissue paper flapping in the wind against the base of a lamppost.  It looked like someone’s poppy-petal mask.  I arrived home with my teeth chattering uncontrollably and was told to go right straight to bed” (Salinger 73).  The image this scene creates is startling to the reader, who is reminded of the feeling of fear he or she may get when encountering the unknown.  The coincidence of the narrator seeing that red piece of tissue paper is enough to have the reader questioning, once again, their psychological defenses.  It reminds the reader that he or she is just as mortal as the Laughing Man turned out to be, just as susceptible to bad fortune and unlucky coincidence as the narrator, whose chattering teeth become a reflection of the reader’s own fear of mortality.

In conclusion, “The Laughing Man” is the perfect story for which to apply Holland’s psychological reader-response theories.  The world (or worlds, rather) that J.D. Salinger has created for his characters is one that challenges the reader’s ideas about heroes and sidekicks, about the characters who tell their stories, and about the minor characters that a reader would never have thought would be as important as they sometimes are.  Though both the reader and the “readers” may not realize it, Mary Hudson is the reason they maintain a state of psychological equilibrium.  The Laughing Man, mortal as he is and filled with such a variety of character defects, was never cut out to be a true hero; the Chief, though well-meaning, was always too shy and too preoccupied with the idea of love to ever be a true hero either.  Mary Hudson, rather unexpectedly, becomes the one responsible for keeping the reader from confronting the very past experiences she represents, though this may likely go unnoticed.  Readers (and “readers”) often forget in the course of being engaged in a story that it is often the most unlikely of characters who turn out the hero, at least that is, in the sense of keeping one’s psyche in check.

Salinger, J.D.  “The Laughing Man.”  Nine Stories.  New York:  Bantam, 1953.

Tyson, Lois.  Critical Theory Today:  A User-Friendly Guide.  New York:  Routledge, 2006.

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