Franny and Zooey: Summary of the Scene in Seymour’s Bedroom
Summary of the Scene in Seymour’s Bedroom
Zooey leaves the living room, and there is the smell of fresh paint everywhere else in the apartment, with newspapers on the floor. His mother says she thought he was gone. She asks if he has been talking to Franny. He admits he has but says he is late now and advises Mrs. Glass to go check on Franny because she is crying. Mrs. Glass rushes toward the living room.
Zooey goes to the bedroom shared by Seymour and Buddy as they were growing up. That bedroom has been closed off and left as it was. Zooey has not been in there for seven years. He looks at a bulletin board on the back of the door filled with quotations from world literature. Pascal, Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, as well as passages from the spiritual classics are all next to each other in the brothers’ handwriting. Zooey reads bits from the Bhagavad Gita, Issa, Marcus Aurelius, Sri Ramakrishna, Kafka, Tolstoy, and others.
Zooey sits at Seymour’s desk and covers his face with his hands. The room has two desks, two beds, and is crammed with books. The phone that Buddy keeps in memory of Seymour is on Buddy’s desk. Zooey opens Seymour’s desk drawer and reads some notes he had written on his twenty-first birthday in 1938. It was a diary entry about the family birthday party. He sits at Seymour’s desk for a long time and then goes to Buddy’s desk. He dials a local phone number and puts a handkerchief over the mouthpiece.
Franny and Mrs. Glass are sitting in the living room when the phone rings. Mrs. Glass answers it. She returns to tell Franny that Buddy is on the phone and wants to talk to Franny. Franny goes into her parents’ bedroom to answer on the extension for privacy. The bedroom is disordered and freshly painted. Franny lights a cigarette and picks up the phone.
The voice on the phone calls Franny “sweetheart” and asks how she is. She says fine and asks Buddy if he has a cold. She thinks his voice sounds funny, but he persuades her to talk. She says she could murder Zooey for being “completely destructive” (189). She tells him Zooey is bitter and keeps saying that the two of them are freaks because of the way they were raised. Franny repeats a story that Zooey told her the night before about once having a glass of ginger ale with Jesus in the kitchen when he was eight years old. He was having a snack while reading and suddenly, Jesus sat down in the chair next to him and asked for a glass of ginger ale. This story makes Franny mad. Zooey has no right to give her advice when he acts like a lunatic. She cannot stand his cigar smoke in the house.
The voice on the phone explains to her why Zooey smokes cigars. He does it for “ballast” so he won’t leave the ground (191). This remark clues Franny in to the real person speaking on the other end. She realizes it is Zooey and asks him to stop. She had just been feeling better thinking she was talking to Buddy, and now she is disappointed. She asks why Zooey called her. He said he wants to tell her to go on with the Jesus prayer. He has no authority to speak to her about it, and he is sorry he hurt her feelings.
He does have to tell her one more thing, however. If she wants the religious life, she is missing out on the religious action happening in the house under her nose. She doesn’t even have sense enough to drink “a cup of consecrated chicken soup” when it is offered to her (194). How can she find a master to teach her how to say the Jesus prayer if she cannot recognize the consecrated chicken soup of her own mother?
Then he changes the subject and tells her that he and Buddy secretly drove up to see her act in summer stock theater when she was in “Playboy of the Western World.” He tells her she was so good, she held up the entire production, and the whole audience knew it. She may have discovered the theater is full of “mercenaries and butchers,” but if she has had a freakish education, she should use it in her acting (196). The only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment. The only religious thing she can do is “Act for God” (197) rather than get caught up in emotions and desires. She was born with a talent and must use it.
He goes on to say that it is no use complaining about the stupid audience: “That’s none of your business, Franny. An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s” (198). Franny is silent as she listens.
Once when Zooey was a child on the radio show “It’s a Wise Child,” he tells Franny, Seymour told him to shine his shoes. Zooey was furious and said the audience could not see his shoes, and besides, the audience was a moron. Seymour told him to “shine them for the Fat Lady” (199). Zooey did not know what he meant, but he shined his shoes every time for the Fat Lady. Franny replies that Seymour told her about the Fat Lady too.
Zooey concludes, “There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady” (200). The trouble is that she has not yet learned the real secret: “don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
Zooey hangs up, and Franny is full of peace. She gets into the bed and falls asleep with a smile on her face.
Commentary on the Scene in Seymour’s Bedroom
Franny had said that she wanted to speak to her dead brother, Seymour, who had been their spiritual guide and teacher when the children were young. Zooey, desperate to help his sister, goes into Seymour’s bedroom and sees all the memorabilia of their idols, Seymour and Buddy. It is as though he tries to imbibe the wisdom of the elder brothers and then impersonate them, becoming the spirit of Seymour for the moment, through Buddy’s persona.
This is exactly what Franny needed. The narrator says that as soon as she heard Buddy was on the phone, Franny was “transformed as she moved” toward the phone (185). Here was one of her teachers, one who could understand her, and who would be gentler than Zooey. Zooey seems aware that his direct and sarcastic manner, though kindly underneath, is too much for other people. He knows he alienates his family and fellow actors, and the problem gives him an ulcer. Using his acting talent, however, he absorbs the spirit of Buddy and Seymour, then tries to become them to speak the words Franny needs to hear, in a voice that will mean something to her. He fools Franny at first but then says something that only Zooey would say, and that breaks the illusion. At least, he has gained her attention. As he continues to speak to her from Seymour’s room, he is inspired to bring out the spiritual realization she needs without hurting her feelings.
Is it simply that Zooey is able to channel Seymour’s ghost? Salinger drops a few hints that Zooey himself has gained a certain degree of enlightenment or spiritual realization. He admits to Franny he still practices what he has learned from his brothers. He used to meditate for long hours in college and possibly still does. He says the Buddhist Four Vows at every meal, to become realized and to help others. He does not drink alcohol, though he is in the theater business. He gives an impassioned and authoritative speech on the true nature of Jesus as though he knows Christ, and he tells Franny of a mystical experience he had as a kid when Jesus appeared to him in the kitchen. He shows Franny her gifts are a responsibility and reminds her of the eastern virtue of non-attachment to things and events, or what western wisdom would call letting go and non-control.
The final punch line about the Fat Lady being Christ is said by Zooey, not as a repetition of Seymour’s wisdom, but as an application of something Seymour taught them. Seymour taught both of them that playing to the Fat Lady means that everyone in the audience is an important person worthy of respect and love. Franny and Zooey compare notes about the Fat Lady. They both visualized her and what kind of a life she must lead. Maybe she sat on the porch listening to her radio all day in the heat. Maybe she had cancer. Zooey has gone farther with this idea and tells Franny his insight that the Fat Lady is Christ himself. This statement about the Fat Lady being Christ affirms the unity of all life and all beings as equally divine and worthy of love, the true meaning of Christ’s teaching. Thus, the Jesus prayer is not meant to divide Franny from others and from life, but to unite her with life, if she says it with the right understanding.
Salinger gives some of his characters mystical experiences in his other stories. The young boy, Teddy, in “Teddy” from Nine Stories (1953) for instance, has an experience of unity when he watches his sister drink a glass of milk:: “she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God.” Seymour is also a mystic. Unfortunately, both Teddy and Seymour die young. Some critics have called Seymour a failed guru for committing suicide. He is not able to affirm life. He does not represent an integrated wisdom, they say. This question of the meaning of Seymour’s death is raised in many of the Glass family stories, as well as in Franny and Zooey.
There are thus two ways to interpret Seymour’s death. The negative version is that he was escaping because he was too sensitive to endure the hypocrisy of postwar America. Seymour, like other World War II veterans in Salinger’s stories, was badly traumatized by the experience of war. Returning from the brutality of war to the materialism of the modern world left him no room to breathe. Did he fail, thus implying his mystical philosophy failed, or was he perhaps a Christ figure, an example to others in a positive sense that the accepted norms were spiritually empty, as his brother Buddy suggests: “I say that the true artist-seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience.” In other words, Seymour stood up to say NO! to the values of American society, because he was a true artist and seer.
The fact that Franny and Zooey in this story are finally able to use the education that Seymour gave them to find their way in life points to the success of the elder brothers, after all. In this way, both Franny and Zooey move beyond their stuck place and learn how to use their freakish education as service to others and to their art.
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