Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817
J. D. Salinger is generally regarded, critically or reverentially, as the preeminent literary force from the Beat era to capture the spirit of and speak to young Americans. Salinger’s technique of presenting twentieth century American family relationships has been compared with the work of such authors as William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Salinger was known primarily as a short-story writer when the novel Franny and Zooey was first published in two parts in The New Yorker. Salinger wrote “Franny” as a wedding gift for his wife, upon whom the title character is based. “Franny” also marked the beginning of what became Salinger’s obsession with the Glass family.
Franny and Zooey are the youngest of seven brilliant children of a successful vaudevillian couple from the 1920’s, Les Glass, who is Jewish, and his wife, Bessie Gallagher, who is Irish. The oldest and most brilliant of the children, Seymour, kills himself while on his second honeymoon, presumably because of an inability to reconcile childhood innocence with adulthood. The heir to Seymour’s role as guru is Buddy, an author and writing instructor at a small college, who lives in modified, self-imposed hermitage. The character of Buddy is often identified as the alter ego of Salinger, who is known to be a heavily autobiographical writer and who was accused of being self-indulgent and preachy, especially in the later works introduced by Franny and Zooey.
With this novel, Salinger takes a marked turn from focusing on action, structure, and humor to a preoccupation with monologue, character development, and seriousness. The shift is underscored by a change from the omniscient third-person narrative voice in “Franny” to the first-person voice of Buddy, who tells the “Zooey” portion of the novel. It is here that discourse and extensive detail take the place of plot and structure. More than one-third of the novel takes place in bathrooms, and both stories cover only a very few hours of time. “Zooey” proceeds as if the narrator is looking through a randomly roving and pausing camera lens. By paying minimal attention to plot and attempting to present all objects with equal emphasis, Salinger tries gradually to reveal the complex nature and interconnectedness of otherwise static characters.
Salinger’s work is mostly concerned with the various trials of adolescence: alienation, loss of innocence, the obscenity of modern life, the search for meaning, and the redeeming power of love. Franny is a typical Salinger character, seeking enlightenment, struggling against an onerous ego, and isolated by a hypersensitivity to her own shortcomings and those of others. There are differences, however, between Franny and Salinger’s earlier protagonists, the most obvious being that Salinger for the first time uses a female character as spokesperson for this battle. The strong Judeo-Christian element in Franny and Zooey is a departure from Salinger’s previous Zen-Buddhist point of view. Salinger appears to be taking a more general view of religion, not as a solution to the world’s problems but rather as a means of learning to live with them and with oneself.
The overall theme of the novel is one of renewal, which is attained when the characters realize the unifying principle or interconnectedness of the universe. This realization is dependent on a dissolution of such opposites as phony and nice, bad and good, adulthood and childhood, knowledge and naïveté, boy and girl, us and them. The recurrent symbol of the little girl—which makes epiphanous appearances in Seymour’s, Buddy’s, and Zooey’s lives, and whom Franny turns into as she makes her journey down the corridor to receive the ostensible Buddy’s phone call—represents innocence and beauty. It is the loss of this innocence as they strive to connect with the unbearably ugly adult world that causes all of the Glass children in turn to go through a spiritual crisis. Seymour’s fat lady—for whom he tells Zooey to shine his shoes and Franny to sing when they are child radio stars—represents that spiritual singleness of the universe. The fat lady is Everyman, and Everyman is Jesus Christ, or God, or Buddha, or Brahman. It is this realization that allows Franny to reconcile her views of self, ego, and the world and to resolve her spiritual crisis.
Some critics suggested that the resolution rings false and that when Salinger sets the Glasses apart from the rest of the world—in describing them as more handsome and more brilliant and more spiritually aware than other people—he is implying that only those with their intellectual and spiritual potential can search for the true way.
Beyond being impressively crafted and philosophically uplifting, Franny and Zooey presents Salinger’s belief in the importance of spiritual seeking. As Zooey says in the closing scene, “the artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.”