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…books, books. Tall cases lined three walls of the room, filled to and beyond capacity. The overflow had been piled in stacks on the floor. There was little space left for walking, and none whatever for pacing.
-J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
As books spill into the room in this scene from Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, the theme of reading spills into most every aspect of the novel. Reading occurs so much, in fact, that there is little room to move within the story without running into the subject. The two main characters, Franny and Zooey Glass, frequently engage in the act of reading. The narrator has pieced together the story by reading the different interpretations provided by the story’s characters. But, this novel is not only intrinsically about the act of reading; it also engages the reader in active reading. As readers of this novel, we become active participants in the reading in order to fill in certain gaps, or indeterminacy, left by the author. As such, reader response criticism provides a means for understanding the use of reading in the novel.
According to Stanley Fish, a major feature of reader response criticism is that “reading is not a matter of discovering what the text means, but a process of experiencing what it does to you” (Eagleton 85). In Franny and Zooey, Franny reads The Way of the Pilgrim, a religious text describing the act of praying incessantly. Because of Franny’s intense desire for enlightenment, she follows the book’s instructions and prays constantly. Intellectually, Franny sees this intense desire for personal satisfaction to be in conflict with her morals. She says, “Just because I’m choosey about what I want – in this case, enlightenment, or peace, instead of money or prestige or fame or any of those things – doesn’t mean I’m not as egotistical and self-seeking as everybody else” (Salinger 148). As a result, Franny has a mental breakdown. Her need for religious answers informs how she reads the text. She is looking for instruction as she reads.
On the other hand, Franny’s brother Zooey, who also reads the work, is not reading for instruction, but merely for information. When Zooey describes the plot of the book to his mother, he says, “The aim of both little books… is supposedly to wake everybody up to the need and benefits of saying the Jesus Prayer incessantly” (Salinger 112). His interpretation is a fairly objective academic response to the book’s agenda. It is obvious that he is not looking for a religious epiphany from the book. By reading it with an academic lens, Zooey experiences a totally different understanding of the text than Franny. This narration supports the reader response concept that words have no meaning until they have been read. Until Franny and Zooey read The Way of the Pilgrim, it was nothing more than black marks on a white page It had no impact on their lives, nothing more than a book in an unused room in a Manhattan apartment. Once read, those black marks conjured enough meaning to contribute to a mental breakdown.
Although words receive meaning once they are read, this meaning is not necessarily a static interpretation. As Terry Eagleton wrote, “The process of reading… is always a dynamic one, a complex movement and unfolding through time” (77). At the opening of the second chapter of Franny and Zooey, we find Zooey in the bathtub, reading a letter from his brother Buddy the morning after Franny’s breakdown. It was a “long, typewritten, four-year old letter that… had obviously been taken out of its envelope and unfolded and refolded… [and] was actually torn in several places” (Salinger 56). Zooey has obviously read and reread this letter a number of times since he received it. According to Lois Tyson, the act of rereading, “results in… [the] revision of our understanding of characters and events” (159) because each time we reread we bring different experiences to our interpretation of the text. In the letter to Zooey, Buddy attempts to explain the reasons he and Seymour, the oldest Glass brother, chose to educate Franny and Zooey the way they did. Buddy wrote, “Dr. Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of pure consciousness – satori – is to be with God before he said, ‘Let there be light.’ Seymour and I thought it might be a good thing to hold back this light from you and Franny… ,the arts, sciences, classics, languages – till you were both able at least to conceive of a state of being where the mind knows the source of all light” (Salinger 65). Franny’s breakdown adds a new dimension to the meaning that Zooey has created from earlier readings of this letter, therefore enabling a new interpretation of the events and characters of the letter. While one can only speculate what meaning Zooey placed on the letter before and after the breakdown, what is significant is the act of Zooey reading, showing that his “initial speculations generate[d] a frame of reference within which to interpret what comes next, but what [came] next may retrospectively transform [his] original understanding” (Eagleton 77).
We find Zooey reading elsewhere in the novel as well. After he fails to talk Franny out of her depression, he leaves her crying in the living room and heads to the room once shared by Buddy and Seymour. There, surrounded by piles of books, he reads quotes written on a wall by his brothers. Salinger describes the reading as “…rather like walking through an emergency station set up in a flood area…” (175). In a way, the quote wall is an emergency station for Zooey, a crisis hotline. After reading a while, he picks up the private phone line in the bedroom and calls Franny, pretending to be Buddy, armed with new information to help make a connection with her.
It is also important to note that Zooey is an actor, and what is an actor first but a professional reader? Reading, then giving meaning to the words, is a large part of what an actor does for a living. Then through rehearsal, an actor’s character becomes more authentic and more believable. Zooey, as an actor, is rehearsing in Buddy and Seymour’s room. His initial reading is a dry run through; Zooey is trying to derive some sort of meaning to pass along to his sister. Then, “with his hands… drooping low over his brow, Zooey sat… for a good twenty minutes” (Salinger 180). During these twenty minutes, Zooey is going over his lines, creating his character before he tries again to reach his sister. Zooey recognizes that Buddy is the one who should be talking to Franny. During his first attempt to talk to Franny, Zooey says, “I’m no damn good for this… Shall I try to get Buddy on the phone?” (Salinger 149). Zooey understands that in order to have an impact on his sister, he has to be more like Buddy. By reading Buddy’s quotes, Zooey can play the part of his brother, and in turn, become “good for this.”
Franny and Zooey are not the only readers in the novel. Their older brother, Buddy, narrates the second section of Franny and Zooey, and also acts as a reader of sorts. In an experiment performed by reader-response theorist David Bleich, he discovered that students writing an “objective” essay would focus on the same elements of the text they would focus on if they were writing a personal response to the text (Tyson 167). So, “…even when we think we’re writing traditional objective’ interpretations of literary texts, the sources of those interpretations lie in the personal responses evoked by the text” (Tyson 167). Buddy received portions of the text “in somewhat harrowingly private settings, by the three player-characters themselves” (Salinger 49). The “three player-characters” are Buddy’s brother, sister, and mother. He would, of course, have some sort of personal response to each of these three storytellers. An objective reading of the text would be impossible, by extension preventing an objective narration. An indication of Buddy’s subjectivity occurs at the very end of the novel. During Zooey’s phone call to Franny, Zooey finally says something that makes a connection with her. In Buddy’s words, it was to Franny “as if all of what little or much wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers… she seemed to know just what to do next,too. She… got into the bed. For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling” (Salinger 201). Without taking the narrator’s personal feelings into account, this ending seems to be a happy one. Franny finds peace, her life can go on. But we must not forget that it was Buddy and Seymour who got Franny into this predicament in the first place with the experimental religious education they implemented on Franny and Zooey. As a brother, Buddy needs to know that Franny found her way out of the breakdown, so he can live without the guilt of her mental demise. Knowing this, a second reading of the ending passage could be interpreted quite differently. We are never told if Franny ever gets out of bed again. Maybe she has slipped further into her breakdown, and the smiling indicates her body is no longer connected with her plaguing mental anguish. Buddy never indicates determinately what has happened with Franny.
To be sure, determinate versus indeterminate meaning is a common theme among reader-response critics. Gaps left by the author force the reader to be an active participant in “constructing hypotheses about the meaning of the text” (Eagleton 76). Eagleton also asserts that “the text itself is really no more than a series of cues’ to the reader…” (76). Buddy is a reader within the text, receiving these cues in the form of conversations and letters with his family in “hideously spaced installments” (Salinger 49). He then uses these different texts, not in a linear fashion, but cumulatively, to “construct the language into meaning.” His most recent understanding of the events is what we read as the novel Franny and Zooey.
As readers, we go through the same process of cumulative meaning-making to understand the novel. “We read backwards and forwards simultaneously, predicting and recollecting” (Eagleton 77). We first learn about the members of the Glass family through a footnote at the beginning of Buddy’s narration. At this point we have no other references with which to understand these characters. As the book unfolds and we learn more about the characters, we must turn back to that footnote to fill in the blanks created by our continued reading of the text. The details of the footnote could have just as easily been included in the text, but by making the passage a footnote, it is quite easy to find and flip back to. This indicates that the author is aware that reading is a “complex movement and unfolding though time” (Eagleton 77) and that he expects us to want to return to this passage. This suggests that stylistically, Salinger is attempting to promote active reading.
As Franny and Zooey unfolds in the minds of its readers, we begin to understand the complexity of the reading in the novel. The characters use reading as a method of understanding the world around them. The narrator uses reading as a method of piecing together an event, and ultimately uses reading to convey his interpretation of the story. As readers, we understand that reading a situation does not just mean comprehending the words on the page, but creating meaning based on these words and the gaps that invite us to create the varied but necessary filler. The novel Franny and Zooey offers us an excellent text by which we can both witness and apply reader-response criticism. Both engagements enrich our understanding of the topic and the power of reading in literature.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Salinger, J.D.. Franny and Zooey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.1999.
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