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When Zooey Stepped out of the Bathtub

Having just looked into the brief account of Franny Glass’ troubled trip to visit her boyfriend, we can now look at the aftermath of that Saturday. In the much longer portion of
Franny and Zooey
, “Zooey,” we meet, not surprisingly, Franny’s brother, Zooey Glass spends a monstrous chunk of time in the bathroom, forty-four pages out 154 total. The first few of those pages revolve around Zooey’s reading of a years-old letter from his elder brother Buddy. The bulk of them, however, relate a lengthy and somewhat painful conversation between Zooey and his mother, whom he badgers, curses, and treats dismissively.

It’s rather curious, it seems to me, that Zooey would spend so much of his time in the bathroom, or rather that Salinger would feel drawn to relate that time in such extreme detail. Soaking in what is typically the most private room in the house, Zooey paradoxically finds himself attached to others nonetheless. Most people, I would suggest, do not spend their bathtub time reading very old letters. And most would have cut off the apparently unwanted and unwelcome exchange with the mother more promptly.

I mention this odd beginning to the story because I believe it sheds light on the ending. Having returned from her less-than-triumphant visit with her boyfriend, Franny seems to be suffering a breakdown. At least that’s how Zooey and his mother characterize Franny’s state. The problem with this diagnosis, one that has been followed by the majority of critics since the story appeared in 1955, is that it relies almost solely on the vocabulary of psychology, despite its cloaking in the guise of mysticism and Buddhism.

Zooey’s failure to understand his sister and her moment of difficulty underscores his lack of true insight. Despite the precocious intellects of Zooey, and his siblings, their overall level of understanding remains limited. Just as Zooey soaks in a time-worn letter from his brother, everything about his character reaches out in dependence on others. At the story’s close, Zooey phones Franny from within the apartment, pretending to be their elder brother Buddy. What makes Buddy’s advice seem as if it would be more significant than that of Zooey himself? When his ruse is discovered, Zooey shifts his locus of authority to Seymour, the brother who has killed himself.

After being discovered, Zooey advises Franny:

You can say the Jesus Prayer from now till doomsday, but if you don’t realize that theĀ  only thing that counts in the religious life is detachment. I don’t see how you’ll ever even move an inch. Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness.

Clearly, Zooey, for all his supposed independence, for all his acclaim of detachment, seems a very attached character. He remains attached to Buddy, years after an adolescent brother relationship should have transformed into something else. Despite his disdain for his mother, he continues to make his home in his parents’ house. After he fails to convince Franny on his own authority, he quickly attempts to channel the authority of Buddy, of Seymour, and of a rather simplistic, popular view of Buddhism and a “cessation from all hankerings.”

So where does Franny land at the end of this story. Her phone call with Zooey seems to have brought about some peace, yet she simply changes her location and returns to sleep. To suggest that the talented, bright, but ultimately callow Zooey has effected any more of a positive transformation in Franny’s life than did Lane during their Princeton lunch is an overreach.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Maybe It Was the Olive: What Made Franny Collapse? – A Noble Theme linked to this post on December 7, 2011

    […] 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.“ […]

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