The Urge to Conform and the Difficulty of Respect in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey

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.

Books and More Books: Reading in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey

…books, books. Tall cases lined three walls of the room, filled to and beyond capacity. The overflow had been piled in stacks on the floor. There was little space left for walking, and none whatever for pacing.-J.D. Salinger, Franny and ZooeyAs books spill into the room in this scene from Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, the theme of reading spills into most every aspect of the novel. Reading occurs so much, in fact, that there is little room to move within the story without running into the subject. The two main characters, Franny and Zooey Glass, frequently engage in the act of reading. The narrator has pieced together the story by reading the different interpretations provided by the story’s characters. But, this novel is not only intrinsically about the act of reading; it also engages the reader in active reading. As readers of this novel, we become active participants in the reading in order to fill in certain gaps, or indeterminacy, left by the author. As such, reader response criticism provides a means for understanding the use of reading in the novel.According to Stanley Fish, a major feature of reader response criticism is that “reading is not a matter of discovering what the text means, but a process of experiencing what it does to you” (Eagleton 85). In Franny and Zooey, Franny reads The Way of the Pilgrim, a religious text describing the act of praying incessantly. Because of Franny’s intense desire for enlightenment, she follows the book’s instructions and prays constantly. Intellectually, Franny sees this intense desire for personal satisfaction to be in conflict with her morals. She says, “Just because I’m choosey about what I want – in this case, enlightenment, or peace, instead of money or prestige or fame or any of those things – doesn’t mean I’m not as egotistical and self-seeking as everybody else” (Salinger 148). As a result, Franny has a mental breakdown. Her need for religious answers informs how she reads the text. She is looking for instruction as she reads.On the other hand, Franny’s brother Zooey, who also reads the work, is not reading for instruction, but merely for information. When Zooey describes the plot of the book to his mother, he says, “The aim of both little books… is supposedly to wake everybody up to the need and benefits of saying the Jesus Prayer incessantly” (Salinger 112). His interpretation is a fairly objective academic response to the book’s agenda. It is obvious that he is not looking for a religious epiphany from the book. By reading it with an academic lens, Zooey experiences a totally different understanding of the text than Franny. This narration supports the reader response concept that words have no meaning until they have been read. Until Franny and Zooey read The Way of the Pilgrim, it was nothing more than black marks on a white page It had no impact on their lives, nothing more than a book in an unused room in a Manhattan apartment. Once read, those black marks conjured enough meaning to contribute to a mental breakdown.Although words receive meaning once they are read, this meaning is not necessarily a static interpretation. As Terry Eagleton wrote, “The process of reading… is always a dynamic one, a complex movement and unfolding through time” (77). At the opening of the second chapter of Franny and Zooey, we find Zooey in the bathtub, reading a letter from his brother Buddy the morning after Franny’s breakdown. It was a “long, typewritten, four-year old letter that… had obviously been taken out of its envelope and unfolded and refolded… [and] was actually torn in several places” (Salinger 56). Zooey has obviously read and reread this letter a number of times since he received it. According to Lois Tyson, the act of rereading, “results in… [the] revision of our understanding of characters and events” (159) because each time we reread we bring different experiences to our interpretation of the text. In the letter to Zooey, Buddy attempts to explain the reasons he and Seymour, the oldest Glass brother, chose to educate Franny and Zooey the way they did. Buddy wrote, “Dr. Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of pure consciousness – satori – is to be with God before he said, ‘Let there be light.’ Seymour and I thought it might be a good thing to hold back this light from you and Franny… ,the arts, sciences, classics, languages – till you were both able at least to conceive of a state of being where the mind knows the source of all light” (Salinger 65). Franny’s breakdown adds a new dimension to the meaning that Zooey has created from earlier readings of this letter, therefore enabling a new interpretation of the events and characters of the letter. While one can only speculate what meaning Zooey placed on the letter before and after the breakdown, what is significant is the act of Zooey reading, showing that his “initial speculations generate[d] a frame of reference within which to interpret what comes next, but what [came] next may retrospectively transform [his] original understanding” (Eagleton 77).We find Zooey reading elsewhere in the novel as well. After he fails to talk Franny out of her depression, he leaves her crying in the living room and heads to the room once shared by Buddy and Seymour. There, surrounded by piles of books, he reads quotes written on a wall by his brothers. Salinger describes the reading as “…rather like walking through an emergency station set up in a flood area…” (175). In a way, the quote wall is an emergency station for Zooey, a crisis hotline. After reading a while, he picks up the private phone line in the bedroom and calls Franny, pretending to be Buddy, armed with new information to help make a connection with her.It is also important to note that Zooey is an actor, and what is an actor first but a professional reader? Reading, then giving meaning to the words, is a large part of what an actor does for a living. Then through rehearsal, an actor’s character becomes more authentic and more believable. Zooey, as an actor, is rehearsing in Buddy and Seymour’s room. His initial reading is a dry run through; Zooey is trying to derive some sort of meaning to pass along to his sister. Then, “with his hands… drooping low over his brow, Zooey sat… for a good twenty minutes” (Salinger 180). During these twenty minutes, Zooey is going over his lines, creating his character before he tries again to reach his sister. Zooey recognizes that Buddy is the one who should be talking to Franny. During his first attempt to talk to Franny, Zooey says, “I’m no damn good for this… Shall I try to get Buddy on the phone?” (Salinger 149). Zooey understands that in order to have an impact on his sister, he has to be more like Buddy. By reading Buddy’s quotes, Zooey can play the part of his brother, and in turn, become “good for this.”Franny and Zooey are not the only readers in the novel. Their older brother, Buddy, narrates the second section of Franny and Zooey, and also acts as a reader of sorts. In an experiment performed by reader-response theorist David Bleich, he discovered that students writing an “objective” essay would focus on the same elements of the text they would focus on if they were writing a personal response to the text (Tyson 167). So, “…even when we think we’re writing traditional objective’ interpretations of literary texts, the sources of those interpretations lie in the personal responses evoked by the text” (Tyson 167). Buddy received portions of the text “in somewhat harrowingly private settings, by the three player-characters themselves” (Salinger 49). The “three player-characters” are Buddy’s brother, sister, and mother. He would, of course, have some sort of personal response to each of these three storytellers. An objective reading of the text would be impossible, by extension preventing an objective narration. An indication of Buddy’s subjectivity occurs at the very end of the novel. During Zooey’s phone call to Franny, Zooey finally says something that makes a connection with her. In Buddy’s words, it was to Franny “as if all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers… she seemed to know just what to do next,too. She… got into the bed. For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling” (Salinger 201). Without taking the narrator’s personal feelings into account, this ending seems to be a happy one. Franny finds peace, her life can go on. But we must not forget that it was Buddy and Seymour who got Franny into this predicament in the first place with the experimental religious education they implemented on Franny and Zooey. As a brother, Buddy needs to know that Franny found her way out of the breakdown, so he can live without the guilt of her mental demise. Knowing this, a second reading of the ending passage could be interpreted quite differently. We are never told if Franny ever gets out of bed again. Maybe she has slipped further into her breakdown, and the smiling indicates her body is no longer connected with her plaguing mental anguish. Buddy never indicates determinately what has happened with Franny.To be sure, determinate versus indeterminate meaning is a common theme among reader-response critics. Gaps left by the author force the reader to be an active participant in “constructing hypotheses about the meaning of the text” (Eagleton 76). Eagleton also asserts that “the text itself is really no more than a series of cues’ to the reader…” (76). Buddy is a reader within the text, receiving these cues in the form of conversations and letters with his family in “hideously spaced installments” (Salinger 49). He then uses these different texts, not in a linear fashion, but cumulatively, to “construct the language into meaning.” His most recent understanding of the events is what we read as the novel Franny and Zooey.As readers, we go through the same process of cumulative meaning-making to understand the novel. “We read backwards and forwards simultaneously, predicting and recollecting” (Eagleton 77). We first learn about the members of the Glass family through a footnote at the beginning of Buddy’s narration. At this point we have no other references with which to understand these characters. As the book unfolds and we learn more about the characters, we must turn back to that footnote to fill in the blanks created by our continued reading of the text. The details of the footnote could have just as easily been included in the text, but by making the passage a footnote, it is quite easy to find and flip back to. This indicates that the author is aware that reading is a “complex movement and unfolding though time” (Eagleton 77) and that he expects us to want to return to this passage. This suggests that stylistically, Salinger is attempting to promote active reading.As Franny and Zooey unfolds in the minds of its readers, we begin to understand the complexity of the reading in the novel. The characters use reading as a method of understanding the world around them. The narrator uses reading as a method of piecing together an event, and ultimately uses reading to convey his interpretation of the story. As readers, we understand that reading a situation does not just mean comprehending the words on the page, but creating meaning based on these words and the gaps that invite us to create the varied but necessary filler. The novel Franny and Zooey offers us an excellent text by which we can both witness and apply reader-response criticism. Both engagements enrich our understanding of the topic and the power of reading in literature.Works CitedEagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.Salinger, J.D.. Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955.Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.1999.

Ego, Ego, New Ego: Self-Improvement versus Selfishness in Franny and Zooey

J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey features various members of the Glass Family, and, while the two stories were originally published independently, one cannot ignore their combined significance. Seven years after the suicide of their eldest brother Seymour, the two youngest members of the family, Franny and Zooey, continue to struggle with their brother’s death, unable to make sense of his life teachings. Franny and Zooey chronicles Franny, a promising actress-to-be, at her wits end in the pursuit of the spiritual enlightenment her brother described to her as a young child. While most readers believe the text argues for a definition of ego as a negative manifestation of materialism, which parallels Franny’s initial understanding of the word, through Zooey’s redefinition of the term during his confrontation with his mentally unstable sister, it becomes clear Franny’s understanding of ego is misshapen and leading her away from the enlightenment she seeks. This is important because it sheds light on the intermingled importance of one’s duty in life as well as one’s ego and how they are both necessary in the pleasing of higher spiritual powers.

The youngest of the seven Glass children, Franny Glass is struggling to find meaning and purpose in her life. Early in her childhood, she was introduced to Eastern philosophy by her eldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy. Unlike their own educational experiences, the two boys wanted their younger siblings “both to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shan- karacharya …were before [Franny and Zooey] knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence (30). Because of the hasty introduction of these spiritual ideas, it is easy to see why Franny puts such emphasis on finding spiritual resolution in her life. This understanding of her childhood explains the drastic measures she takes, the impulsive decisions she makes, and her mental fragility throughout the first part of the novel, appropriately titled Franny. As readers, we see that in an effort to achieve the enlightenment her brothers spoke of, she quits her promising education in acting, and she takes to a curious green book titled The Way of a Pilgrim (18). This seems to be Franny’s only solace in the world as she searches for insight to understand the evil that plagues the world around her. The Jesus Prayer, buried between the pages of the pilgrim book, provides comfort and hope with the idea that enough repetition will bring her to see face of God, even if she doesn’t believe the words leaving her lips. Frustrated by everyone around her and the turtle inability of the prayer to bring her peace, she breaks down on her date with her boyfriend, Lane Coutell. Between frequent trips to bathroom, Lane’s uninteresting monologues that serve as dinner conversation, and her never ending perspiration, she expresses her concerns with the “ego, ego, ego” of actors, the phoniness of the theatre, and her struggle with Lane’s conformity to society (29). Her frustration surrounding these topics gives readers the insight that Franny’s understanding of ego has a negative connotation, and it corresponds to the problems she sees in the theater and in her boyfriend.

Franny’s perception of ego involves a certain self-absorption and high opinion of oneself which is accompanied by a desire to complete actions only so long as they are beneficial to oneself. As she becomes overwhelmed with the presumed egos she sees consuming the world around her, she “[cries] fully for five minutes… to suppress any of the noisier manifestations of grief and confusion” in the bathroom, before fainting at Sickler’s Restaurant (22). Following her disastrous date night with Lane, Franny goes home to the Glass family apartment in Manhattan. After a few days of soaking in her emotional distress and spiritual turmoil on the living room couch, her older brother Zooey has had enough. Having received the same exposure to a variety of religious teachings as a child, he recognizes the root of Franny’s problem. He prefaces his confrontation with his sister by explaining, [he] is bringing this up for a good reason…. [he does not] think [Franny] understood Jesus when [she was] a child and [he does not] think [she] understand [Jesus] now… [she has] got him confused in [her] mind with about five or ten other religious personages, and [he does not] see how [she] can go ahead with the Jesus Prayer till [she] know who’s who and what’s what (71). This shows Zooey’s justification for the conversation he is about to have with his sister, highlighting this understanding that while she seeks religious enlightenment and peace, she has confused herself on the proper way to walk this path. Her goes on to explain her “sloppy” way of “looking at things” makes her “constitutionally unable to love or understand,” as she constantly critiques and assesses others, complaining about their overblown egos (72). Blunt as ever, he calls his sister out for deciding to sit back, blindly repeating the Jesus Prayer “[begging] God for a little mystical experience that’ll make her nice and happy,” instead of physically acting to find the enlightenment she seeks (72). He knows that if his sister does not “start facing the facts,” she will never get herself out of this “mess (73).” Trying to tread lightly on his fragile sister while still trying to get his message through to Franny, he goes on to explain that while he is not trying to “[undermine her] Jesus Prayer,” he is “against why and how and where [she’s] using it (73).” Here, Zooey reveals the root of Franny’s problem: her intention in using the prayer and her confusion in understanding ego. While Zooey would “love to be convinced— that [she’s] not using [the prayer] as a substitute for doing whatever the hell [her] duty is in life,” it is clear that her blind repetition of the words on the pages of the pilgrim book is, in fact, a substitution for her acting career, which Zooey identifies as her God-given talent (73, 86).

The distinction between duty and ego that Zoey highlights in these lines of Salinger’s novel can be better understood with the explanation of the Buddhist concept of dharma, which Zooey mentions earlier in the story (47). Dharma eliminates the problems originated by ignorance. The practice of dharma means the fulfillment of spiritual duties according to the calling of God. Franny’s understanding of ego, at this point in the story, stems from ignorance because she cannot decipher between the different “religious personages,” as Zooey explained at the very beginning of their conversation (71). In Franny’s case, her calling is acting, and Zooey explains “the only religious thing [she] can do is act” and “be God’s actress” as this is in accordance with her religious duty, or her dharma (86). As readers, we know her initial motivation to leave the theatre was because and she refused to tolerate the ego frenzie any longer. However, Zooey tells her “it would take Christ himself to decide what’s ego and what isn’t. This is God’s universe … he has the final say about what’s ego and what isn’t (72).” Furthermore, Zooey criticizes Franny for “screaming about egos in general” as “half the nastiness in the world is stirred up by people who aren’t using their true egos (73).” These quotations demonstrate that while Franny initially believed that all self-serving actions are rooted in ego, she is incorrect because, as brother explains, the duties of people chosen by God, are not in the control of anyone but God himself; however, the pursuit of true ego is in the hands of everyone individually. While Zooey’s initial delivery of his ideas is not very effective, as abrasive nature of speaking just causes his sister more distress, ultimately, after he poses as Buddy on the phone, Zooey is able to get through to his sister. True ego, as Zooey explains it, is not the negative, self-absorbed ego Franny initially understood. When combined with Buddhist understanding dharma, ego becomes true ego, the fulfillment of life according to the plan of a higher being, God or otherwise. For Franny, living out true ego is fulfilling her duty as an actress.

In the comparing of the final lines of these two narratives, Franny and Zooey, it is obvious that Franny has undergone a fundamental change in understanding from the end of Franny to the conclusion of Zooey. Franny, the first story chronologically, ends with “Franny lay quite still, looking at the ceiling. Her lips [moving], forming soundless words, and they continued to move” repeating the Jesus Prayer (23). In contrast, Zooey concludes with Franny clutching the telephone “for joy” and satisfactory revelation before she finally “[falls] into a deep, dreamless sleep, [just laying] quiet, smiling at the ceiling (88).” This closing scene reveals that, under her brother’s advisement, Franny has abandoned the Jesus Prayer. She understands that her constant repetition of the prayer, without intention, has brought her no comfort or spiritual enlightenment. In speaking with Zooey, Franny finally comes to the realize the meaning of true ego. True ego is defined by the practice of dharma, religious duties, and acting to serve God. In her case true ego is to pursue a career as an actress with the intent to achieve perfection on her own terms “not anyone else’s (87).” Ultimately, with this newfound understanding, as “all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers,” she falls into a peaceful sleep (88).