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Book club: Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger

by
09 October 2020

Anthony Phillips on J. D. Salinger’s novel about spiritual dislocation, Franny and Zooey

J. D. SALINGER is best known for his coming-of-age first novel, The Catcher in the Rye. But, for those concerned with faith issues, particularly when they involve young people faced with the meaning of life, his next work, Franny and Zooey, about the two youngest of the seven Glass siblings, is a must. It will even challenge older readers about where they stand.

Franny, the first of two sequential stories about the Glass family, is set on the first day of Franny’s weekend visit to her boyfriend’s college. Over lunch, her boyfriend, Lane, launches into a long monologue about a brilliant paper that he has written. Franny, increasingly irritated with so much that is phoney in Lane’s egocentric world, and already showing signs of distress, deliberately antagonises him.

Lane asks Franny about a little book that he has seen in her handbag. Franny reluctantly tells him that it is about a wandering Russian peasant seeking what it means in the Bible to pray incessantly. After various adventures, he hears about the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” If one repeats the words over and over again, the prayer becomes self-active, “and the words get synchronised with the person’s heartbeats”. This is incomprehensible to Lane. For him, religious experiences have “a very obvious psychological background”.

Leaving the restaurant, Franny faints. Lane readily abandons plans for the rest of the day, but, still self-absorbed, tells her that he looks forward to sex that evening. He leaves her to get a taxi, while Franny soundlessly mouths the Jesus Prayer.

ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy The reclusive writer Jerome David Salinger: author of Franny and Zooey, and the classic 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye

Salinger’s skill is to contrast the academically driven Lane, obsessed by his own ego, with Franny’s searching for a spiritual path to a different kind of fulfilment. She keeps telling Lane that she thinks she is going insane. In fact, she is on a journey, with all the physical and spiritual dislocation that that involves. But, paradoxically, is she any less egotistic than her boyfriend? In his sequel, Zooey, narrated by an older brother Buddy, Salinger provides an answer.

We meet the successful actor Zooey wallowing in an overfull bathtub, reading a much treasured four-year-old letter from his sibling Buddy. In the mean time, his overwrought sister, Franny, is lying on a couch in the living room of the family’s Manhattan flat, refusing to eat. Also in the flat is the matriarch of the clan, Bessie Glass.

Most of the first third of the story comprises the bathroom conversation between Bessie, who is worried about her daughter, and her son, Zooey, submerged in the bath, protected by the shower curtain. His propensity for telling it as it is should make you laugh out loud!

After what may be the longest bath in literature, Zooey goes to Franny and questions her about her motives in saying the Jesus Prayer. Franny admits that she is as egotistical and self-seeking as everybody else. Zooey then tells Franny what he thinks of her, culminating in the charge that she does not understand Jesus, but, instead, tries to turn him into someone more lovable, such as St Francis of Assisi. For Zooey, the only aim of the Jesus Prayer is to endow who says it with Christ-Consciousness.

Utterly exhausted and soaked in sweat, hearing Franny’s sobs, Zooey knows that he has failed her. He apologises and leaves the room, retiring to his older brothers’ bedroom, from where he rings Franny, pretending to be Buddy. This call will give both brother and sister release.

After venting her anger at Zooey, Franny realises that it is he who is phoning. Reflecting back on their late eldest brother, Seymour, who took his own life, they then discover that, when very young, on separate occasions he had told both of them to do things for the Fat Lady. Before ringing off, Zooey tells Franny that there isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. And that Fat Lady is Christ Himself. At last, Franny finds peace as she falls into a deep and dreamless sleep.

What Zooey discovers, which frees him from his bitter tongue, is the presence of God in others. On her part, Franny is released from the tyranny that she has made of the Jesus Prayer. She at last recognises that its purpose is so to imbue her with the presence of God that her every action becomes consecrated, like Bessie Glass’s chicken broth, which Franny has so persistently refused.

Recognising Salinger’s interest in Zen, Eastern religions, and Orthodox Christianity, commentators have interpreted Franny and Zooey in many different ways. For my part, I believe that Salinger is again setting up a contrast: the contrast between the loveless Franny and the many expressions of love in Zooey Buddy’s treasured letter to Zooey; Bessie’s tolerance of his sharp tongue; Zooey sweating it out to try to get Franny to see reality; even Lance ringing to ask after Franny; and, finally, in Zooey’s disguised phone call, enabling brother and sister to find enlightenment. For Salinger, love is the shadow of God in humankind.


Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.



Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger is published by Penguin at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-241-95044-9.



FRANNY AND ZOOEY
— SOME QUESTIONS

  1. Why do you think Franny tries so hard to have a relationship with Lane? Why does she feel guilty whenever she notices Lane’s affectations?

  2. Zooey repeatedly refers to his mother as “stupid”. Is she?

  3. Is Franny suffering from an existential crisis, or is she suffering from depression?

  4. Is it possible to reason your way out of the kinds of existential problems posed in Franny and Zooey? How else might you approach them?

  5. Are the Glass “wise children” actually wise, do you think? Why, or why not?

  6. The Glass children, like Salinger himself, look to many different religious philosophies to find answers to life’s questions. Is this helpful or confusing?

  7. “I want to talk to Seymour.” How does the absence or death of loved ones feature in the story?

  8. What different sorts of communication (letters, phone calls, through shower curtains) appear in the text? How does the family communicate best?

  9. In the introduction to Zooey, Buddy insists that the story is a love story. Why is this, do you think?

  10. What is the significance of Seymour’s “Fat Lady”? What is the significance of calling her “Christ Himself”?

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 November, we will print extra information about our next book, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. It is published by Picador at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-4472-3317-6.

 

THE BOOK

Burial Rites (2013) was inspired by the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be put to death in Iceland. The novel tells the story of the final months of her life, spent on the remote farm owned by a district officer and his family. The novel explores the fierce Icelandic landscape and harsh farm life alongside the complex story of Agnes herself, who struggles to communicate her experience and to be accepted by those around her. The novel was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.



THE AUTHOR

Hannah Kent was born in 1985 in Adelaide, South Australia. At the age of 17, she spent time living in Iceland on a Rotary exchange. This experience has since influenced her writing. Kent studied at Flinders University, Adelaide, where she began work on her first novel, Burial Rites, as part of pursuing a Ph.D. in creative writing. Besides writing two novels, she is a contributor to several newspapers, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Sydney Morning Herald, and is the co-founder of the Australian literary publication Kill Your Darlings. She is also a patron of the charity World Vision Australia.

 

BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

December: Told by an Idiot by Rose Macaulay
January: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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