Franny and Zooey | Study Guide

J. D. Salinger

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Franny and Zooey | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Franny and Zooey is made up of two long short stories about the two youngest children in the Glass family. Originally there were seven Glass children; at the time these stories take place, two of the older siblings have died, Seymour by suicide and Walt in a freak accident in World War II (1939–45). Seymour's death has taken a huge toll on the family, being especially confusing to Franny and Zooey. Though the novellas share common themes, there are a few plot inconsistencies between the two. J. D. Salinger wrote "Franny" several years before he began refining his concept of the Glass family to include these two characters.


"Franny" opens in the train station of a college town. A big football game is taking place that weekend, and at the station, a group of young men are waiting for the morning train that will bring their weekend dates. One of these young men is Lane Coutell, Franny's boyfriend. In his pocket is a letter from Franny, which Lane rereads just as the train arrives. Franny is one of the first off the train, and they greet each other excitedly. As they leave the station, Lane asks about the little green book Franny's carrying. Franny stuffs the book into her handbag without explanation and begins chattering on a variety of topics. She tells Lane she's missed him and then, guiltily, realizes she doesn't mean it.

The next scene takes place in a "cosmopolitan" (for the 1950s) restaurant called Sickler's. Lane is expounding on a paper he's just written about the 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), which he plans to read aloud to Franny. After a short time, he realizes Franny's not paying much attention. Suddenly she tells Lane that he sounds exactly like a section man (instructor of a section of a large college class), and it's not a compliment.

Lane becomes increasingly irritated as Franny begins to talk about how much she despises the English department at her own college. Before long, the two are arguing about what makes a "real poet." In the middle of the quarrel, Franny flees to the women's restroom, where at first she seems about to vomit. Instead, she assumes an attitude of prayer and bursts into tears. After five minutes, she presses the little green book to her chest for courage and returns to the table. Things are still tense. Franny complains that Lane's friends are predictable and pretentious. She goes on to say she's quit the college play in which she was starring. Theater, she says, is turning her into a self-loathing egomaniac. "I'm just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else's." Lane is eating his snails and frog legs, but Franny hasn't touched her chicken sandwich.

Again Lane asks about the little green book. Very reluctantly, Franny explains that it's a 19th-century Russian novel called The Way of a Pilgrim. The protagonist is a Russian peasant who wants to learn how to pray without ceasing. He wanders the country until he meets with a holy man who teaches him "this really incredible method of praying" that transforms the peasant's life. He continues his wanderings, now teaching others to pray without ceasing.

The secret, Franny continues, is to use the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer, she says, "has a really tremendous, mystical effect on your whole outlook." Ultimately, she adds, repeating the Jesus Prayer brings enlightenment. She tells Lane that the tradition of repeating a single phrase appears in many Eastern religions.

Unimpressed, Lane answers that such religious experiences are based in "the most elementary psychology." At this, Franny excuses herself and gets up from the table again. This time, she faints on her way to the bathroom.

Franny returns to consciousness in the restaurant manager's office with an anxious Lane beside her. He encourages her to skip the football game and get some rest in the boardinghouse room he's rented for her. "Maybe, after a while, if you get any decent rest, I can get upstairs somehow," he hopes. Franny stares at the ceiling without answering. Then she asks Lane to get her a glass of water. As soon as Lane is out of the room, Franny begins silently repeating the Jesus Prayer while continuing to stare at the ceiling.


"Zooey" is narrated by the second oldest of the Glass siblings, Buddy. Buddy is a writer and a professor at a girls' college and lives in an isolated cabin in the woods. He describes what the story will be like—"a sort of prose home movie"—and introduces the three main characters: Franny, Zooey, and their mother, Mrs. Glass. Apparently Franny, Zooey, and their mother have already read Buddy's story about them. Each objects to an element of the story. Franny feels Buddy has portrayed her unflatteringly. Zooey worries that publishing a story about "religious mystification" will harm Buddy professionally. Mrs. Glass wishes Buddy hadn't depicted her wearing her old housecoat. Buddy himself feels that his story is "a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated."

Buddy goes on to provide some background on the Glass family before beginning the story proper. Over an interval of 16 years—from 1927 through 1943—all seven Glass children appeared on a radio quiz show called "It's a Wise Child." As each sibling "aged out" of the show, he or she was replaced by a younger one. Public opinion was divided about whether the children were brats or geniuses, but most listeners agreed that Seymour was the most personable contestant of the seven, with Zooey coming in second.

Buddy then segues into the narrative. The story opens on a Monday morning in November 1955. Zooey, 25, is sitting in the bathtub smoking and reading a four-year-old letter from Buddy. Buddy opens the letter with a plea that Zooey be kinder to their mother. He also reveals that Mrs. Glass has asked him to urge Zooey to get his PhD. Zooey is already a successful actor, but Mrs. Glass wants him to have something to fall back on should his acting career falter. Buddy says he's not really on their mother's side; he wants Zooey to keep acting. He also says, in passing, that he regrets the fact that he and Seymour instilled Zooey and Franny with a great deal of metaphysical philosophy when they were children. Buddy worries that he and Seymour subjected Zooey and Franny to too much education. After all, he says, "an actor should travel fairly light." He apologizes as well for not having visited enough after Seymour committed suicide. He closes the letter by urging that if Zooey wants to be an actor, he must do it with all his might.

Zooey puts the letter away and briefly turns his attention to the manuscript of a play in which he might play the lead actor. Almost immediately he is interrupted by Mrs. Glass, who wants to come into the bathroom to give him something. Zooey pulls the shower curtain shut, and his mother enters with a new tube of toothpaste for him. Then she reveals the real reason she's in there: she's worried about Franny.

It develops that Franny came home from college two days earlier, after fainting in the restaurant, and has spent the past 48 hours in a state of collapse. She's deeply distressed but won't tell anyone why, and her parents are naturally worried. Mrs. Glass hopes for some kind of help from Zooey, but he isn't forthcoming. Mrs. Glass leaves the bathroom, promising to return, and Zooey gets out of the tub and puts on his clothes. While he's shaving, Mrs. Glass comes back and again tries to enlist his help. Zooey again rebuffs her, but he unbends enough to explain about the two books Franny insists on carrying everywhere. (In "Franny," there's just one book; here, she's also reading the green book's sequel.)

Zooey explains that the little books are about a Russian serf at the turn of the 20th century. Having lost everything, he starts on a pilgrimage to discover what St. Paul's biblical injunction "Pray without ceasing" means. After a long search, he finds "a simple old monk" who tells him that the one prayer always acceptable to God is the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Practiced correctly, this prayer brings enlightenment. The pilgrim practices until he has mastered the prayer, then embarks on a mission to spread this spiritual message as widely as possible. Zooey adds that in several Eastern religions, the practice of repeating a word or phrase is believed to produce the same effect.

Mrs. Glass takes all this in, then comments, "I don't know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all if it doesn't make you happy." By now she has realized that Zooey is as conflicted as Franny.

Zooey ventures uncertainly into the living room, where Franny is asleep on the couch. He wakes her and begins asking her what she's doing with The Way of the Pilgrim. As they talk, it gradually dawns on Zooey that he himself is not doing well emotionally. He becomes increasingly pushy and rude, telling Franny she's using the Jesus Prayer for the wrong reasons and that she has a poor understanding of what Jesus was really like. Finally Franny bursts into tears and screams at him to leave.

Now drenched in sweat—the discussion has been as traumatic for Zooey as for his sister—he walks into Seymour and Buddy's old bedroom. As if trying to channel or absorb the essence of his eldest brothers, he reads a diary entry of Seymour's, studies the quotes the brothers wrote on the back of their door, and buries his head in his hands for half an hour.

When he has collected himself, Zooey calls Franny from Seymour's old telephone, which has a separate number from the rest of the family's. Franny decides to take the call in her parents' room. There, Zooey pretends he's Buddy and listens as Franny complains about all the ways Zooey is driving her crazy. Suddenly she realizes it's actually Zooey she's talking to, but she stays on the line. They begin to talk more calmly, and Franny gets more of a chance to talk.

Zooey startles Franny by telling her he saw her in a play the previous summer and was very impressed. He suggests she was born to be an actress, isn't meant to do anything else, and should act as best she can on her own terms. (This mirrors the advice Buddy gave in his letter to Zooey.) He reminds her of a time when he was seven and on his way to the radio studio. Seymour reminded him to polish his shoes. Zooey said there was no reason to do that, and Seymour said, "Shine them for the Fat Lady." Zooey imagined the Fat Lady as poor and old, suffering from cancer and confined to a chair on her porch, where she listened to the radio all day.

Excitedly, Franny remembers that Seymour once told her to be funny for the Fat Lady. Franny also imagined her as an unfortunate old woman who had cancer and listened to the radio all day. Suddenly Zooey realizes that "there isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady." Further, he realizes the Fat Lady represents Christ himself.

Zoey hangs up. Franny clutches the receiver for a while before climbing into her parents' bed. The scene mirrors the last scene in "Franny," where Franny was gazing at the ceiling while silently repeating the Jesus Prayer. This time, her lips aren't moving. She smiles at the ceiling for a few minutes before falling asleep.

Franny and Zooey Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Franny meets Lane for a weekend at his college.

Rising Action

2 Franny and Lane argue about her book.

3 Franny faints and then goes home and has a breakdown.

4 Zooey talks with Franny but only gets her more upset.


5 Zooey calls Franny, pretending to be Buddy.

Falling Action

6 Zooey tells Franny that the Fat Lady is Christ.


7 Franny falls asleep, smiling.

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