When middle schoolers first encountered Holden Caulfield, one of our favorite antiheroes, in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, it's often an important moment. It's refreshing and eye-opening to encounter a young misanthrope who recognizes just how phoney people can be. Holden Caulfield’s musings and misadventures have come to symbolize teenage rebellion and disaffection, and the loss of innocence, themes that are prominent throughout Salinger’s work.
While Catcher in the Rye is Salinger’s most celebrated and well-known book, Franny and Zooey, a novella about the brilliant but tortured Glass family, is a close second. Divided into two stories, Franny and Zooey follows the near-mental breakdown of Franny, the youngest Glass child, and the series of conversations that ensue. Though it’s fair to criticize the book for being somewhat self-indulgent, the classic contains hidden nuggets of important advice. Here are the five life lessons that Franny and Zooey has to teach.
There’s no denying the brilliance of the Glass family. All seven of its “extra-precocious” children make appearances on the It’s A Wise Child radio show at young ages, and demonstrate a genius that drives them to their individual — and often secluded — corners of the world. There’s also no denying that their smarts don’t exactly make them happy. Both Franny and Zooey bemoan the fact that they demand too much of the world. They cannot bear the mundane and the accepted and the conventional, nor can they bear the phoniness and inauthenticity of the people around them. Their intelligence and intense self-awareness not only make them hate most everything (Zooey can barely bring himself to converse with most people), but also, especially in Franny’s case, hate themselves. As one of the brothers, Buddy, tells Zooey, cleverness can be a permanent affliction.
One of the reasons that Franny drops out of college and breaks down is because she just can’t stand the people she meets. She’s come to see most of her professors and classmates as pretentious, and college itself as, "just one more dopey, inane place in the world." But, as Zooey tells her, there’s no point in taking it personally. You can despise what people represent, but not the people themselves. In Zooey's words, "If you’re going to go to war against the System, just do your shooting like a nice, intelligent girl — because the enemy’s there, and not because you don’t like his hairdo or his goddam neck-tie.” Fixating on people’s annoying little habits won’t get you anywhere, so we should avoid getting sidetracked, and referring "every goddam thing that happens right back to our lousy little egos."
In addition to quitting college, Franny also decides to quit her one passion, theater, because she's encountering too much ego, and not enough genius or real beauty. In a speech echoing the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, Zooey again admonishes Franny, telling her that the most important thing is to be detached, and to act, regardless of the outcome: "Somewhere along the line — in one damn incarnation or another, if you like — you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. … The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act."
In the same speech, Zooey also tells Franny that there’s no point in concerning yourself with your audience, or other people’s standards. Instead, he suggests that Franny should only concern herself with her own ideals, saying, "you raved and you bitched when you came home about the stupidity of audiences. The goddam 'unskilled laughter' coming from the fifth row. And that's right, that's right — God knows it’s depressing. I'm not saying it isn't. But that’s none of your business, really. That's none of your business, Franny. An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."
Franny and Zooey ends with a simple, yet satisfying revelation: for all the hatred of phonies and unintelligent audiences, and for all the talk of religious figures, philosophy, and enlightenment, the most sacred things can be found right at home, and right in front of you. As Zooey says, "if it’s the religious life you want, you ought to know right now that you're missing out on every single goddam religious action that’s going on around this house. You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup — which is the only kind of chicken soup Bessie ever brings to anybody around this madhouse.”
Zooey further seals this lesson with the metaphor of the Fat Lady. Both Franny and Zooey have, on separate occasions, been told by their eldest brother, Seymour, that they should perform their best for the Fat Lady. Given no explanation of who or what the Fat Lady is, Franny and Zooey come up with imaginary Fat Ladies who are old, cancerous, and ugly. Yet Zooey comes to realize that everyone is the Fat Lady. There is no need to paralyze yourself searching for an exalted figure to follow or believe in. If the image of the ugly Fat Lady on her porch gets you going, maybe that's all you need.