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Franny and Zooey | Study Guide

J. D. Salinger

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Franny and Zooey | Themes


We Are All the Fat Lady

The concept that everyone is the "fat lady" isn't explicitly introduced until the very end of Franny and Zooey. Nevertheless, the message informs the entire book.

Zooey tells Franny about a time, years earlier, when he was getting ready to appear on the radio quiz show "It's a Wise Child." (Over the years, all the Glass children have appeared on this show.) Seymour, their eldest brother, tells him to polish his shoes. "I was furious," Zooey recalls. "I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour." The audience isn't worth it, he said, and in any case no one can see his shoes on a radio show.

Seymour told him to shine them "for the Fat Lady." He never explained who the Fat Lady was, but after that Zooey polished his shoes every time he was on the show. Gradually, Zooey formed a mental picture of the Fat Lady sitting on a porch swatting flies and listening to the radio full blast. "I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer."

Franny is amazed. Seymour told her about the Fat Lady too, and she too pictured the Fat Lady as someone with cancer who listened to the radio full blast. "I had her in an awful wicker chair." Both she and Zooey realized that Seymour used the Fat Lady as a metaphor for the uncharming people who nonetheless need to be loved and treated with respect.

Zooey goes on to explain, "There isn't anyone out there who isn't Seymour's Fat Lady." No matter how privileged and outwardly successful people may be, everyone carries secret sadness and shame. Yet we are all equally deserving of love and compassion.

At the beginning of the story, Zooey is reading a letter his second-eldest brother Buddy sent to him four years earlier. Buddy recalls Seymour saying that "all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning ... the illusory differences" between males and females, animals and stones, and other seeming opposites. In other words, there is no difference between Franny and Zooey and the Fat Lady.

Burden of Genius

Franny and Zooey are so accomplished that it's hard to see what's making them so unhappy. But their brilliance makes them feel as though they're unfit to live in the real world, with ordinary people.

"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," Mrs. Glass tells Zooey.

It's an odd statement coming from a mother who arranged to have all seven of her children participate in a radio quiz show. But quiz show aside, Mrs. Glass makes a good point. It's abundantly clear that both Franny and Zooey are miserable. Waker's "eyes all fill up" if someone even says it looks like rain. Buddy's letter to Zooey is melancholy. Worst of all, Seymour shot himself almost seven years before Franny and Zooey begins—an act that proves beyond a doubt how unhappy he was and one that also does irreparable harm to his family.

Some of Franny and Zooey's suffering is self-inflicted. They've been raised to think of themselves as unusual, partly because of the quiz show and partly because of Buddy and Seymour's tutelage. They seem only half aware that a kind of reverse snobbishness makes them think ordinary accomplishment is pretentious. Franny complains about "people who want to get somewhere," as though everyone should either have "arrived" already or should give up striving entirely. Zooey quotes Seymour (who is himself quoting the philosopher Chuang-tzu): "Beware when the so-called sagely men come limping into sight." Since "sagely men" are merely wise, not geniuses, Zooey believes they have nothing to offer. This all-or-nothing thinking suggests that there is no middle ground between being a Glass and being worthless.

Genius itself is not what makes Franny and Zooey unhappy; they're not sorry they're intelligent. What bothers them is the contrast between themselves and other people. Franny tells Lane that two professors in her college's English department "aren't real poets. They're just people that write poems that get published." She partly sees how snobbish these remarks are, and despises herself for them, but she's still confident that she's the best judge of real poetry.

Zooey tells his mother he's been trying to come up with a psychoanalyst who could help Franny, "but I don't happen to know of any." He may know something about analysis, but there's no reason a 25-year-old actor should think he's qualified to find an analyst or that the best analyst for Franny must be someone he knows. At another point, Zooey complains about a script he's been sent. "It's familiar enough and trivial enough to be ... loved by our greedy, nervous, illiterate sponsors." Both he and his sister tend to write off vast swathes of humanity. Probably most psychoanalysts would agree that's due to depression, insecurity, and youth rather than genius, but Zooey and Franny don't yet realize it.

It makes things harder that Zooey and Franny are perceptive enough to know they're snobs, and they feel guilty about it. At the end of the book, their insight about the Fat Lady lifts a great burden from both of them.

Wise Little Girls

Keenly observant and sensitive children frequently play an important part in Salinger's fiction. Franny and Zooey contains three instances in which a little girl teaches an important lesson.

When "Zooey" begins, it's been almost seven years since Seymour shot himself in his hotel room while on his second honeymoon. In his letter to Zooey, Buddy describes finding a haiku-like poem on the blotter in Seymour's hotel room. It reads, "The little girl on the plane/ Who turned her doll's head around / To look at me." It's an odd image, made odder by the fact that Seymour had a fateful encounter with a little girl on the day he committed suicide. (The event appears in the short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which is the first of Salinger's works to feature someone from the Glass family.)

When Buddy remembers the doll on the plane, he suddenly feels he can finally explain to Zooey why he and Seymour took over Franny and Zooey's "education as early and as highhandedly as [they] did." The two eldest Glass brothers had come to believe in the Zen Buddhist precept that education should begin with a "quest for no-knowledge" before an individual begins his or her formal schooling. The concept of no-knowledge is hard for non-Buddhist readers to understand, and Buddy himself doesn't really explain why teaching young children about history's most important religious leaders counts as imbuing them with "no-knowledge." Buddy hopes he can explain it more clearly when he and Zooey are together. But when Buddy remembers Seymour's experience on the airplane, he realizes that for Seymour, the doll's face was a teaching moment. The teacher was the doll's owner, a girl too young and innocent to realize that a doll can't really see. Her doll's face represents the pure, egoless emptiness that Buddhists consider the most desirable state of mind. For Seymour, the gulf between his own tortured psyche and the doll's blank stare must have been unbearable.

An alternative interpretation is that Seymour is deeply moved by the little girl's attempt to communicate with him. In either case, the child is a source of instruction for Seymour and then for Buddy.

Buddy has his own encounter with a wise little girl. In a supermarket, Buddy asks a little girl how many boyfriends she has. The child holds up two fingers and says her "boyfriends" are named Bobby and Dorothy. The event reminds Buddy of the time Seymour told him that "all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the ... illusory differences between boys and girls."

Finally, Zooey looks out of the Glasses' living room and notices a little girl playing hide-and-seek with her puppy. Zooey is deeply moved by the charm of the scene and by the joy both the child and the dog feel when they're reunited. He takes a drag on his cigar and comments that there are nice things in the world, "and I mean nice things. We're all such morons to get so sidetracked." Zooey has been deeply unhappy for a long time. Watching the little girl reminds him that the world can be beautiful as well as desolate.

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