Franny and Zooey

The print of Franny and Zooey that I read is 201 pages long, but author Salinger’s purpose is only evident after page 145. The way I understood it, everything besides this last quarter (practically essay form) was fluff. It was preparation.

Franny and Zooey are siblings, two of seven. Older brothers Seymour and Buddy, avid scholars of religion in their teen and college years, had enormous effects on their younger siblings. At the time the novel takes place, Franny and Zooey find themselves dealing with the consequences of Seymour’s and Buddy’s influence.

Franny happens upon two Orthodox Christian texts in Seymour’s old bedroom and she becomes fanatic. She obsesses over adhering to their sentiments regarding the Jesus Prayer. Subsequently, Franny has a nervous breakdown at school and returns to her family home. That’s when we meet her older brother, Zooey. He hides his insecurity better than Franny does, but admits that he also thinks he’s a freak.

The plot culminates when Zooey goes to see Franny in the living room, where’s she’s been laying, wrapped up on the plush, pillowy couch, for days. Her recent fanaticism makes her family members nervous. Her mother, especially, doesn’t know much about the “Jesus Prayer”, which Franny so heavily insists upon reciting.

The Jesus Prayer states, simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Way of the Pilgrim (one of the books Franny found in Seymour’s room, and a real Orthodox Christian text) details the “way” of many Orthodox ascetics who believe that, if one recites the Jesus Prayer incessantly– 200 times, 400 times, the whole day long– the prayer becomes a part of the person. Soon she’ll be able to align it with her breathing, and her lips will move without her producing any voice. She’ll be reciting the prayer when she isn’t thinking about it.

In the living room, Zooey makes small talk with Franny. It’s only when he notices her mumbling the Jesus Prayer under her breath that he reveals something he may not have planned to. This is where, I believe, Salinger gets into his real message.

“At least I’ve never tried, consciously or otherwise, to turn Jesus into a St. Francis of Assisi to make him more ‘lovable’… what ninety-eight per cent of the Christian world has always insisted on doing,” [Zooey told Franny.] …“I don’t happen to be attracted to the St. Francis of Assisi type. But you are. And, in my opinion, that’s one of the reasons why you’re having this [nervous breakdown.]

… I can’t see how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even understand. And what’s really inexcusable, considering that you’ve been funnel-fed on just about the same amount of religious philosophy that I have– …is that you don’t try to understand him… If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him as he was and not as you’d like him to have been… I can’t see why anybody would even want to say the prayer to a Jesus who was the least bit different from the way he looks and sounds in the New Testament… He’s only the most intelligent man in the Bible, that’s all! Who isn’t he head and shoulders over? Who?

…[Moses] was nice, and he kept in beautiful touch with his God, and all that—but that’s exactly the point. He had to keep in touch. Jesus realized there is no separation from God… Most of all, above everything else, who in the Bible besides Jesus [knew] that we’re carrying the Kingdom of Heaven around with us, inside, where we’re all too goddam stupid and sentimental and unimaginative to look?

…When you don’t see Jesus for exactly what he was, you miss the whole point of the Jesus Prayer… The Jesus Prayer has one aim… To endow that person who says it with Christ-Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weltschmerzen and Professor Tuppers go away and never come back… If you have enough intelligence to see that [and yet] you refuse to see it, then you’re misusing the prayer, you’re using it to ask for a world full of dolls and saints and no Professor Tuppers.”


Salinger could have conveyed his message via a shorter academic essay, but he chose to make it into a novel. That being said, Franny and Zooey could have been anyone. The novel form allowed readers to see and hear and feel characters who embody Salinger’s sentiments– what he’s arguing for, what he’s arguing against. Salinger created Franny and Zooey to make human examples of the attitudes he needed readers to know before they could really understand his message. He brought his message to life using characterization, and I actually found Salinger’s 62 year old novel to be refreshing, and endearing.


*Franny and Zooey is a novel that deserves a great deal more exploration than I’ll get into, on this platform. There were multiple paths, multiple aspects I could have written about. Each one would have made up an entire, separate post. I chose Zooey’s message because it struck me, personally, in the most significant way. Salinger’s craft and message are impressive, able to be re-interpreted again and again. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to more thoroughly and completely write about all of the things that I found notable in Franny and Zooey.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. Back Bay Books. 1955. Print.


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