Seymour is an unrepentant outsider among his wife, his wife’s family, the guests at the Florida resort, and society in general. Intelligent but psychologically damaged from the war, he has lost his footing in accepted adult society and renounces this society in favor of poetry, music, and children. He is pale whereas the other guests are tan, and antisocial whereas the others enjoy mingling at cocktail parties and dinners. While Muriel socializes, Seymour plays the piano by himself or spends time with children at the beach. Always, he is apart from the crowd, moving through a world that is saturated more with yearned-for innocence than with adult realities. For much of the story, Seymour seems placid and quiet, a stark contrast to the unbalanced, erratic Seymour that Muriel and her mother discuss on the phone. His outsider status seems, if not “normal,” then at least harmless. However, when Seymour angrily accuses the woman in the elevator of looking at his feet, another side of him becomes clear. Ultimately, Seymour is unable to reconcile his outsider status with society and kills himself.
Although Seymour’s interactions with children, particularly Sybil, are rooted in his desire for a return to innocence, modern readers may find it difficult to ignore the uncomfortable sexual undertones. On the surface, Seymour’s actions are harmless, even childlike. For example, he plays with Sybil and talks to her in a silly, childlike way, and he allows Sharon Lipschutz to sit with him on the piano bench, as though they are both children retreating from the adults in the room. However, Seymour also disrobes in front of Sybil, which he will not do in front of Muriel. He is a lone, adult man playing with a child not his own while her mother is not around, touching her physically as he lifts her onto a raft and kisses her foot. He also spins the tale of the bananafish, which seem blatantly phallic. Nothing comes of this talk, and Seymour’s struggle to achieve a kind of new innocence ultimately renders his words harmless. But as the scene on the beach is followed by his violent outburst in the elevator and then his suicide, his actions and words take on a darker, more adult character, unfair and inaccurate as that characterization may be.
Muriel, a pretty and self-interested socialite, is firmly entrenched in the superficial, materialistic world in which Seymour is an outsider. She places great importance on her appearance, spends time reading vapid magazines, and is concerned with the horrendous fashion she sees at the Florida resort. When Sybil asks Seymour where Muriel is, Seymour says, “She may be in one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser’s. Having her hair dyed mink.” Muriel elicits nothing but scorn from Seymour presumably since he came home from the war, although she is not overly concerned with his behavior, even his calling her “Miss Spiritual Tramp 1948.”
Muriel’s unconcern suggests devotion to Seymour as well as indifference and naïveté. She willingly drove to Florida with him even after he crashed her father’s car, and she defends him against her mother’s wild, worried accusations. Though her mother criticizes Seymour’s erratic behavior, Muriel dismisses it and seems to accept that Seymour’s behavior is part of who he is. However, her unconcern also suggests that she is indifferent to Seymour’s mental health and well-being. Clearly, he has been psychologically damaged in the war, yet Muriel only half-heartedly pursues answers and information from a psychiatrist at the resort. She all but ignores Seymour during their trip, never pressuring him to make more effort to be social or trying to make him fit into social norms. Ultimately, her lack of concern reveals her naïveté. Seymour is and has been truly disturbed, but even at his moment of greatest crisis—when he takes the gun from his luggage and shoots himself in the head—Muriel has no idea of the extent of Seymour’s distress. Her lack of concern may well have been a strange form of devotion, but it ultimately enabled Seymour to carry out his violent suicide.
Young Sybil, like Seymour, is alone and misunderstood. Her mother misunderstands her chanting of Seymour Glass’s name as the nonsense words “see more glass,” which suggests that Sybil, too, lives in a world were no one understands her. With Seymour, however, she speaks freely and randomly, and Seymour listens intently and responds in kind. More important, she seems to understand Seymour in a way that adults cannot. She enters his imaginary world easily, willingly engaging in his silly talk and fantastical claims about bananafish. For a brief time, she and Seymour inhabit the same imaginary universe, creating life on their own terms, from their own minds. Sybil breaks the dream, protesting when Seymour kisses her foot. Although she is the child and Seymour is the adult, she is the one who is more willing to return to the real world, and when she runs from Seymour back to the hotel, she does so “without regret.”
The name Sybil suggests an allusion to Greek mythology, in which sibyls are figures who can see the future. Sybil is a kind of seer because she is able to see the bananafish that Seymour describes. In some ways, she seems to be wise beyond her years, recognizing that Seymour needs for her to “see” what he sees. Her ability to “see” the bananafish ultimately suggests her ability to understand Seymour. Her connection with him, however, cannot save his life, even though it granted him a final moment of happiness.