The first two times I read Franny and Zooey, I was going through, to borrow a phrase from Salinger, a “blue period.” I have come to identify these low times with the term “melancholy,” a gloomy Victorian adjective that has taken on the power of a noun in my vocabulary. I have started countless sentences with, “When I was going through a melancholy…” or “During my melancholy…”
The first time I picked up Franny and Zooey I did not even read the entire thing. I was a junior in high school, looking for the quickest way to put a stop to a frightening first encounter with depression. I had no tangible reason to be unhappy. I got good grades without having to work terribly hard.
I was member of “JEET”—an acronym of the names Justine, Eleanor, Ellie, and Tess—a group of girls with whom I ate lunch and went to the movies and chatted on the telephone. My family ate dinner together every night and said, “I love you” with every good night kiss and at the end of every phone conversation.
Acknowledging my sadness’ irrationality only compounded the melancholy. “I am unhappy so unhappy and my previous happiness was based on nothing and I shouldn’t be unhappy because I have everything but I am. Life is so terribly depressing,” reads my darkest entry from the period.
To describe my feelings toward the character of Franny accurately requires using embarrassingly effusive language: I felt I was Franny. We shared a preference for the earnest ancients over the wittier-than-thou writers of the Enlightenment. She spoke like I did, mixing parts of speech (she dismisses her boyfriend Lane’s English paper as insufferably “campusy”) and placing dramatic emphasis on certain words (she criticizes one of Lane’s friends for “name-dropping in a terribly quiet, casual voice”). Our similarities extended beyond the aesthetic. We had the same advantages—plenty of money, a good education, a loving family—yet felt inexplicably unsatisfied.
Most importantly, she shared my guilt at her own unhappiness. She continually apologizes to Lane for her unpleasant behavior and her inability to explain its cause. “I’m sorry. I’m awful…I’ve just felt so destructive all week. It’s awful. I’m horrible,” she says. As her despair deepens, she says, “All I know is I’m losing my mind.”
I finished “Franny” in one sitting.
Thanks to my identification with Franny (plus, I’m sure, the fickle nature of adolescent hormones), my melancholy soon passed. Five days after declaring life’s terrible depressiveness, I was bursting at the seams again. “What a splendid, splendid day,” I gushed to my journal before launching into an account of the Valentine’s Day gift my crush had given me.
The end of junior year passed in a cloud of crush-induced giddiness. With senior year came the ultimate revenge of the nerd: a thick, early letter from Princeton. And my first year of college was the traditional flurry of brand-new stimulations, intellectual, academic, and romantic.
At the beginning of sophomore year, however, I started to feel an all-too-familiar hollowness. I found myself retreating from my friends, skipping classes, rarely phoning home. This time around, I had a more tangible reason for my gloom. I was undergoing a spiritual crisis. Raised in New York’s liberal hotbed, I came to Princeton a registered Democrat and an avowed atheist. Thanks to a class in conservative politics and some new Christian friends, during freshman year I had begun to question the convictions I had once considered rock solid.
I started attending a weekly Bible study and going to church. I read whatever I could find to explain the intricacies of my new religion, from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity to pamphlets Jesus freaks in midtown pressed on me. The more I learned about the message of Christianity, about the forgiveness of sins and the exquisite challenge of neighbor love, the more I felt betrayed by my family for never encouraging me to be religious.
Over winter break of that year, I went to Utah with my family on our annual ski vacation. One of the first nights there, I returned to Franny and Zooey, remembering the comfort it had me in high school. This time, I snatched my morsel of wisdom from “Zooey.” Though I saw even more of myself in Franny than I had in high school, I knew that mere identification was not enough to get me out of this melancholy. I needed a solution this time.
Fortunately, the ending of “Zooey” supplied me with a message I sorely needed. After spending the entirety of his story discussing his sister’s crisis, first with his mother and then with Franny herself, Zooey identifies the root of Franny’s despair: her tendency to be too hard on people. “What I don’t like…is the way you talk about all these people,” Zooey tells his sister, referring to her dismissal of both her peers and professors as maniacally ego-driven. “I mean you don’t just despise what they represent—you despise them. It’s too damn personal, Franny. I mean it.”
Zooey then delivers the speech that blasts Franny out of her depression. Zooey demands that Franny abandon her hyper-criticalness so that she might see the good instead of the bad in her fellow humans. He suggests that she treat everyone as though they were the Fat Lady, an imaginary woman invented by their older brother Seymour. In the final speech, Zooey equates the Fat Lady with Christ:
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.
Curled up in my bed at the Rustler Lodge, I read Zooey’s speech over and over and over. Zooey’s message was exactly what I, ready to retreat from the world, needed to hear. I should not be so hard on my family; I should see the Fat Lady, the Christ, even in my intellectually agnostic parents and brother.
Salinger also picks up on the shame associated with a spiritual quest in a secular society. When Franny tells Lane about her new interest in religion, Lane responds first by ignoring her, then expressing scorn: “You actually believe that stuff, or what?” he demands. I was drawn to Franny and Zooey the second time around because it affirmed the beliefs I was slightly ashamed of having. I was so eager to accept the end of “Zooey” as an affirmation of Christianity, then, because I was desperate to find a literary luminary who found value in Christianity.
In the spring semester of my sophomore year, I presented my testimony to a Christian fellowship. I cited Franny and Zooey as one of the essential texts in my coming to understand Christianity. In a class presentation about Works of Love, I passed out copies of Franny and Zooey’s last pages as a prototypical example of Kierkegaard’s vision of disinterested Christian love.
Still, I felt that my preaching of the Gospel according to J.D. was rather ridiculous. “Zooey,” of course, is anything but a straightforward Christian text. In the pages leading up to Zooey’s show-stopping speech, the characters reference a variety of religious and spiritual texts, from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna to Bhagavad Gita to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I could sense that “Zooey”’s spiritual message is richer and more diverse than a simplistic Christian one.
I began to feel guilty for the way I was treating Franny and Zooey, using it for my own purposes while ignoring Salinger’s project as a whole. I allowed Franny and Zooey to swoop in at the last minute, at the bottom of my despair, to save me. In my first encounter with Franny and Zooey, I only read as long as I saw myself in its pages. The minute I disappeared from the text, I lost interest. My second reading was somehow even worse than the first. I read the entire book, yet didn’t make any effort to understand it. Like a stubborn child, I heard only what I wanted to hear.
Perhaps, though, I am being a bit hard on myself. The dedication page of Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction suggests that Salinger really does wish to place the burden of interpretation on his reader. The dedication reads, “If there is an amateur reader still left in the world—or anybody who just reads and runs—I ask him or her, with untellable affection and gratitude, to split the dedication of this book four ways with my wife and children.” In this dedication, Salinger seems to frown upon the sort of investigative reading I have always believed in. Maybe Salinger’s point is that he has no “point.”
Perhaps Salinger has refused to give his books any message besides “find your own message.” His gives us the tools to find a message, yet leaves it up to us to articulate. As I was doing research for my junior paper, I came upon biography that included an account of Salinger’s visit to Sarah Lawrence College as a guest lecturer: “The longer he sat there the more he decided that, in place of teaching, which required him to ‘label’ writers, what he should do was simply stand up before the class and at the top of his lungs the names—and just the names—of the writers he loved.”