Franny and Zooey: Essay Q&A
1. What are some of the concepts from eastern philosophy used in the book?
Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism, Kriya Yoga, and Ramakrishna’s version of Vedanta at times in his life. These ideas abound in his stories. Buddhism and Hinduism teach that the most valuable knowledge is self-knowledge, or oneness with life. This oneness resides within and can be brought out through techniques such as meditation. Many of Salinger’s characters, like Seymour and Zooey, meditate for the purpose of becoming enlightened.
Vedanta is that system of Hindu philosophy dealing with self-realization and the ultimate nature of reality. It is a philosophy of the unity of all phenomena, rejecting the dualism of matter vs. spirit. This philosophy is found in the Upanishads, Sanskrit scriptures mentioned in Buddy’s letter to Zooey as a foundation of Franny’s and Zooey’s education. The Upanishads teach there is one absolute reality, Brahman, which can manifest as both material and immaterial reality at once. One should become enlightened and see all material creation as just a play of the unified nature of the universe, Brahman. Then, one would see the Fat Lady, or Christ, or anyone, as just part of this unity we all share. You do not need to withdraw from life. If you accept everything as God or Brahman, there is no suffering. Everything is holy and part of God.
There is a significant quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita, another Hindu scripture, on Seymour’s bulletin board: “Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working” (176). This point is discussed by Zooey at length in terms of acting. Both brother and sister are gifted actors who get discouraged by the conditions under which they have to perform. The Bhagavad-Gita warns people not to get caught up in the results of one’s work. Zooey tells Franny to do her best no matter who is in the audience. Acting for God or for the Fat Lady in the audience is the same thing. Do the work you are meant to do with all your heart without attachment, or worrying about the result.
Buddy mentions the children were also brought up on the Diamond Sutra from Mahayana Buddhism, which teaches non-attachment to the illusory phenomena of life. There are many references to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Zen is based on the Flower Sermon of the Buddha, who sat holding a flower and saying nothing. From this, a disciple got enlightened. Franny is impatient with mere intellectual education. In Zen, the truth is passed through direct transmission from one enlightened mind to another, not through rational means. Seymour’s story of the Fat Lady functions as a Zen “koan,” a riddle or story that sparks an intuitive realization between Zooey and Franny about the truth of life.
2. How does Salinger fit in with post-World War II literature in America?
Salinger counted among his literary influences such older authors as Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Rilke, Keats, Blake, and Coleridge, many of whom he mentions in Franny and Zooey. He also admired such twentieth-century authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sherwood Anderson. Post-World War II American fiction from 1945 to 1970 was a mixture of the realistic modernism of such works as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) and the underground, offbeat “Beat” sensibility of William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959).
Salinger in style was closer to realistic modernism in his novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Although the novel was a best-seller, it was shocking for its time in its content, treating the uncensored thoughts and obscenities of a rebellious adolescent. It was banned in many schools. In content, Salinger in Franny and Zooey has in common with the authors of the Beat Generation an interest in eastern philosophy and criticism of American culture as being too materialistic. Trying to think outside his own cultural conditioning, Salinger, like poet Gary Snyder and other artists, took up Zen Buddhism.
Salinger was one of the preachers of nonconformity, who along with the Beat Generation of writers, prefigured the hippie openness of the 1960s. Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl” (1956) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) are famous examples of the Beat literature that advocated experimentation in lifestyle, sexuality, and religion. Salinger celebrates individual freedom but does not go as far as the Beats in glorifying drugs and hedonism.
Salinger was much admired for his honest dialogue, capturing the innocence of childhood and adolescence. “Franny” is a tightly constructed dramatic scene, which at the same time is a discussion of ideas. Some complain that Salinger became less interested in plot. “Zooey” seems too long and preachy. Yet Salinger experiments with different narrative devices, such as letters, phone calls, bulletin boards, and catalogues of items for the purpose of social satire and psychological insight. His focus may be narrow, but his characterization is deep. He influenced later writers like John Updike and Philip Roth.
3. What is Christian mysticism?
From the beginning, devout Christians withdrew into contemplative communities for a disciplined life of prayer, the monastic living that became the religious model in the medieval period. For early Christian thinkers it was considered necessary to withdraw from worldly concerns and temptations to focus on the inner spiritual life. Mysticism, or the direct experience of union with God, was felt to be part of an ascetic life. Presumably, Franny quits school and wants to be alone so she can find spirituality. This view, that withdrawal is necessary, changed with the Reformation and the practice of Protestant mysticism, which coincided with married and family life.
The Christian mystic path to union with God is often described as occurring in stages, such as purification, illumination, and contemplation. Purification means the necessary discipline to rid body and mind of obstacles, through prayer, reading scriptures, and fasting. Illumination is the experience of the Holy Spirit illuminating the mind of the seeker about the nature of God. Contemplation is the prayer of direct union with God, felt as divine love in the heart, thus transforming the life of the aspirant. The great scholar of mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, in Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911) added two more steps that clarify Franny’s experiences. She added Awakening as the first step where a person becomes aware of wanting union with God. Franny experiences an awakening by seeing the emptiness of college life and then discovering the book, The Way of a Pilgrim. Underhill also adds a fourth step before Contemplation or final union with God called The Dark Night of the Soul, a term coined by St. John of the Cross. In this stage of darkness, the aspirant feels confusion and sorrow. Franny cries all the time and feels lost. This stage is a form of purification demanding complete surrender. Zooey explains to Franny that her understanding and practice need to be clarified. He steers her away from a life of withdrawal, by showing her that she can experience the love of God through acting and being in the world.
Famous works on Christian mysticism which the Glass children have read are The Cloud of Unknowing (1370) and the sermons of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), the German friar, who said, “I have a capacity in my soul for taking in God entirely.”
The Christian work that Franny reads to learn mystical prayer, The Way of a Pilgrim, was translated into English from an anonymous Russian work by Reginald M. French and published in 1931. It was set in nineteenth century Russia between 1853 and 1861. The Russian pilgrim finds a starets, or spiritual teacher in Irkutsk to teach him the Jesus prayer. Franny tries to summarize the book to Lane at the restaurant in “Franny,” and Zooey explains the book to his mother in “Zooey,” adding details of how the prayer works.
4. What is the history of the Glass family?
Salinger began writing about his mythical Glass family in his first hit story for the New Yorker, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” (1948) where the oldest Glass sibling, Seymour, kills himself while vacationing in Florida. Seymour is thirty-one at the time. He has a Ph.D. and a wife named Muriel. The reader is never told why Seymour shoots himself in the head, but as with Franny’s empty experience of a college weekend, one infers that the sensitive Seymour has reached a breaking point with his materialistic environment. His wife is shallow. Seymour, like so many of Salinger’s overly sensitive heroes, is only able to communicate with children, and the last conversation he has is on the beach with a little girl named Sybil. He makes up a story for her about the suicidal bananafish. Seymour is a poet and the martyred elder brother of a whole family of genius and sensitive children. Since he is the leader of the seven Glass children, his suicide is a major family event, with which the surviving children must deal. Buddy becomes an apologist for Seymour, and Zooey preaches his wisdom.
The fictional author of Franny and Zooey, Buddy Glass, writes a footnote on his family history in his introduction to “Zooey.” Seymour has been dead for seven years. Bessie and Les Glass, the parents, who have an apartment in Manhattan, were famous Vaudeville performers. Les is Jewish and Bessie is Irish Catholic. Their seven children all became radio performers on the show “It’s a Wise Child” where people would call in to ask the precocious children various questions. Once Seymour died, Buddy, the second eldest, became the writer of the family. He is writer-in-residence at a girls’ school in upstate New York. His mother is upset with him because he lives in the country in a house without electricity, heat, or telephone. Next, is the daughter Boo-Boo, the only one of the seven to be happily married with children. The twins, Walt and Waker, are next, but Walt was killed during the American Occupation of Japan, and Waker is a Catholic priest in Ecuador. Zooey is a television actor, and Franny is a college student. The children are all abnormally intelligent with spiritual leanings. They are a close-knit group with a shared culture, unable to adapt to what they see as an inferior world.
Seymour and Buddy became the spiritual mentors of the youngest children to protect them from the soul-numbing materialism of America. The family saga is told in a total of seven stories: Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (the story of Seymour’s wedding) and Seymour: An Introduction (Buddy’s memories of Seymour) were published together in 1963. “Hapworth 16, 1924” is in the form of a letter from the seven-year-old Seymour predicting his future death, the last story Salinger published in 1965. The Glass family stories also include Franny and Zooey, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” (about Walt’s death), “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (Seymour’s death), and “Down at the Dinghy” (about Boo-Boo and her son).
5. How does the book address the philosophy of education?
Education is a main topic of Franny and Zooey since Franny has just quit college in her senior year. We gather from her conversations with Lane and Zooey that she is very smart and successful, though she looks down on the professors and students. Franny has a smart English major boyfriend, Lane, who gets “A” on his papers and is encouraged by his professor to publish. They are both attractive, intelligent, socially popular, and heading for a position in elite society. What more could Franny want?
She complains that she is sick of “pedants” (17 ) and accuses Lane of being like the graduate students who ruin literature with their intellectual snobbery. She calls college “a farce” (17), criticizing Professors Manlius and Esposito as published, but not poets. She has a private war with teachers Fallon and Tupper, who are tainted with ego. They do not represent knowledge, but their own reputations. Zooey agrees, saying he only had one real professor in college, a “modest scholar,” and all the rest are “lethal as hell” (160) producing a “mob of ignorant oafs with diplomas that are turned loose on the country every June” (161).
Franny mentions that she dislikes the idea of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” (145), attacking a current philosophy of higher education. The idea of what a university should do was always historically changing. Medieval universities in Europe taught subjects within a religious context. Renaissance universities brought in a secular focus with the philosophy of Humanism, an education based on classical Greek and Roman ideals. In the nineteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, there was a debate whether education should continue with a liberal arts curriculum, or a science curriculum. John Henry Newman and others preached that a university education should not produce specialists but well-rounded people with the ability to think. He spoke of knowledge for its own sake.
In the 1950s, there was an emphasis on the university as an ivory tower of pure research and intellectualism. Lane’s paper on Flaubert proves he can think abstractly, but that is all. Franny brings up the old notion that “knowledge should lead to wisdom” (146).
Franny’s critique is put into perspective by finding out how Seymour and Buddy educated Franny and Zooey as children in eastern philosophy, which puts the emphasis on self-knowledge first. Who am I? What is my place in the universe? Without knowing these things, one ends up with disconnected and useless facts. In ancient Buddhist schools, for instance, there were meditation rooms for the students who spent time exploring their inner nature.
Today with university education focused on job preparation rather than wisdom, Franny would be more frustrated than ever. However, the kind of discussion she and Zooey had became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to dozens of alternative universities. Environmental curricula, for instance, look again to the wisdom of eastern philosophy and indigenous cultures that teach self-knowledge and the interrelatedness of all beings.