Summary of the Scene in the Living Room
Franny and Zooey: Summary of the Scene in the Living Room
Franny is asleep on the living room couch of the Glass apartment on the fifth floor of their Manhattan building. The room is not large but stuffed with furniture and mementos of family history, photographs and newspaper clippings of the children in their radio show days. Bessie Glass has stripped the curtains in preparation for painting but is unable to move the furniture with Franny living on the couch, sleeping with the cat, Bloomberg. Her fist is clenched. Zooey stands looking at her. She is very pretty, though she has circles under her eyes. He sits on a coffee table, smoking a cigar, and tells Franny to wake up. She awakens with a start and says she had a bad dream. Zooey tells her she should eat her mother’s chicken soup because she looks like hell.
Franny tells him to leave her alone and kisses the cat. She asks him about the script that LeSage dropped off. Zooey plays the piano as he says he now has two scripts, the one his boss dropped off, and then a playwright, Dick Hess, phoned him for a late drink in the Village to discuss his script with Zooey. Zooey does not drink but met the man anyway. The play offered him by his producer, LeSage, is a drawing room comedy, he says, as he lies down on the carpet. In the one by Hess he can play a subway guard in an offbeat drama: “It’s down-to-earth, it’s simple, it’s untrue” (134).
Franny starts silently repeating the Jesus prayer, and Zooey notices but continues the conversation saying he might go to France for the summer to make a film. Franny is interested, but Zooey goes on knocking the idea and everything else about the film. He wants to leave town, nevertheless, because he knows that he sits “in judgment on every poor, ulcerous bastard I know” (137). He feels that his pickiness is ruining everyone’s morale at the TV studio.
Franny nods sympathetically and mentions how she ruined Lane’s morale during the weekend by jumping on his “harmless test-tubey paper on Flaubert” (138). Zooey starts lecturing her about blaming others: “It’s us. I keep telling you that . . . We’re freaks, that’s all” (138). They still have their Wise Child complexes, holding forth to everyone. Zooey regrets that he could not keep his mouth shut and told Dick Hess how stupid his play was. He actually likes Hess as a person. He sort of likes LeSage too. He can’t stop pronouncing on things.
Franny asks Zooey if he has an ulcer, and he says yes. Franny smiles, seeing that they have the same problems, and that Zooey understands her. Franny says she has tried to keep quiet when confronted with stupidity, but one day she wrote sayings from Epictetus all over the blackboard, and then she started picking on her professors. She had the notion that college was just one more place where people pile up their treasures, whether intellectual or material. It is just knowledge for knowledge’s sake, instead of for wisdom.
Zooey suddenly asks Franny what she is doing with the Jesus prayer. He accuses her of laying up treasure with the Jesus prayer. He wants to know her motives for saying it; he does not think she has the right motives. She says she has thought of that and is herself worrying about her own motives. She fears that though she wants enlightenment instead of prestige, she still has ego. She is on the verge of tears, and Zooey asks if she wants him to get Buddy on the phone. He feels he is no good talking to her about this.
Weeping, Franny says she really wants to talk to Seymour (who is dead). Zooey goes to the window and watches a heartwarming scene on the ground between a little girl and her dog. He tells Franny there are still nice things in the world, and they should not let themselves be sidetracked. Franny blows her nose.
Zooey begins to discuss their siblings and how each of them has found their own kind of religion. Walt, the one who died in the war, thought the family preoccupation with religion was a sort of karma, a penance God was exacting. Franny laughs. Zooey says he is late for a lunch appointment, but he lies down on the floor again.
Zooey says he has one more thing to say about her prayer. He does not like the way she is acting pious and hysterical even though he knows she is having a bad time. It is not fair to their parents. He wishes she would go have her breakdown at college. He does not like her martyr pose and her crusade against everyone else. She can be mad at the system but should not attack the people personally. Zooey says the reason he has an ulcer is that he gets too personal too.
He also does not like her saying the Jesus prayer because she does not understand who Jesus is. He was not a nice cuddly St. Francis. Christ was the most intelligent person in the Bible: “Jesus realized there is no separation from God” (169). She has no right to pronounce on the egos of others; only God can judge. Franny is weeping and begging Zooey to stop, but he continues to lecture her that she is using the prayer as a substitute for her duty in life. The prayer is not an escape but for the purpose of endowing the person with Christ-Consciousness. Franny is face down weeping with anguish, and Zooey suddenly feels like a failure. He says he is sorry and closes the door as he leaves.
Commentary on the Scene in the Living Room
Some critics have accused Salinger of being too didactic in the dialogue between Franny and Zooey. Zooey goes on page after page as though giving a lecture on religion. Yet it is in character, as he himself says; he cannot stop himself from pronouncing on things as he did during the radio show, “It’s a Wise Child.”
In the beginning, Zooey establishes a bridge with Franny; they both have the same problem in their pickiness and looking down on the quality of the work of others. Their standards are higher than those of the people they are around. What should they do? Pretend? Look the other way? They discuss a real problem that other writers and thinkers have noticed in American culture, which seems to cater to the lowest public taste instead of the highest. It is largely a commercial culture. Buddy had warned Zooey about this in his satire on American TV in the letter.
Franny extends the argument to education. There are plenty of smart students and professors, but their idea of knowledge seems to be about throwing around meaningless facts and ideas. It is a game and not for making things better. In trying to keep her own integrity, she protests by quitting. If she tries to stifle herself, she damages her spirit. She does not want to live a lie.
Once Zooey agrees with Franny about the problem, he starts to disagree about how she is handling it. He himself is getting an ulcer over the same thing; he cannot win if he keeps quiet, nor if he speaks up. Yet he tells Franny she is wrong for attacking the people personally. Essentially, he says, it is their own problem, maybe because they were raised to be the “wise child” full of opinions, or maybe because Seymour and Buddy tried to instill a different worldview in them at odds with the society they are in.
This much Franny might be grateful to hear. She values the perspective of her brothers, and Zooey knows better than any psychiatrist what her problems are. But at some point he begins to push her very hard. Both Franny and Bessie have called Zooey tactless and unkind. Bessie contrasts him with the gentle, wise, and kind Seymour. Seymour is the saintly figure that Franny longs to talk to; in fact, Zooey says she is confusing Seymour and a sentimental Jesus in her mind.
Zooey’s tour de force on Franny’s spiritual crisis is quite stunning for those readers who like to hear to hear a discussion of ideas. Zooey does not spare Franny’s feelings. He suddenly assumes the stature of a spiritual teacher probing her motives and expectations. Perhaps she thinks she is being virtuous repeating the Jesus prayer; that could be vanity itself. Franny says she knows this and that is part of her agony. She has no teacher to guide her.
It is a surprise to Franny and the reader when Zooey suddenly, though reluctantly, assumes that role. As he speaks, he has authority, showing that he has been down the road she is treading. He does not pretend to have all the answers, but he acts out the part of the tough Jesus he tells her about, showing her that taking on the Jesus prayer is a discipline, not an escape. Jesus, he says, “was a supreme adept, by God, on a terribly important mission” (170). An adept is a realized teacher or master. Jesus did not have time to sit around preaching to birds like St. Francis and consoling Franny’s hurt feelings. He was laying out a path to God. Jesus was “the best, the smartest, the most loving, the least sentimental, the most unimitative master” God could have picked (170).
It is important to note that though Zooey speaks of Christ as the Son of God, he does not speak of Christ as though he himself is a member of the Christian religion. His regard for Christ is within the universal template given by Seymour and Buddy, who taught the children to respect all the great spiritual teachers. Franny, for instance, writes the sayings of Epictetus on the classroom blackboard. Epictetus (55-135 CE) was a Greek Stoic philosopher who taught that self-knowledge is the most important knowledge. Zooey still says the Four Buddhist vows before meals. He and his brothers and sisters are ecumenical in their embrace of wisdom.
Salinger leaves the scene in a state of suspense. Did Zooey fail as he thinks he did, by pushing Franny too mercilessly? Or was it a helpful slap in the face to bring her out of herself?