In his novel Franny and Zooey, Salinger effectively portrays the troubled lifestyles of the Glass family, particularly those of Franny and Zooey, the two youngest Glass children. These two characters were raised with an education that promoted religious knowledge and awareness while being featured on a radio show by the name of “It’s a Wise Child”. While participating on the panel of this show, their older brother Seymour advises them to always be the best version of themselves for the “Fat Lady” (Salinger 201): an unnamed and unidentified woman that existed in the minds of the Glass family. This woman represents all of humanity and its traits, actions, and beliefs for Franny and Zooey. The symbol of the fat lady, while promoting equal respect for all humans, represents a lifestyle that is difficult to follow because of humanity’s natural inclination to conform, their inbred competition, and the ultimate indifference of the universe towards them. It is evident from a look at the people who live in our society that there is an omnipresent sense of conformity: the ceaseless desire to reach the standards and goals as defined by the most popular people in society.
Franny herself feels this strong urge to conform to what society tells her to believe, how she should act, and even what she should do with her life; this behaviour is particularly apparent when she is with her boyfriend Lane. Abiding by the traditional relationship they live in, Lane appears to be the dominant and masculine figure with slight detachment from his significant other, while Franny wears the figurative mask of a loving, compassionate, and loyal girlfriend. Ironically, these two characters they are trying to impersonate betray their true feelings toward each other; Lane feels an unusually strong attraction to Franny which is evident in the “handled, unfresh look” (Salinger 4) of the letter she sent him, while Franny even admits that when she expresses how she missed Lane, “the words were no sooner out than she realised that she didn’t mean them at all” (Salinger 10). This detached relationship serves as a prominent example of how humans – as portrayed by Franny and Lane – continuously have many of their decisions dictated by the norms and traditions of the society and others around them.
While the Glass family may not be remotely similar to a traditional family, they – just like all other humans – exhibit conformity in terms of letting society’s ideals influence their character and actions. Franny and Zooey in particular use religion and the beliefs and traditions from ideologies from all around the world as a different society they can conform to, giving them the comforting feeling that they aren’t changing themselves to what their society wants, but instead becoming some idea of independent, or unmoved by societal standards. This tendency of Franny and Zooey’s to be so aware and use examples from Eastern religion come from their brothers’ idea to raise them with an education of “as much as we knew about the men – the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas, the jivanmuktas – who knew something or everything about this state of being” (Salinger 65-66). In effect, this meant giving them an education that promoted wisdom over knowledge. By trying to conform away from society’s standards, they are simply conforming to a different set of ideas, and are no closer to true individuality than before. Similarly, they are still conforming by letting society influence their actions and beliefs. The little green book that Franny carries is a symbol of this idea that conformity away from their society is still conformity, and as Zooey reflects, that book “is at the whole root of this whole business” (Salinger 96). Humanity’s ceaseless need to conform to society stems from a part of human nature that is afraid of being an outcast and separated from society. It is this need to conform, therefore, that makes going out of a person’s way to follow the advice set forth by trying to please the Fat Lady so hard to carry out. By trying to be the best a person can be for everyone including themselves, it is – when compared to how many people don’t do it – going against the traditional actions and beliefs set forth by society, and creates a disheartening feeling of disunity with society.
For many people, actions are determined by their thirst for approval from those around them, and reward in some form or another and therefore, a feeling of competition comes from this idea of a need for applause. Franny reflects that she’s “just sick of ego, ego, ego” (Salinger 29) because she feels that people all around her are acting not on their true desires for life, but goals that are determined by their ego, and seek to receive approval and some kind of reward for everything they do. The awareness Franny has of these people who live their life in hopes of obtaining the approval of their friends, families, and even the strangers they are surrounded by comes from her own ego and the competition she feels when trying to live her life. Being brought up on the radio show “It’s a Wise Child”, Franny did much of what she did as a child in effort to please the Fat Lady that lived only in her mind. This need to do it for the Fat Lady – or humanity – was hard for Franny to achieve because she felt an inbred need to compete and be better than those around her, until she realized that this was caused by her ego, at which time she’s “not afraid to compete. It’s just the opposite” (Salinger 30) since she wishes to have “the courage to be an absolute nobody” (Salinger 30). It had previously been Franny’s competition and ego that made her be involved with the theatre, and her realization of that fact took her away from it. All humans are plagued by this need to be better than their peers, which is what makes doing anything in hope for bettering the society of humanity as a whole such a hard task. The idea of a universe that is completely indifferent to human affairs is controversial in Franny and Zooey because of the two main characters’ religious upbringing, which is heavily supported by the idea of a higher power and religious importance.
The stress placed on religion in the novel is especially evident through Buddy and Seymour’s idea to start their siblings’ education with not “a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge” (Salinger 65) as well as Franny’s obsession to experiment with the saying “in the Bible when it says you should pray incessantly” (Salinger 33). While the idea that religion is necessary to keep in touch with a meaningful relationship with the universe to remain having some validity is apparent, it isn’t explicitly mentioned through any quotations. To lose faith in one’s religion obviously makes a person question what they believe to be true. For Franny, a person raised knowing the beliefs, traditions, and standards of many different societies outside of her own, she is lost in a religious sense in terms of what she truly believes in. Similar to the Russian peasant from her book “The Way of a Pilgrim”, Franny is in search of a life free of conformity and actions that are “tiny and meaningless and – sad-making” (Salinger 26) in order to reach some kind of closure as to what she truly believes. As Zooey points out, Franny isn’t truly saying the Jesus Prayer to Jesus, but “to St Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandmother all wrapped up in one” (Salinger 169). This religious ambiguity leads to her breakdown over ego, society, conformity, and detracts her from the Fat Lady advice given to her from her brother. Therefore, the idea of treating all humans with an equal amount of respect in order to reach societal progression is such a grueling task because of humanity’s twisted religious ideologies. Furthermore, this idea of religious ambiguity illustrates the theme of the universe’s vast indifference toward human affairs and suffering through the vast amount of contrasting religious beliefs of society. Seymour’s Fat Lady advice can be applied to almost anything in life including school, work, social life, and health, but it can simultaneously be detrimental for growth because of humanity’s need to conform, compete, and contemplate. The basic principle of the Fat Lady entails maximum effort to be the very best version a person can be of themselves, but this is much easier said than done because of all the factors that make people remain who they are as a more mild and mediocre version of themselves.
In a society in which everybody conforms, and yet so few of them are aware of it, it is too easy to become ignorant of the negative effects society has on a person’s life and the way it steals every bit of individuality of somebody who adopts the norms and standards they conform to. Therefore, the pursuit of individuality is a completely meaningless one that is fruitless and reaps no rewards because of its blatant lack of any reward or recompense. In effect, Franny and Zooey raises the ideas of what individuality actually is, and also whether the advantages of doing actions with a person’s ego as a sole motivator outweigh the negatives.