It’s fairly clear, in J.D. Salinger’s “Franny” story, the first fifth or so of
Franny and Zooey, that Franny Glass is rather ill at ease in her visit to the college-town-that-may-be-Princeton and her lunch with boyfriend Lane. But what’s her problem? Why does she head to the ladies’ room for a lengthy cry in mid-meal and then collapse at the end of the story? Apparently Salinger inserted verbiage to eliminate the possibility that Franny found herself dealing with pregnancy. Had a pregnancy explained her actions, “Franny” would emerge as Salinger’s version of “Hills Like White Elephants.” It would be a fine story, but that’s not the issue.
Assuming that Franny’s problem is not her consumption of the olives from both her and Lane’s martinis, we’re left with other clues. Clearly, a reader cannot ignore the spiritual elements, specifically the significance of the Russian book,
The Way of a Pilgrim. With its presentation of the “Jesus Prayer” as a sort of mantra, this book appealed to Salinger through his interest in Eastern, meditative religions. In the Russian book, the pilgrim wanders about “praying without ceasing” by use of this prayer: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
As a Christian reader, my mind is not drawn toward the mid-century popularization of Zen and Transcendental Meditation as much as it is drawn to the tradition from which Franny’s inspiration came. The source of the so-called Jesus Prayer lies in Luke 18, in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The “Jesus Prayer,” then, is not a prayer of Jesus so much as a prayer of a penitent tax collector. Given the two-character nature of “Franny” and the centrality within the story of the Luke 18 account, one wonders if the two characters can be compared effectively with the biblical characters. Certainly Lane has a strong tendency toward self-justification. His interests, from his vanity to his Flaubert paper to his eagerness to make the parties and football game, appear just as venal as those of the Pharisee. Lane, like the Pharisee, is quite impressed with himself.
Franny, on the other hand, recognizes her true nature in the world. Despite an obvious intellect–she is, after all, one of the wunderkind Glass children–Franny focuses not on that brilliance but on her own commonness as a sinner.
Is it too simplistic to suggest that Franny, in embracing a view of herself as a sinner, is moving in the direction of a true Christianity? Lane thinks she is having a breakdown, that she’s being foolish, yet such is the nature of the Christian life, according to the gospels.
We’ll look more closely at this when I get around to completing the study of this volume in “When Zooey Stepped out of the Bath.“