Summary of the Scene in the Bathroom
Franny and Zooey: Summary of the Scene in the Bathroom
Zooey has been reading the letter in the bathtub trying not to get it wet, and then deliberately bats it around seeing how close it could come to the water. From its color, it is obvious he has read it often, though it is four years old. At first he tries to fold it carefully to put it in the envelope, and then he stuffs it in as though he realizes he has read it for the last time. He picks up a play manuscript on the bathmat and begins to read it while in the tub. A sample of the dialogue is given between the characters, Rick and Tina. Full of melodrama and clichÈs, it sounds like a soap opera with a few literary references tossed in.
Zooey’s mother Bessie comes to the bathroom door and calls to him. She wants to come in. She tells him to pull the shower curtain. Mrs. Glass enters the bathroom in a kimono with her hair in a net. She is plump and scolds Zooey for staying in the bath so long.
The Glasses live in an old but fashionable apartment house in Manhattan. She is Irish Catholic, and her husband is Jewish. Bessie nags Zooey affectionately like a mother as she unwraps a package. She has bought him a new brand of toothpaste and puts it in the medicine cabinet. She scolds him about using his toothpowder, which will damage the enamel on his teeth. Zooey argues with her about it. She nags him about not cleaning the sink after he uses it.
As Bessie cleans the sink, she asks Zooey if he has spoken to his sister Franny yet. He says no and tells her to get out of the bathroom. He just got up. He talked to Franny for two hours the night before, and she does not want to talk to anyone.
Bessie sits on the toilet and lights a cigarette. She begins to complain that Buddy does not have a telephone, and she cannot get hold of him. He lives like a hermit in the woods. What if he broke his leg and needed help? Zooey tells his mother she is stupid. Buddy wants his privacy; he will not die in the woods. She replies that she has tried to call his neighbors, but they do not answer. She is worried about Franny and thought Buddy should talk to her.
Zooey continues to speak to his mother in a loud and sarcastic manner, suggesting that she phone the college where he works. She hands Zooey a washcloth.
Bessie picks up the manuscript on the floor and asks if it is the one Mr. LeSage sent over. She criticizes him for putting it on the floor. She reads the title aloud: “The Heart is an Autumn Wanderer.” Bessie remarks it is an unusual title. At that, Zooey explodes with sarcasm and amusement, chiding her lack of knowledge about art, as the title is obviously absurd and an imitation of Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The narrator explains that Bessie is pleased. She likes her son’s manner of bullying her. For a moment, she forgets to worry about Franny. Zooey continues to rib her, calling her “Fatty” (81).
Bessie smokes her cigarette and wonders in Zooey’s presence what she is supposed to do with Franny. She has come to consult Zooey because her husband won’t talk about such things with her. He is worried but refuses to face anything. He just listens to radio.
Bessie thinks Les listens to the radio hoping to hear the children on their radio show again. He only watches TV if Zooey is on. His only response to Franny was to offer her a tangerine, though she has been lying on the couch crying for hours. Bessie wants to reach her son Buddy, the only one who might know something about what ails Franny. The other children are unavailable. She complains, “You’re all supposed to be so intelligent and everything . . . not one of you is any help when the chips are down” (84).
Zooey says they cannot live Franny’s life for her. Bessie goes on about how Franny is throwing up all her food. When will she go back to college? She lives on cheeseburgers and coke. She will not take her mother’s chicken broth.
Zooey seems to be taking Franny’s situation lightly and teases his mother about her concerns. Maybe they should leave Franny in peace if she wants to have a nervous breakdown. Bessie goes on in a worried voice that Franny is impressionable and is reading a religious book that has her overwrought. In addition, the painters are coming, and she cannot clear the living room with Franny on the couch. Zooey says he is getting out of the tub, and Bessie leaves the room.
Zooey dresses and begins to shave, looking into his eyes in the mirror but not on his face where he is shaving, avoiding admiring his own looks, “in a private war against narcissism he had been fighting since he was seven or eight years old” (91). Bessie returns to the bathroom as he shaves and asks Zooey if they should call Waker, her son who is a Catholic priest, to talk to Franny, or does she need a psychiatrist?
Zooey makes comic answers to his mother indicating she does not know what she is talking about, and that she should trust Franny’s wish not to talk to anyone. He tells Bessie she is “way off” about calling in a priest. She may be reading a Christian book, but the issue is “non-sectarian” (94).
Bessie mentions that Lane Coutell has called several times to find out how Franny is. Zooey says that Lane is “a charm boy and a fake” (96). Bessie responds by telling Zooey the truth about his personality—he either likes someone or he does not, and when he likes the person, he does all the talking. Zooey looks at her with admiration and affection.
It comes out that the book Franny is holding on to, The Way of a Pilgrim, did not come from the library, but from Buddy’s and Seymour’s room. Bessie says she would not know since she does not go in there any more. Zooey apologizes to her, realizing her sorrow about Seymour, then admits that he is tired of hearing Buddy’s and Seymour’s names. The house “stinks of ghosts” (102). He claims that he and Franny are “freaks” (103) and the older brothers are responsible. He cannot even eat without saying to himself the Four Great Vows of Buddhism. He cannot talk to anyone without being bored.
Bessie simply answers that she wishes Zooey would get married. Zooey tells her about the ideas in the book that Franny is reading. The Jesus prayer is supposed to lead to enlightenment, and that is why it will do no good to call a priest or psychiatrist. Bessie says she does not know what has happened to her children; they were happy in the radio days. What good is it to be smart if you cannot be happy? They were all so good and loving to one another. She walks heavily out the door.
Commentary on the Scene in the Bathroom
Salinger creates an in-depth character study of both Bessie and Zooey in their conversation in the bathroom. Like the one between Lane and Franny, there is little action, but the characters are strongly contrasted in their personalities and understanding of life. Their shifts in conversation are full of nuances. The reader must decipher the subtext of what is going on.
Bessie is the strong but weary stage mother of seven genius children, all originals, with their tragic or comic stories that she keeps in her heart. Though Zooey seems brutal in the way he sarcastically responds to his mother’s need for someone to talk to about Franny, making fun of her fatness and her lack of knowledge about culture, it is clear underneath how much mother and son love each other and understand one another.
The narrator gives some background on Bessie telling us that Les and Bessie were Vaudeville performers, and that Bessie still has a dancer’s legs. Les seems to live in the past, wanting to focus on the performances and memories of his children’s success. Bessie used to have expressive wide blue eyes that could take the measure of everything, but with the death of two of her sons, one to suicide and one to World War II, she is more closed up and nervous. She worries more about the remaining children: Buddy is alone in the woods; Franny is starving herself. That is why Buddy tells Zooey to go easy on her. Bessie is proud of Zooey’s success, wit, and handsome appearance. She likes it when he bullies her because she feels the affectionate attention behind his insults.
The narrator brings out characterization by focusing on the mundane details of how Zooey takes a bath in a careless and playful way, and how Bessie fusses over the medicine cabinet and housework. She is the one who keeps the family together, and though not in on the children’s secret culture, she understands enough. She knows that Buddy, for instance, can probably help Franny. She knows that no matter how much Zooey jokes around in a sarcastic manner, that he cares about his sister, that he is wise, and that she can come and tell her problems to him.
Zooey laughs when his mother says that all the father can do is offer Franny a tangerine. He understands from this that his father is worried and makes a gesture to Franny, no matter how inept it may seem. Zooey covers up his real interest in the matter, taking in all the details from his mother but making jokes instead of offering solutions. He mentions that the family members tend to “keep things bottled up too much” (84).
At the end of the scene, however, Zooey gets serious and explains his deeper feelings. He understands Franny perfectly, for they are both “freaks” of the same education of the elder brothers. Zooey is still practicing what they taught him. He says the Buddhist vows before meals (to extinguish passion, to master the Dharma or the Law of Nature, to save all beings, and to attain the Buddha truth). He, like Franny, is intolerant of fools and cannot put up with the unreal nature of society. He is so afraid of his own good looks that he will not view his face in the mirror and chides his mother for commenting on his handsomeness because he is trying to subdue ego.
Zooey is set off by his mother’s insistence on calling in a psychiatrist for Franny. Zooey goes into a tirade against psychiatrists and psychology that ties in to the conversation Franny and Lane had in the restaurant. Franny accused Lane of ruining literature by applying Freudian theory to it. Instead of celebrating the skill of Flaubert’s writing, he has to minimize his achievement by saying Flaubert was neurotic. Freudian theory in both psychiatry and the study of the arts was very popular in the 1950s. It became a way to reduce everything, including spiritual or religious experience, to a sort of complex or neurosis. Zooey mentions that psychological analysis ruined Seymour. Unless an analyst were religious, he says, it would not help Franny with her problem.
Though Zooey can be irritated by his mother’s apparent denseness and conventional ideas, he appreciates her in certain moments, as when she adroitly analyzes his character. In spite of their arguments and wrestling in this scene, it is his mother who pushes Zooey to action as he realizes that he knows, more than anyone else, what ails Franny. It will take everything inside him to help her, and thus himself, to deal with the family ghosts.