Franny and Zooey | Study Guide

J. D. Salinger

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Franny and Zooey | Context


Religious Philosophies

In Franny and Zooey, the title characters have been steeped in religious philosophy and mysticism from a very early age. Their eldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy, have been their instructors—the "bastards" Zooey blames for making Franny and him "freaks."

In his letter to Zooey, Buddy explains that he and Seymour had thought they would be doing their youngest siblings a favor by teaching them about the holy people who had inspired the major religions. Before Zooey and Franny received a conventional education, Seymour and Buddy wanted them to know "who and what Jesus [Christian religious leader] and Gautama [founder of Buddhism] and Lao-Tse [Chinese Taoist philosopher] and Shankaracharya [Indian Vedanta philosopher] and Huineng [Zen Buddhist patriarch] and Sri Ramakrishna [Hindu religious leader], etc., were."

Buddy mentions several other important religious figures in his letter to Zooey. Except for Jesus, most are either founders or proponents of Buddhism or Vedanta. Most are said to have lost their fathers when they were children and to have lived as hermits or wanderers once they reached young manhood. They tend to be prodigious scholars and to believe that humans can achieve oneness with God—or, rather, realize that all created beings are one with God.


Seymour and Buddy were hardly the first American scholars to discover Eastern religions. Buddhism, which seems to be the strongest influence on the Glass brothers, reached the United States in the 1840s, when Chinese immigrants began to arrive. By the end of the 19th century, writers like Walt Whitman (1819–92), Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) were beginning to discuss Buddhist ideas. In 1893 a World Parliament of Religions was held at the Chicago World's Fair. Two participants would later travel throughout the United States on lecture tours about Buddhism. Five years later, in 1898, Japanese Shin Buddhists established the Buddhist Mission of America, which would later be known as the Buddhist Churches of America.

Siddhartha Gautama was the given name of the man now known as the Buddha. ("Siddhartha" means "He who achieves his aim.") He was born near the Nepalese-Indian border around 6th–4th century BCE. Siddhartha was likely born into a family from the warrior caste, and a holy man predicted that he would become either a powerful king or a great spiritual leader. According to legend, Siddhartha's devoted parents wished to spare him the sight of anything unpleasant. A palace was built for him, and he lived there in secluded luxury, knowing nothing about the outside world. He married and had a son.

At the age of 29, however, Siddhartha ventured outside his palace, where he happened to see a very old man. On subsequent trips he saw illness and death, learning that they await every human being—even princes and kings. On his next trip, Siddhartha saw an austere man in a state of deep meditation. He learned that the ascetic had renounced the world to follow a spiritual path that would free him from the fear of death.

The next day, Siddhartha left the palace and his family to live an ascetic life for six years. Despite rigorously depriving himself of human comforts, Siddhartha did not find the full awareness he sought. Eventually he realized that a life of deprivation was not the path to enlightenment. Genuine freedom from suffering must be found in the mind, not the body. Accepting the inevitability of suffering was the only way to free oneself from it. Self-indulgence and self-deprivation were both to be avoided; the best path was what the Buddha called the Middle Way. When he realized these truths, Siddhartha became the Buddha—"the Enlightened One." The Buddha traveled through India for the rest of his life, teaching people how to meditate and passing along the message that every living being deserves compassion and love.

In the late 1940s Salinger began studying both Zen Buddhism (a form of Buddhism that says those seeking awakening must be instructed by a master) and mystical Catholicism (an aspect of Catholicism concerned with the unity between the human soul and divinity). Time magazine later reported that during this period, Salinger passed out Zen texts to his dates to see how they reacted.


Vedanta is an ancient Hindu belief system based on the Upanishads, which are sacred texts written in India probably sometime between 700 BCE and 500 BCE. The approximate literal translation of "Upanishad" is "sitting down near," referring to the way a disciple might sit at the feet of a spiritual teacher. The Upanishads are deeply mystical and open to interpretation. Most importantly, they present the concept of a universe in which everything is interconnected and the self is one with the universe. Some principles expressed in the Upanishads are as follows:

Samsara, or reincarnation, is the concept that after death a person's soul is reborn in another body. That body may belong to a human or to an animal, and when that body dies, the soul will be reborn into yet another body. Life is a constant circle of death and resurrection.

Karma is the notion that every action has consequences—including what happens to a person after death. The life into which we're born reflects the way we lived in our previous life; what we do in this life affects the life into which we'll be resurrected.

Dharma refers to social obligation. Each social role, such as the different Indian castes, comes with its own expected duties, in addition to the moral duties universal to all people.

Moksha refers to liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. This can happen once a person stops believing he or she is a separate entity and accepts that all are one; there is no "I." Once people fully understand this concept, they are no longer troubled by ego and can achieve liberation from reincarnation and suffering.

In one Upanishad, a father explains enlightenment to his son: "As the rivers flowing east and west merge in the sea and become one with it, forgetting they were separate rivers, so do all creatures lose their separateness when they merge at last into pure Being."

Salinger had almost finished The Catcher in the Rye when he first learned about Vedanta. In 1951 he began regular visits to the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, a Hindu temple. His teacher at the temple introduced him to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, an anthology of texts by the swami Sri Ramakrishna (1836–86). Sri Ramakrishna's writings had introduced Vedanta to the Western world in the late 19th century. His writings became a major influence on Salinger's own work, and he began making decisions based on Vedanta beliefs. His first wife, Claire Douglas, became a Vedantic follower as well.

The Way of a Pilgrim

Franny's life changes profoundly when she discovers the book The Way of a Pilgrim. To her, the story offers a clear way out of her depression and confusion. It also seems to promise that she can detach herself from the crassness of the world without pain. If, like the "little pilgrim," she can learn to pray without stopping, she can achieve enlightenment and become one with God, or so she believes. This message is powerful, especially for someone as unhappy as Franny.

The book's origins are unclear. It is written in Russian but seems to have first appeared in a Greek Orthodox monastery in the 19th century. The author may have been a pilgrim, but his name is unknown. Nor is it clear whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. The time frame indicated in the narrative suggests that the story takes place sometime between 1853 and 1861.

Briefly, the plot of Franny's "little green book" is as follows. An insignificant Siberian serf with a withered arm is brought up short by St. Paul's biblical injunction, "Pray without ceasing." The serf sets out on a pilgrimage to discover how to obey this instruction. He meets a holy man who instructs him to take up the habit of reciting, over and over, the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Buoyed by this counsel, the pilgrim continues his travels, teaching the Jesus Prayer to others he meets on the road.

The Way of a Pilgrim was translated into English in 1931. The opening paragraph reads as follows:

By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.

When it was first published, the book's reception was mixed. Many Western Christians endorsed the pilgrim's method of prayer, while some Russian Orthodox theologians disagreed with its central theme. In an interview, the renowned 20th-century Russian theologian Alexei Osipov (b. 1938) admitted to having tried repeating the Jesus Prayer as a teenager but said he hadn't lasted more than a couple of days. "I could not do it for much longer," said Osipov. "Later ... I understood that that had been fortunate." According to Osipov, the pilgrim achieves union with God much too easily and in much too short a time. "Such a quick and easy method," he says, "compared to the rigorous feat of the struggle with passions undertaken by the Holy Fathers for many years, is very tempting to all who would like to avoid the 'no pains, no gains' way."

"The Glass Menagerie"

When Salinger wrote "Franny," he hadn't yet decided to make her the youngest member of the Glass family. Salinger doesn't provide her last name nor mention anyone in her family. When "Franny" was published in 1955, Salinger's three previous stories about the Glasses had already been published in The New Yorker, and Franny doesn't appear in any of them.

When he wrote "Zooey," Salinger evidently decided to fold Franny into this remarkable brood of child prodigies. To do so, he had to finesse a couple of inconsistencies. For example, in "Franny," the "little green book" she carries comes from the college library; in "Zooey," she finds the book and its sequel in Seymour's old room.

In the author's note to the 1961 hardcover edition of Franny and Zooey, Salinger wrote, "I love working on the Glass stories. I've been waiting for them for most of my life." Salinger lavished detail on each Glass family member, including the parents, and created elaborate backstories for many of them.

  • Les Glass, father of the family, is an Australian Jewish vaudeville performer who's retired by the time Franny and Zooey are born. At his 1925 retirement party, he's introduced to the man who will later bring in Seymour and Buddy as contestants on the radio quiz show "It's a Wise Child." Thereafter, each Glass child will do a stint on the show. Les then takes a job as a Los Angeles movie talent scout before moving the family back to Manhattan and the Upper East Side.
  • Bessie Gallagher Glass was born in Dublin to Roman Catholic parents. She joins Les as a vaudeville performer, and in 1921, they take a two-year trip to Australia. She and Les teach all the children how to dance and juggle. As noted in "Zooey," Bessie was a famous beauty and a wonderful dancer in her day. Age and chain-smoking slow her down, and the loss of two of her sons is a blow from which she never quite recovers.
  • Seymour is the oldest child in the family. He is revered by his younger siblings, who consider him a spiritual and scholarly genius. Before he's 7 years old, he's already read every book about God in the public library. At 7, he announces that meditation has enabled him to see both his past and his future incarnations. He's signed to "It's a Wise Child" at the age of 10 and remains its star—and the audience's favorite performer—for five years. He speaks German and French and can read Japanese and Chinese. At 15, he enters Columbia University, from which he graduates at 18 with a PhD. He becomes a college professor, and by age 21, he is on his way to receiving tenure when war breaks out. He joins the army in 1941 and, like Salinger, has a nervous breakdown in Europe. He marries Muriel Fedder in 1942 while he's on leave. When the war ends, he embarks on a second honeymoon with Muriel but commits suicide by shooting himself in their hotel room while Muriel is taking a nap.
  • Webb Gallagher Glass is nicknamed "Buddy" and is next in birth order after Seymour. Like Salinger, he is born in 1919, and he serves as Salinger's representative in "Zooey." He also narrates a short story about Seymour's botched wedding and claims to be the author of "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" and "Teddy" in the book Nine Stories (1953). Buddy does not earn a college degree but does manage to become a creative writing teacher in a girls' junior college. His main writing subject, and main interest, is Seymour.
  • Beatrice (Boo Boo) Tannenbaum, the third of the Glass children, works as an admiral's secretary during the war. Later she marries and lives in Tuckahoe with her husband and three children.
  • Walter Glass is the older of twins. Buddy considers him the "only truly lighthearted" child in the family. Walt's college girlfriend calls him the sweetest, funniest person she's ever met. Walt is drafted into the army and killed in a freak explosion in Japan in 1945.
  • Waker Glass is the second twin. Along with Walt, he is forced to study religious philosophy by Seymour and Buddy. He has a strong conscience and gives away his birthday bicycle to a boy he meets in in Central Park. A Roman Catholic, he refuses to serve in the army and spends the war in a conscientious objectors' camp. When the war is over, he becomes a Carthusian monk.
  • Franny, the youngest, is four years younger than Zooey, the second youngest. They are 18 and 14 years younger than Seymour, respectively. Nonetheless, she and Zooey remember Seymour very well and have not healed from the trauma of his suicide.
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