The Laughing Man by J.D. Salinger

The coming of age story, “The Laughing Man,” was written by J.D. Salinger in 1949. “The Laughing Man” is the story of a young boy (the unnamed narrator) and his friends who belong to an after-school group named The Comanches. The organizer of the group is a stocky Polish man whom the boys look up to and glorify to be a god. The boys refer to this man as “Chief.” Each evening, after the boys have played their sports, the Chief feeds to the boys a story about a character who was kidnapped, turned into a hideous beast and eventually grows to be a crime-fighting hero. This hero’s name was the Laughing Man. The Chief’s girlfriend, Mary Hudson, begins to join the boys on their outings, but after some time, the Chief and his girlfriend have an emotional fight. That night, the Chief’s final installment of “The Laughing Man” ends with the death of the Laughing Man. This leaves the boys to realize that their true hero, the Chief, has been telling his own story through the parallel narrative of “The Laughing Man.”
The narrator, who is now much older, tells the story through the perspective of his 9-year-old self. In the story, the boy is unsure of what caused the conflict between the Chief and Mary, and therefore does not even attempt to demystify it. Rather, he learns of the Chief’s troubles through the plot changes in “The Laughing Man.” The Camanches consider themselves to be disciples of the Laughing Man. They hardly understand that the Laughing Man represents how the Chief views himself through his own eyes. And therefore, the boys are, as they knew the whole time, followers of the Chief.
As a reflection on his own appearance, the Chief tells the boys that the Laughing Man is a hideous creature. He says that the Laughing Man was the victim of torture from the Chinese Bandits who kidnapped him and that he now has a “pecan-shaped head and a face that featured, instead of a mouth, an enormous oval cavity below the nose” (Salinger 87). At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the Chief as “an law student at N.Y.U” (Salinger 85). He later adds that he was “an Eagle Scout, an almost-All-American tackle of 1926, and was invited to try out for the New York Giants’ baseball team” (Salinger 85). However, his physical appearance, much like the Laughing Man’s, is not exactly attractive.
The first sign that Mary Hudson would be joining the group came when the Chief puts Mary’s picture on display in the bus. The bus had previously been a “boys only” masculine sanctuary, and the boys felt threatened by her feminine presence. But once they saw her skills on the baseball field, they came to accept and welcome her as one of their own. At the end of the story, Mary choses to sit with nursemaids rather than play ball with the boys. Though Salinger left this open to interpretation, the implication is that the fight between Mary and the Chief had to do with Mary being pregnant, hence her sitting with the nursemaids. Regardless, the narrator can see that the Chief and his girlfriend have had a fight. Though the boy may not have understood what the issue was, he says that he “couldn’t have been more certain that Mary Hudson had permanently dropped out of the Camanche lineup” (Salinger 105). This realization breaks the Chief’s heart, and, in turn, influences his decision to kill off the Laughing Man; leaving the boys crushed and flabbergasted by their true hero, the Chief.

The final installment of “The Laughing Man” represents the end of the Chief and Mary’s relationship and, in a way, the end of some of childhood’s innocence. In the final story, the Laughing Man’s best friend, Black Wing dies. The Laughing Man feels that, without Black Wing, life is not worth living. Similarly, the Chief has been entertaining the children with the story of The Laughing Man and when he realizes that his relationship with Mary Hudson is probably over, he no longer feels it necessary to continue on with the story.





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