Every Monday in Books Besides the Bible, Ethan Bartlett considers the value and pleasure of reading for Christians.
When J.D. Salinger died a couple years ago, it made the news for approximately an hour. These days, when I poll a roomful of high-school-educated people, often no one recognizes his name; however, when I mention the title The Catcher in the Rye, there is usually everything from groans to grins of recognition.
This is probably because Catcher is one of those books, the ones commonly taught in high school English classes. And perhaps for good reason: besides being an intricate piece of literature, its protagonist is high-school age, and he is excellent at articulating the sort of alienation, general anger, and attitude of being the only sincere person in a world full of hypocrites that, in my experience of both being a teenager and observing teenagers, is a very common tendency in that particular age group. This passage, narrated by the main character, Holden Caufield, is typical:
Then he said, “I had the privilege of meeting your mother and dad when they had their little chat with Dr. Thurmer some weeks ago. They’re grand people.”
“Yes, they are. They’re very nice.”
Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phony. I could puke every time I hear it.
There are a couple hundred pages of Holden generally hating the world like this. Of course, Holden turns around, in approximately the last sentence of the book, and sees that maybe he’s just as much a phony as any of the people he’s been talking about. But I have a feeling that this flies over most readers’ heads. (I have heard, though I cannot at the moment substantiate, that Salinger came to hate the book; perhaps this structural imbalance is one reason.) Question: do we really need to give teenagers a book which is about exactly how teenagers tend to feel?
Enter Franny and Zooey. A lesser known Salinger novel, the story is made up of two novellas, each named after one of the titular characters, a brother and sister. Franny is a freshman in college—therefore, like Holden, still a teenager—and she experiences a crisis and a worldview similar to Holden’s: everyone seems like a phony, the world seems like a mass of hypocrisy. Franny ends up on the couch at her parents’ place, refusing her mother’s chicken soup, clutching a curious talisman: a classic Russian Orthodox religious text, The Way of a Pilgrim.
This is a mystical text in which a Russian peasant sets out to find a way to literally fulfill Saint Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” He succeeds, at least in theory. Franny’s mother identifies this as the root of Franny’s problems.
In an effort to break Franny out of her funk, Franny’s mother sends in older brother Zooey to try to talk sense into her. Franny, perhaps knowing the likelihood of success any endeavor to reason with a teenager is likely to achieve, refuses at first. When Franny does talk to Zooey, he starts out by berating her; he tells her that she’s having a “tenth-rate nervous breakdown,” because of her “tenth-rate” attempts at religiosity. His diatribe could have been aimed at Christian liberals in Salinger’s own time:
I think you’ve got [Jesus] confused in your own mind with about five or ten other religious personages, and I don’t see how you can go ahead with the Jesus prayer until you know who’s who and what’s what… And you’re constitutionally unable to love or understand a son of God who says a human being, any human being… is more valuable to God than any soft, helpless Easter chick.
However, unlike Catcher, Franny and Zooey does not end with berating. Zooey gives his sister a way out: he tells her the identity of each and every one of those people Franny sees as hypocrites, as phonies: “It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”
So, to sum up: on the one hand, we have The Catcher in the Rye, a long-winded diatribe in which everybody ends up as a hypocrite, even those who point out hypocrisy in others. On the other hand, we have Franny and Zooey, which spends the bulk of its energy showing how to break out of Holden Caufield’s brand of self-righteousness and into a state of humility. If I had an English curriculum with limited room, I know which novel I would give my kids.