In the course of reading J. D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey, something struck me as odd about the decade of the 1950’s. Salinger wrote the novel in 1955. He also set the novel in 1955, so the novel takes place in the “present”. When I think of the 1940’s or 1930’s or decades prior, I think of them as historical. When I think of the 1960’s and since, I don’t think of those decades as historical. I think of them as more or less the present. So that leaves the 1950’s: this decade doesn’t seem like either. The decade is in some sort of limbo. I’m sure my age has something to do with this.
This unusual aspect of the 1950’s intertwined itself with the unusual Glass family. Les and Bessie had seven children of which the youngest two are the novel’s title characters. All of the children are exceptionally intelligent. Two of the older children have died – one from World War II and one from suicide. The majority of the story takes place in the family’s New York apartment within the time frame of a few hours. Franny, the youngest, is having a spiritual crisis or nervous breakdown (depending on how the reader wants to look at it). Zooey, Franny’s older brother, seems torn between feeling sorry for his sister and being ticked off with her. He deals with both his sister and his mother with a little bit of tenderness and a whole lot of sarcasm.
The novel’s themes revolve around religion, yet I wouldn’t call this a religious novel. Discussing religion and philosophy along with the falseness and sincerity found in both seems to be the theme. I enjoyed Zooey’s tirade when, fed up with Franny’s issues, he tells her that he doesn’t mind her praying to Jesus – as long as it’s the Jesus in the New Testament, the Jesus who got mad at the sales people in the temple and destroyed their tables, not the Jesus who has been made into St. Francis of Assisi – writing canticles and talking to animals.
The Glass family makes other appearances in Salinger’s work. His genius makes them a real family. The wonderful personalities and character of Franny and Zooey take precedent over the religious conversations. This is truly a novel – not just an essay on religion disguised as fiction.