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

February 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

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).

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