It begins with our beloved Franny having a psychotic breakdown during a lunch date with her boyfriend, Lane. Franny has just read a book about finding God through reciting a very specific prayer over and over again, and is driven crazy by the insignificance of her own life and the actions of those around her. She ends up having to return home where her brother, Zooey, discusses at length with Franny, the meaning of life.
Although this is only the second novel I’ve read by J.D. Salinger, it’s clear he possesses an innate ability to strip human nature down to its very core and show it in the absolute depths of its despair. Like Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey evokes the same feelings of hopelessness in the reader by constantly questioning the meaning of life, the authenticity of our feelings, emotions and actions, and of course deals heavily with religion throughout. While much of the novel could be perceived as dealing with the ordinary, mundane, and frivolous I would actually argue that this is precisely what makes it such an important and significant work.
Much of the text deals with the idea that we must find meaning in life by seeking knowledge, wisdom, and truth, and that everything that is not true is “phoney” and therefore meaningless. This idea is reinforced over and again throughout the text. One example is when Franny Glass says,
“Everything everybody does is so — I don’t know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily but just so tiny and meaningless and — sad making,”
on page 23. In this quote Franny is demonstrating the idea that people in general are not in touch with what she defines as “real,” or “meaningful.”
Another quote that I particularly liked and felt I could relate to came later in the book when Franny tells Zooey about her experience at University and says,
“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while — just once in a while — there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is!” page 124.
The thing about much of what Salinger writes is that, at least I feel, that I’ve had these exact same thoughts before, but just never articulated them out loud. Either way, both of these passages deal with the idea that our ultimate goal or pursuit in life should be to seek out knowledge that will lead to wisdom so we don’t lead “tiny and meaningless” lives. The main characters in all of Salinger’s novels seem to be terrified of insignificance or phoniness to the point where it destroys their happiness and ability to function normally in society.
Both siblings – Franny and Zooey – continuously question the purpose of life in this way, and Salinger has an interesting technique that he uses to evoke the same feeling of purposelessness in the reader by highlighting mundane aspects of life in excruciating detail; most notably on pages 64, 65, and 79 when describing the contents of Mrs. Glass’ kimono, the amenities in the medicine cabinet, and Zooey’s shaving process. It is therefore, my contention, that Salinger is knowingly trying to get the reader to feel what it’s like to be inside of the characters’ – and perhaps the authors – head by making us realize how pointless and meaningless life can be.
The extreme focus on the details in the cabinet, Zooey’s shaving process, etc. are very real things – that is, they’re not “fake” or “phoney” ideas – yet Salinger’s excessive description of them almost contradicts the tangible realness of them and makes them feel phoney. The way in which Salinger blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s fake, and how something that you think is true, when shown in a different light can feel so insignificant, allows us to get inside of the characters heads and adds an element of realism to the book.
Of course, one cannot talk about Franny and Zoeey and fail to mention perhaps the most important theme, religion. Generally I don’t like to touch on this subject because it can lead to some controversial dialogue – which I try to stay away from as much as possible – but like I said, it’s so heavily featured that it would be a faux pas not to, so here I go…
Perhaps my favourite quote in the entire book has to deal with religion, and that quote is,
“Seymour once said to me — in a crosstown bus, of all places — that all legitimate religions must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.” – page 58.
This resonated with me on many levels due to the pure simplicity of the idea, and how Salinger could get it so right, but the rest of the world gotten it so wrong.
At one time or another, everyone has wondered about the purpose and meaning of life; some turning to religion to find the answers, others taking their own spiritual journey. But it all boils down to one simple idea: we are all connected, made up of the same matter, breathing the same air, and we must do our best to treat each other with kindness and respect.
It’s my interpretation that at the end of the novel Franny finally finds the answers she’s been looking for, and the message is basically to treat everyone with respect and love. Throughout the book, Zooey’s constant criticism of Franny’s mission to attain enlightenment is that she can’t possibly say a simple prayer to become closer to Jesus/God if she doesn’t understand him and what he stood for. In this day and age it’s as relevant a criticism as ever, with people proclaiming to love Jesus also voting to turn away refugees, creating disadvantages for the poor and less fortunate, and doing everything that the figurative Jesus would certainly never do. Society has lost its way in many ways and all I can do is my best to be a good person to everyone I meet.
I think what I enjoyed most about this book was the overall message that it left me with, which is that if we let ourselves get caught up in the search for enlightenment it can actually destroy our chance of ever being happy, as seen with Franny when she begins to criticize her boyfriend and eventually end up going back home and having a psychotic breakdown. The answer is always simple and it’s the rule as old as time: treat others the way you would want to be treated. This book certainly got me thinking and I have to say Salinger has not let me down yet. He’s in the running to replace George Orwell as my favourite author of all time. We’ll see how I feel after Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction. Until then, stay real everyone.