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Literature Study GuidesFranny And ZooeyZooey Section 1 All About Buddy Summary

Franny and Zooey | Study Guide

J. D. Salinger

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Franny and Zooey | Zooey, Section 1 (All about Buddy) | Summary



Buddy Glass, Zooey's second-oldest brother, is the narrator in "Zooey," and he says from the start that he's narrating not a traditional short story but "a sort of prose home movie." As opposed to professional films, home movies tend to be rambling, structureless, and full of sudden close-ups, all criticisms that could be applied to Buddy's narrative. Buddy also warns readers that the plot of his narrative hinges on "a too vividly apparent transcendent element of sorts."

Having introduced himself, Buddy moves on to introduce his youngest brother Zooey, who's 25. Zooey's in the bathtub, smoking and reading a long letter Buddy sent him four years earlier. Before reprinting the letter, Buddy insists on inserting "two dossier-like paragraphs" about Zooey's looks. He is short and slight but "surpassingly handsome, even spectacularly so." Not only are his features close to perfect, but "an authentic esprit"—a spirit of liveliness and vivacity—is superimposed over his face.

Buddy explains that Zooey has been a lead TV actor for the previous three years. But he is no stranger to performance, having been one of the seven Glass siblings to appear, sequentially, on a radio quiz show called "It's a Wise Child." All the Glass children were great players, but the consensus is that the eldest sibling Seymour (now dead) was the best and Zooey the second-best. Zooey has also been much tested and examined by research teams, which may be one reason he will later call himself a freak.

Buddy now removes himself as a first-person narrator, as he said he would a few pages earlier, and quotes the letter Zooey is reading verbatim. Buddy specifies that the letter is from the character Buddy Glass but admits that this character bears "considerably more than passing resemblance" to the narrator. In the letter, Buddy asks Zooey to tell their mother that he has no plans to get rid of his and Seymour's old private telephone. He goes on to say that Mrs. Glass—or Bessie, as most of the Glass children seem to call her—is worried about Zooey. She thinks he should be getting his PhD before he tries becoming an actor. Buddy adds that he doesn't agree with Mrs. Glass about this. Zooey has an MA and a BA, and those are enough to get him teaching jobs at many colleges and prep schools. Buddy thinks Zooey's had enough education, but he urges him to be kinder to their mother, who's worn out.

Buddy continues, "I can't help thinking you'd make a damn sight better-adjusted actor" if he and Seymour hadn't conspired to fill Zooey's head with esoteric religious knowledge when he was a little boy. He also worries that Zooey expects more from the performing arts than they can provide.

Buddy reminisces about Seymour's suicide, which took place three years before the letter. He says he's teaching Zen and Mahayana Buddhism to various members of the faculty and their spouses. He describes an adventure he had at the local supermarket, where he chatted with a four-year-old girl. Buddy asked her how many boyfriends she had, and the little girl said two—Bobby and Dorothy. Because this put him in mind of Seymour, he's decided to tell Zooey why the two eldest brothers decided to educate Zooey and his younger sister, Franny, "as early and as high-handedly as we did." It was mainly because Seymour had decided that education should begin with a quest for "no-knowledge" (a Zen Buddhist concept) rather than knowledge. Seymour and Buddy believed Zooey and Franny should learn about holy men throughout history before they started conventional school. If they'd known Zooey would become an actor, they would have shaped their Eastern philosophy curriculum to include material relevant to actors.

Buddy apologizes for having stayed away from home so long after Seymour died. He was afraid Zooey and Franny would ask him too many questions. (Buddy doesn't specify what kind of questions, but presumably the children would have wanted him to explain Seymour's suicide.) Now, having talked to the little girl about Bobby and Dorothy, he remembers Seymour's telling him that all true religious inquiry "must lead to unlearning the differences ... between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night." He was eager to write about this in his letter, but by the time he got home from the supermarket, the impetus was gone. Instead, he's been lecturing Zooey on what to do with his life.

Buddy concludes by saying that if Zooey wants to be an actor, he must act with all his might. Buddy will support him. In a postscript, he adds the plea that "As one limping man to another ... let's be courteous and kind to each other."


Throughout "Zooey," J. D. Salinger is careful to give Buddy a distinctive voice. In doing so, he makes Buddy a real character in the book, though an offstage one. Like his other family members, Buddy speaks colloquially and yet with great eloquence and intelligence. He's also slightly bombastic and, as gradually becomes clear, quite insecure. He interrupts himself, deprecates himself, and qualifies his remarks constantly. He seems to forestall potential criticism by mentioning his story's flaws before readers have the chance to notice them. In one way, this is disarming: Buddy doesn't want anyone thinking he's setting himself up as a Great Writer. But his candor could also be seen as a subtle way of saying, "I know these problems exist, so there's no need to point them out."

Even when Buddy stops speaking in the first person and begins narrating in a more conventional way, he occasionally reminds readers that he's the one talking. It's a double reminder to the audience: first, that Buddy's still behind the scenes, and second, that Salinger may be speaking through him. Since Franny and Zooey was published, there's been speculation about whether Buddy is meant to be an autobiographical character. If so, Salinger does not always portray himself in a flattering way.

Buddy often advances an idea only to retract it or make fun of it. In the first paragraph of the introduction, he speaks of an author's formal introduction as "that ever fresh and exciting odium." "Odium" is an odd word choice. It's a noun, but it means "hatred" or "abhorrence," not "hateful or abhorrent object." Yet it seems Buddy is using it to mean "something odious." Nor is it clear whether Buddy thinks the genre of author introductions is odious or whether he sees his own introduction that way. In either case, "odium" suggests a startling level of either self-hatred or scorn. This impression is underscored by Buddy's statement that if he manages to pull off his introduction, the effect on the reader should be like going on "a compulsory guided tour through the engine room, with [Buddy] leading the way in an old one-piece Jantzen bathing suit."

It's not an appealing image. Buddy is comparing his own brain to an engine room—a dirty, loud place that's generally hidden away in the basement of a large boat. Engine rooms are essential, but they're not typically places people want to tour. And the phrase "leading the way in an old ... bathing suit" suggests a tour guide who's chosen to make himself look both ridiculous and unimpressive. Since the tone of a paragraph sets the mood for the entire story, it's important to realize that Buddy sees himself as a rather grotesque character. If his prose becomes overwrought at times, it may be because of his distorted self-image.

Buddy's introduction is written in the first person. Then he briefly turns to the third person to describe Zooey as he sits in the bathtub reading Buddy's letter. Notice that Buddy describes Zooey's appearance before anything else. He admires his youngest brother's looks extravagantly. Zooey is slight and short, but in both full face and profile he's "surpassingly handsome, even spectacularly so ... I submit that Zooey's face was close to being a wholly beautiful face." The older brother seems almost to worship the younger one, and the phrase "I submit" hints that he's not sure everyone would agree with him.

Critics including John Updike have accused Salinger of loving his characters too much. Readers should keep in mind that although Buddy and Salinger have many things in common, Buddy is the narrator here—not Salinger. If excess appreciation for Zooey's looks is revealed here, Buddy is the one who's doing the appreciating. Maybe he admires Zooey because he sees himself as a ridiculous figure. Maybe he's overinvested in Zooey's future because he's unsure about his own success. Maybe he hopes Zooey and Franny, unlike the other Glass siblings, have been relatively untainted by the ugliness of Seymour's suicide. Maybe Franny and Zooey really are unbelievably good-looking. That part is open to interpretation.

What's certain is that part of the letter is an apology for Seymour and Buddy having subjected Zooey and Franny to intensive "home seminars" on religious leaders. Many critics have panned the excessive religiosity in this book. Again, it's Buddy's religiosity, not Salinger's—and he's apologizing for it, not boasting about it. Yes, at the time Salinger wrote "Zooey" he was deeply committed to Buddhist and Vedantic concepts, and as he continued writing about the Glass family, his prose became increasingly clogged with philosophical references and asides. These are actually kept to a minimum in Franny and Zooey and are used more as color than as instruction.

Buddy's letter closes, "Act, Zachary Martin Glass, when and where you want to ... but do it with all your might." As readers will see, Buddy's advice to Zooey is very similar to the advice Zooey will later give Franny over the phone. The book is bracketed by two important statements about an artist's responsibility, making it clear that that theme is as important as the religious subtext.

Zooey refers to both his mother and sister as "buddy." Since his older brother, Buddy, hovers over the story from the beginning, and since Zooey will impersonate Buddy at the end of the story, it is clear that Buddy looms large in both his conscious and subconscious thoughts. The word buddy also means "friend." Buddy may also use it to soften insults—or even to suggest that he likes the people to whom he is talking. The immediate effect of the word's overuse is to make him sound more adolescent than he may realize.

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