Franny & Zooey | Being True to One’s Self
Understanding the relevance of J.D. Salinger's 'Franny and Zooey' and its unmistakable prescience about contemporary societ
J.D. Salinger’s name is synonymous with American Post-World War II literature. At the mention of Salinger’s name, every American high school student has flashbacks to Catcher in the Rye—Salinger’s most celebrated novel. The novel, which details the adventures of a sixteen year old boy in New York after being kicked out of a banal East Coast prep school, is so pervasive it seems a part of the fabric of American psyche.
A true post-war Manhattanite, Salinger’s work was published by numerous distinguished periodicals, including multiple novellas that were run as individual stories by the ubiquitously highly regarded New Yorker magazine. But, unlike the Beats, Salinger
held no ambition to maintain a social image or to “be distinguished.” But, as is unavoidable, his actions created a reputation for him. One of a new-age-Bohemian-New York writer, an NYU dropout, a practicing Zen Buddhist, a man who once described himself as “Fitzgerald’s successor”. Salinger was a man who, at fifty-three years old, begun a sexual relationship with an eighteen year old Yale student. A man whose reach undoubtedly goes far beyond that of The Catcher in the Rye.
There exist, in my opinion, few works of literature that capture the difficulty and trials of being young in contemporary society other than Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. The short story, which was published originally as two separate novellas, unequivocally articulates the anxieties of being young and fed up with the need to become an “interesting person.” In the first story Franny, the main character, of the same name, passionately expresses an ailment of being young: “I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting.”
In a world where social capital, networking and media infect every interaction we have, Franny’s expression is incredibly, scarily, prescient. We focus too heavily on crafting an attractive identity on Instagram and Facebook, dismissing an examination of our real true selves. We don’t make friends organically; rather, we are concerned as to what selfish asset a new friendship can offer. This is problematic.
Another example that proves Salinger’s work is still contemporarily poignant is how, Zooey, the main character of the second story, is chastised by his mother, because, “If you don’t like somebody in two minutes, you’re done with them forever.” How often do we decide to pursue a relationship with, or more often, dismiss others in the first two minutes of a meeting? In an attempt to“get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting…” we are much too quick to judge. We immediately size-up others as allies or competitors. Zoey’s mother goes on to say, “You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.” The polarization created by “such strong likes and dislikes” is unhealthy. It forces you to categorize yourself and others. It is what creates hipsters, nerds, jocks, cool kids…It is what leads to things like the rise of partisanship, such as the one that is the key pathogen of current US politics.
So, how did we get to this point? To a place in which we are more critical of others than we are of ourselves? Perhaps not the whole solution, but a partial answer is that we continually and systemically suppress our emotions in order to fit into social norms
This is seen in the opening scene of Salinger’s novel wherein Franny’s boyfriend Lane, after not seeing Franny for several months, is visibly excited as he awaits her train’s arrival. Yet, Lane “ tried to empty his face of all expression that might quite simply, perhaps even beautifully, reveal how he felt about the arriving person.” Salinger’s ability to capture human behavior is remarkable. We often attempt to repress the physical revelations of our emotions. Here, it is more “normal,” whatever that may mean, for Lane to act unexcited about an event that is, objectively, exciting. By consciously repressing any expression of his emotions, Lane fails to acknowledge the existence of his excitement.
What Salinger shows is that if we do not consciously acknowledge an emotion: sadness, happiness, excitement or whatever it might be, we cannot ever truly understand/express it. In trying to give off an outward appearance that fits social norms, Lane does not want to act excited because none of the other boys on the platform waiting for the arrival of their girlfriends appear excited. He does not acknowledge his internal excitement and thus, he fails to understand himself. This lack of focus and examination of oneself might lead to a pattern of unending neurosis.
What we learn from Salinger is that the societal trend to examine the actions and emotions of others before ourselves leads us to heavily judge others upon how they act, react, and express emotion. Yet, in trying to fit into societal norms, we actively suppress our true feelings—our true selves. The key is to learn to focus on one’s self. Learn to acknowledge your emotions and do not be ashamed to visibly express them, no matter how far that expression may stray from the accepted norm. Do not judge others on how they live or act.
Franny and Zoey is home to the famous quote, “I just hope that one day—preferably when we’re both blind drunk—we can talk about it.” I would suggest a different, more fervent hope: I just hope that one day we can soberly and earnestly look ourselves in the mirror and say “I know who I am. I do not need to fit into constructs. I will not judge others by how far they may stray from ‘normal.’”