Franny and Zooey contains two stories that intertwine. The first, “Franny,” relates an episode of Franny Glass’s life—a trip to visit Ivy League boyfriend, Lane. Lane and Franny do the young intellectual thing over a meal prior to a football game. During the meal, Franny gets ill, has a minor breakdown in the women’s bathroom, and, finally, faints, thereby ending the first story.
Prior to passing out, however, Franny tells Lane about The Way of a Pilgrim, a book written by an anonymous Russian peasant, who makes it his goal to pray without ceasing through the Jesus Prayer.
The second story, “Zooey,” picks up soon after the conclusion of “Franny.” Focusing on Zooey Glass—one of Franny’s brothers—the reader is introduced to a young man trying to deal with the upbringing he was given by his two older brothers. The first half of this story takes place with Zooey in the bath and his mother, Bessie, pacing back and forth, worrying about her daughter’s condition.
After leaving the bathroom, Zooey confronts Franny about her use of the Jesus Prayer. He observes that her desire to detach through the Jesus Prayer is just as egotistical as her dreadful professor’s demeanor is in class. Franny gets upset, but Zooey continues. Calling on the phone, pretending to be trusted older brother, Buddy, Zooey continues to cast doubt on her motives. Zooey calls Franny out for not being able to accept Jesus as Jesus is portrayed in the gospels; noting her distaste for the “birds of the air” stuff in Matthew 6, Zooey says that Franny will never understand the Jesus Prayer until she understands Jesus. Zooey rightly observes that the Jesus Prayer is meant to endow a person with “Christ-consciousness.” He tells her she needs to stop thinking of it as a chant to do correctly in order to impress herself and others.
Eventually Zooey gets to the heart of the matter by retelling a story that Seymour, the other older brother who was now dead through suicide, used to tell. He said that years earlier, Seymour used to tell him to shine his shoes, which Zooey did not want to do. “Do it for the Fat Lady,” replied Seymour. Now this advice was, at the time, lost on Zooey. But through years of journeying with his brother’s wisdom, Zooey was able to tell his sister, (spoiler alert):
“But I’ll tell you a terrible secret—Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. That includes your Professor Tupper, buddy. And all his goddam cousins by the dozens. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me, now—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
In the finest of the tradition of Christian spirituality (and, it should be noted, helpful insights into various religious traditions appear throughout this book), Zooey tells Franny that, to paraphrase Thomas Merton, we are all walking around glowing with the radiance of the Divine. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” Therefore, saying the Jesus Prayer for the sake of saying the Jesus Prayer is not the point; the point of saying the Jesus Prayer is realizing that we are all connected, that each time we welcome a stranger into our life, we welcome Christ.
All in all, I think this book is a must-read. It wrestles with and guides the reader through some of the more toxic tendencies for religion—being overbearing (as Buddy and Seymour were to Franny and Zooey) and guilt-inducing (as an immature repetition of the Jesus Prayer was for Zooey), for example. But the book also constructs ways of thinking about religion and spirituality healthily. Namely, through Zooey’s voice, J.D. Salinger offers a clear picture of who Jesus is, what the Jesus Prayer is meant to be, and how to engage the world through a Christo-centric lens.
This essay originally appeared on Englewood’s website.