Alienation and Loss of Innocence
Franny and Zooey: Theme Analysis
Because of the trauma of World War II, the philosophy of existentialism is pervasive in the literature of the 1940s and 1950s, whether or not it is explicitly embraced by the author. The human condition was seen as one of alienation from God, from oneself, and from other people. There was no inherent meaning to be found in life, especially in social institutions, which were arbitrary constructs, usually for the purpose of gaining power over others. Salinger writes primarily of young people and adolescents on the brink of adulthood who experience a crisis or breakdown as they realize they cannot be themselves and enter the social world. They experience a sense of alienation from what is accepted as the norm. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger’s characters have an uncanny eye for what is “phony.”
Franny is torn at the restaurant with Lane. She tries to make herself behave as she is expected to so the weekend will be pleasant, but she is unable to control her deeper feelings and lashes out with her opinions on his term paper, on his friends, on her classes and professors. She sees Lane as playing the social game, not expressing himself as a real person. She claims she cannot remember his friend, Wally Campbell, or all those students who “look like everybody else, and talk and dress and act like everybody else” (24). She complains that Wally looks like one of the privileged who spent the summer in Italy or doing something other people think is significant, but is “so tiny and meaningless and—sad-making” (26). There is no way to be one’s true self, for if you “go bohemian” you conform to yet another stereotype, the rebel (26). She feels “nausea” (27) at the loss of herself.
Salinger captures the anguish of the young person just stepping out into the world and realizing it means giving up one’s innocence or integrity. To make this point clear, Salinger includes in most stories a child whose innocent talk and action saves the main character from depression. Only children make sense because they are not putting on to impress anyone.
In the middle of Zooey’s difficult talk with Franny, he looks out the window and watches the joy of a little girl and her dog being reunited, and his faith in life is reaffirmed. There are still simple things and love underneath the weight of the world, but nowhere do adults seem able to incorporate this love and innocence into daily life. It is implied that Seymour Glass had hit this same wall of alienation and preferred to commit suicide rather than be untrue to himself.
Material vs. Spiritual Life
Salinger’s characters look for relief from the meaningless material world they live in through art and spirituality. The spiritual life, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or any other, concerns wholeness, meaning, connection to others, and inner peace. Salinger’s main thesis is that American life is a material one, concerned with money, prestige, success, and power. It totally ignores the spiritual need of human nature. The poet T. S. Eliot had called the modern world a “wasteland.”
The Glass children, however, are seekers. They are not content with what Franny calls the “tiny and meaningless” (26). She scrawls the sayings of Epictetus on a classroom blackboard and tells Lane: “I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect” (20). She sets out to find God through the Jesus prayer. Zooey tries to set her straight about her “tenth-rate thinking” of what the spiritual life is like (165). Jesus realized “there is no separation from God” (169). The Jesus prayer is a tool to take the person to this realization through “Christ Consciousness” (170). Instead, she is trying to use the prayer to annihilate the world she thinks is an obstacle: “to ask for a world full of dolls and saints and no Professor Tuppers” (171).
Zooey hits on a key point for Salinger. The material world and the spiritual world seem eternally opposed. This is a condition, as Zooey points out, of “Kaliyuga,” the Iron Age where there is confusion and suffering (140). The football weekend and the Jesus prayer have nothing in common, as far as Franny can see. She wants to reject one and embrace the other.
Salinger makes his case for higher consciousness in this story by treating Christ as a spiritual master like those in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. He uses Hindu terms to explain how the Jesus prayer works as a form of japam (repetition of the name of God) opening the heart center (anahata), which in turn activates the “third eye,” a higher center of seeing and knowledge in the forehead associated with enlightenment (113).
Zooey tells Franny that Christ Consciousness will make a higher demand on her than she imagines. It requires that she must see the ignorant Fat Lady in the audience and Christ as the same. This sort of vision dissolves the conflict between the world and spirituality. There is only one world, the sacred.
Art and Writing
An abiding theme in Salinger’s work is art and the act of writing, with a focus on Buddy as both character and writer of the Glass family stories. The parents were performers, and all the children were radio stars. Franny and Zooey are actors, and Buddy and Seymour were poets and writers. Art is a significant theme in this book as well. The children were exposed to great writers from an early age: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Emily Dickinson. These writers helped them create a beautiful alternative world of meaning to the shallow world they saw around them, and in turn, they are inspired to create art and beauty themselves.
Salinger had once written, “Not that the world is a wasteland, but a vast inverted forest, with all the foliage growing underground” (“The Inverted Forest”). The underground forest that keeps one alive is the imagination, but it is hidden from view. It is what saves his characters from despair and perhaps why Salinger himself could be a recluse for the last forty-five years of his life, hidden away, writing, it is rumored, several unpublished novels.
Lane and Franny have different ideas of art. In her letter to him, she mentions that he likes T. S. Eliot, an intellectual poet. She, however, decides she looks down on all poets except Sappho and quotes a line she likes: ”Delicate Adonis is dying, Cytherea, what shall we do? Beat your breasts, maidens, and rend your tunics” (5). Sappho’s is a poetry, not ironic or intellectual like modern poetry, but direct and passionate, about the gods, humans, and nature. When Lane tells Franny she is lucky to have two published poets for professors, she proclaims they are not true poets. Franny defines true poetry as “something beautiful” (19). The poets Lane likes only “get inside your head” (19).
Franny loves the theater but is ashamed of the quality of plays she has to be in and the quality of the acting. She is afraid to excel when there is no stimulus or competition. Zooey faces a similar problem and speaks of the “artistic poverty” (141) he must endure where playwrights think “everything sentimental is tender, everything brutal is a slice of realism (139-140). Buddy’s advice to Zooey, to act with all his heart, and Zooey’s to Franny that she must “Act for God” becomes important advice, not just for art, but in terms of the philosophy of action. Self-knowledge and self-expression are suppressed in a society of conformity, but essential to spiritual health. One does not serve God by being mediocre.