ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 10 - J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Chapter 1. Forming a Literary Argument: Advice for Paper Writing [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: In light of the fact that I have just sent you paper topics, my lecture today is going to do two things. It is going to give you a way into Franny and Zooey, but it’s going to actually give you more than a way into it. It is really going to give you a whole packaged reading of Franny and Zooey. We have just the one day on this novel, and what I’m going to be doing for you is modeling the way literary critics use evidence to advance an argument. It’s useful to you when you think about writing a paper to remember, if it’s been a long time since you’ve written an English paper, or even if it isn’t a long time since you’ve written an English paper, that the facts that we, literary critics, and you, writers on literature, the facts that we deal with are the details of the text itself.
You may have noticed that I am very fond of reading aloud to you from these novels. I’m very fond of reading out passages. I do it a lot. Why do I do it? Well, there are two reasons, one because I want you to hear literary art. Literary art is a verbal art, and I think too often we only read it silently; probably not since you were children that people read to you so much. So, to get a sense of that, you have to have it in your ear and feel the sound and the rhythm and the quality, the timbre, the expression of the voices that we have in these novels. Our writer for today thinks so highly of that capacity of literature to embody the human voice that he imagines a whole religious world around him. That’s going to be the gist of my argument today. But then, there is a second, sort of, less mystical reason, and that’s that these are the facts of a literary argument, these words that I give to you. It’s like, if you’re in an astronomy lecture, they’re going to give you some facts about the composition of a planet, or its atmosphere, or whatever. Those are the facts for that field. For this field, these are the facts.
So, in your papers, if you find yourself writing and you get to the end of a page and you look back, you scan back over your page, and you see that there are no quotation marks, you are not using any of the facts of the novel to produce your argument, to support your claims. So, that’s like the eye test, the glance test. Are you supporting your claims? If you have very few quotations, chances are you are not. So, think of this lecture, as I go through it, as a kind of model. Pay attention to what I’m doing in using these textual bits and pieces and putting them together and making claims for them. I do it every week. It just so happens that this argument is more closed, more settled, in my own mind. It’s less of an opening argument than it is something that I want to convince you of. So, there’s a reason for that and that is that I’m writing about this novel. It’s in the introduction to a book that I’m writing about the literature of this period, and so it’s very present to my mind as a sort of piece of a larger argument about religion and the American novel in this period, so that’s what I’m giving you.
When you approach any novel to make an argument about it, if you want to be ambitious, the first thing to think about is well, what’s obvious about the novel? What can you observe at first glance about its style, about its form, about its setting, about its character, about its presuppositions? In Franny and Zooey, what did you notice? Tell me what you noticed, at first bat, if any of you have read it. What did you notice about the novel? Uh huh.
Student: It doesn’t move around very much. It just stays in a limited space.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Absolutely. Confined settings, very confined settings, absolutely. Yes. What else? Yes.
Student: A lot of dialog?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Lots of dialog, yes. What else? Uh huh.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. There’s a back story. You can feel that back story to the novel. Yeah. What else? What else did you notice? Yes.
Student: There’s a lot of focus on like little motions that people do, like picking up cigarettes and dropping things.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. A lot of attention to physical detail and physical movement, and that’s connected to this point about confined spaces. It’s the movement of bodies within confined spaces that really preoccupies this novel. What about the style of the novel? You talked about dialog. Is there anything else about the style that you noticed? Yes.
Student: There’s a lot of italics.
Professor Amy Hungerford: A lot of italics. What does that connote to you?
Student: Trying to convey feeling.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. Absolutely. A lot of emphasis, a lot of variation in tone, and the italics are part of the representation of that. Yeah. What else? Yes.
Student: A lot of the dialog seems to be combative. There’s arguing between two people.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. This is a book about arguments, absolutely. What are they arguing about most of the time? All right. Well, that’s where I will pick up. Oh, Sarah. Do you want to say?
Student: There are a lot of abstract ideas.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. They are talking about abstract intellectual ideas, often religious or philosophical ones, and that, plus its setting: I hope you noticed the sort of New Havenish setting of Franny’s breakdown. We’re told that Lane isn’t exactly a Yale man, but he sure looks a lot like a Yale English major, dare I say, such an unpleasant character, and so, so pompous.
What you do, when you write a paper or try to advance an argument, is try to write an argument that will attend to all those things that you guys just said, that you take the obvious things, and when you craft an argument, the best thing, the most ambitious thing, to do is to come up with something where, in the end, you can say something about those major aspects. You don’t have to do it in the paper, but it should be an argument that has something to say back to those obvious things. Why is the style this way? Why is the plot working this way? Why are these particular characters behaving in this way? Why use those confined spaces?
So, my argument today is going to try to have something to say back to all those obvious aspects that you pointed out so rightly. But I’m going to start from a much more pointed and local question. And this is the other thing that a good short paper especially does, is that you don’t get at all that big stuff by, kind of, taking it head on. You have to come down to the facts that I was talking about, the bits of text, the text itself, the words that author chose; that’s where you begin. And part of the genius of a strong paper is choosing the place in the text to begin that pointed analysis.
Chapter 2. The Theological Theme: Specific Doctrine versus Syncretic Religion [00:08:25]
So, my choice for this is that odd introduction in-between the two stories, and this is on 48 and 49. This is, we come to find out, Buddy, Zooey’s older brother, narrating the story, and Buddy gives us a little preamble telling us how the real characters in the story, the real people who are then characters in his story, how they felt about the story and what their objections to it were (and this is on 48). We find out that Franny objects to the story’s distribution in the world or the movie, the prose home movie as Buddy calls it, because it shows her blowing her nose a lot. His mother, Bessie, objects because it shows her in her housecoat. But Zooey has a more substantive objection.
And then, he speaks back to Zooey. He says, “Well, I’m going to still distribute my story. I still want to tell this story,” and he does it in a kind of roundabout way. And this is on page 49.
What Buddy does, in this passage, is set up this opposition between his own reading of his story and Zooey’s. Now, why are we given these objections? I think it’s to give us a dynamic sense of the family conversation going on between them, but it also addresses one of those obvious things. They talk a lot, as Sarah said, they talk a lot about abstract questions, and this puts the meaning of the story in that abstract register. Is it a love story, or is it a religious story, a mystifying story? Which is it? I am going to argue that it’s both. And I’m going to advance that argument by going straight to the theological question that Zooey is so intent on solving when Franny is having her breakdown in the living room. So, just to review: Franny has her breakdown when she comes into what I suspect is New Haven to attend the Yale-Harvard football game with her boyfriend, Lane. So, Franny when she sees Lane, affects great enthusiasm, and so on, but this is what we hear about Lane from the narrator. This is on page 11.
Franny is disgusted by his pomposity. This experience, combined with her experience in a religion seminar with this man, Professor Tupper, at school, has convinced herself that the world is superficial, that it’s impossible to find anything meaningful in the academic discussion of these pseudo-intellectual problems, the “testicularity” of one writer or another. And Lane’s engagement with literature, specifically, is all about his ego inflation. So, he can’t wait to tell Franny that the professor said he should try to publish it, and then my favorite thing: he wants to read it to her over the football weekend. “Hey, come, let’s read my English essay.” Hello.
Student: Hi. Can I interrupt? We have a couple of singing valentines. Can we deliver them now?
Professor Amy Hungerford: No, you can’t. Sorry.
Student: Thank you.
Professor Amy Hungerford: And I’m worried about e-mail! Talk about pricking my pomposity. All right. So, she starts saying the Jesus prayer, which is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Now, she has taken this prayer from a book called The Way of the Pilgrim. It’s a Russian Orthodox religious classic, a very old text, and it depicts the life of a pilgrim. And we get the summary of this a little bit in the novel, as Franny explains it, or tries to explain it, to Lane, who is entirely uninterested. It is about a man who tries to take seriously the Bible’s injunction to pray without ceasing, and the prayer for Franny becomes a kind of mantra. She is trying to say it over and over again as she goes about in this world that is so disappointing to her, feels so false to her. And so, finally, the strain of trying to hold out this kind of religious awareness in the face of Lane and his English paper is just too much, and she faints.
Now, Zooey has a big problem with her use of this prayer, and this is what gives the book that sort of combative tone that we were talking about a little earlier that somebody mentioned. So, if you look on page 169, my question now is, in my argument: What is Zooey’s critique of Franny’s use of the prayer? What constitutes that critique? What’s wrong with it? So, on 169, he says to Franny as she’s sniveling on the couch:
And then, this argument goes on for a couple of pages, and I’m just going to pick up the end of it here, on the bottom of 171. He is explaining who Jesus was.
So, Zooey’s critique is that Franny is not being specific in her use of the prayer. She’s paying no attention to who Jesus was and what it means to actually pray to that figure. But, to anyone paying attention to the other things that Zooey says and the other things that he does in this novel, this is kind of odd, and it’s hard to square. So, my next kind of question is: How does that very doctrinally specific understanding of the Jesus prayer relate to the whole religious education that Buddy and Seymour gave him, and that he seems to be thinking so hard about as he reads that letter in the bathtub? The letter in the bathtub tells us about that education, and let’s look on 61. Sorry. That’s not exactly the right page. This is 65. I’m sorry. In this letter Buddy explains to Zooey what he and Seymour have been trying to do.
So, the religious education that Zooey’s response to Franny comes out of, is precisely not a doctrinally specific Christian education. Rather, it’s something more like a Buddhist tradition, a syncretic, mystical tradition. The idea is that there is some state of being with God. Knowledge, all the arts and sciences, literature, all of the religious writings of the world are manifestations of that voice that at its origin is God saying, “Let there be light.” It’s the voice of creation. Seymour and Buddy want Franny and Zooey to rest at that origin, undistracted by the manifestations of the creation, and know some kind of consciousness of God in that place. So, Zooey, pretty much, subscribes to these tenets, and you can see it especially on page 175, when he goes into his brother’s old room.
Now, let me explain a detail that I think is important, but I think a little lost to us in today’s world of technology. There’s a phone in Buddy and Seymour’s old room that is a private internal line, and it just goes from one room to another in the apartment; it’s not an outside phone line. And what’s interesting about it, and what indicates its importance to Buddy, is that Bessie gets on about him getting a phone where he’s teaching in upstate New York; he’s teaching writing as a visiting writer at a college in upstate New York. And Bessie, his mother, keeps saying, “Well, why won’t you get a phone, Buddy? You’re paying to maintain this interior line in our apartment, and yet you won’t get a phone.” For Buddy, the phone that’s within the family compound, so to speak, family apartment, is the more important line of communication. So, when Zooey goes upstairs to use that phone, it’s freighted with all the significance that Buddy has put upon it. But there’s a whole ritual involved in Zooey’s entrance into this place. This is on 175.
So, why does he do this? What’s the meaning of this little detail of Zooey’s appearance? Well, one thing that a literary argument can do is take something small like this and try to give an account for it, so that’s what I’m going to do. He’s venerating the room that Seymour and Buddy occupied. He’s covering his head in a traditional religious fashion, so in order to enter this holy place he covers his head. (The cigar? I don’t have an account of that. You guys figure that out. That’s the other nice thing about literary arguments. There are always little details that they don’t account for, and that’s the loose thread that you can pull to make your own.) And so, what does he find when he goes in to this holy space? Well, he finds two panels of beaver board, on 178, 179, and they have the quotations that Seymour and Buddy have collected from all their favorite religious, philosophical, mystical, literary reading, and I’d like you just to think about one of them. So this is the bottom of 178. This is from Sri Rama Krishna.
This is, I think one, of the best examples of that syncretic view of religion, that basically all worshippers are worshipping the same god. They may do it in different forms; they may make mistakes; they may be mistaken about where God resides. But, in this view, God is so powerful and so transcendent that God will know the heart of the worshipper. So, if you apply that back to Franny, why does Zooey have this difficulty? Why does he have this difficulty in the specificity of her prayer? What is it that is bothering him? Well, I think you begin to get an answer to this tension between specific doctrine and syncretic religion when Zooey gets to the subject of acting, which is what this second attempt at speaking to Franny, this time over the phone, is concerned with. There is a detail here of course that Zooey, in making a second attempt to converse with Franny about this, impersonates his brother, Buddy, on the phone. Now I’m just going to leave that observation, remind you of that. I have a way to account for that, but it’s going to take to the end of my argument to do that, so I’m going to argue that that’s significant, but I’m not going to talk about why it’s significant yet.
Chapter 3. Structures of Drama [00:29:06]
But let’s look at that theology of acting. This is on page 198. This is coming towards the climax of their conversation. Part of what’s been bothering Franny is her frustration with acting, and that’s one of the things that Lane is so surprised she has given up; it was the only thing she was passionate about. And we know–from reading Buddy’s letter over Zooey’s shoulder in the bathtub–we know that Zooey had similar concerns about his own acting career, his own commitment to acting that Buddy tried to persuade him out of.
Zooey has this understanding of the cosmos that suggests that strong, specific human desires actually change the course of cosmic futures. So somewhere, maybe in pre-incarnational time before Franny became Franny, she wanted to be an actress. The religious thing Zooey says is to inhabit that, to honor that, to follow up on the results of that prior desiring. But why is it acting? Why specifically acting and why this weird comment at the end, “What could be prettier?” What does prettiness have to do with this? Well, if you look at the description, for instance, of Zooey’s face, there’s a beautiful description of how his face is beautiful, in what way his face is beautiful. We know that Franny is an attractive young woman. We know that she worries about beauty, and especially in poetry. When she’s trying to explain what’s wrong, part of what’s wrong is that when she learns poetry in the classroom none of it seems beautiful to her; it all seems like some other kind of production, not the production of beauty. So prettiness, beauty, the aesthetic is at the heart of the spiritual practice that Zooey is urging upon Franny, the spiritual practice of acting.
And I would remind you, looking back to that passage on page 65 and into the 66, that specifically among the figures that Buddy mentions, the religious and literary figures, we find Shakespeare. And I think Shakespeare in this train of figures represents the literary that is also the dramatic. So, in our tradition Shakespeare is the literary name above all others. It’s important for Salinger that Shakespeare was a dramatist. It’s important for this novel that Shakespeare was a dramatist, not just because Zooey wants Franny to inhabit acting fully as her desire and as her religious practice as opposed to saying the Jesus prayer. Acting has a deeper relation to the novel and here’s where we get back to that question of being in closed spaces and the lack of movement.
If you think about this novel, it has the structures of drama. It takes place in small rooms. If you begin to think about it, you can almost see the set changes: in the diner, on the train station. That’s about the most open place, on the train platform. That’s about the most open place we see. In the diner, in the apartment: all you do in the apartment is move from one room to another. These are dramatic spaces. Moreover, the bathroom: completely a dramatic space. It even has a curtain hiding Zooey from his mother. Acting becomes a religious practice for much more than Franny, not just for Franny and for Zooey ‘cause Zooey’s an actor too. It’s a religious practice for the novel itself. And that, I would suggest to you, is where we can begin to bring some of those obvious things: the prevalence of dialog, those enclosed spaces, the tone, the exaggerated tone, the somewhat histrionic quality, the combativeness of that conversation, its sheer style. These are great talkers!
Chapter 4. Religion and Love: The Performance of Human Connection [00:35:08]
But, I would suggest to you, Salinger is trying to balance something very carefully, that relates back to this question of doctrine versus syncretism in the religious sphere of the novel, in the religious thematic material of the novel. And, for this, I’d like to look at the very end of the novel. Zooey finally suggests that it’s attention to the audience that makes an actor really a special actor, a religious actor, and he points back to advice that Buddy gave him about–sorry, that Seymour had given him–about performing on a radio show. So, they were all radio show whiz kids, and one day Zooey had not wanted to shine his shoes and says–this is on page 200–that:
Now, why the Fat Lady? It’s this mythical, incredibly humanly embodied– whenever you see a fat lady in a novel, one of the first things you want to ask is: why does that person need to be excessively embodied? That’s what fatness is in a novel like this. It’s excessive embodiment, the human. That’s what this woman represents, the human. Connect to the human audience; respect the human audience. Act for them, to them. Don’t act as if they are just some bunch of Philistines out there who can’t appreciate your art. And then he says to Franny:
This seems like a completely Christian answer to Zooey’s problem, and we’re back on the horns of that dilemma. Is this a syncretic religious vision, or is it a Christian one? But look what follows. This is not the last word.
The dial tone is that state of awareness of the divine that Buddy speaks of when he says- when he speaks of being with God before God said, “Let there be light.” Zooey’s voice breaking that dial tone in the beginning in his phone call, and then the resumption of it afterwards, that dial tone encases Zooey’s voice, so that what Zooey says to her is one of the rays of light of God’s creation, one of those things, like Shakespeare, that is part of the whole created world, but what Franny can tune into, after hearing his voice, is that very essential divine sound, meaningless sound. And so, this is how Salinger balances the syncretic, the sort of empty mysticism of Seymour and Buddy, with the embodied, doctrinal, specific insistence that we see from Zooey, from the insistence on human specificity, the Fat Lady, the very material human fleshly person. Salinger’s own novel performs in this way, and that’s how you would want to think about moments like on the bottom of 180. This is describing the bedroom of Seymour and Buddy as Zooey walks in.
And then if you flip back to–let’s see–172 describing Zooey’s sweaty shirt, “His shirt was, in the familiar phrase, wringing wet.” And there are lots of moments like this, self-conscious moments of style. So, “in the familiar phrase, ‘wringing wet,’” he’s saying, “I’m about to use a cliché. Here it is. There it is.” He says someone with a flair for cocktail party conversation, a witticism, would say this. He gives it to us, but he frames it as an affectation of style. So, what Salinger, I think, shows us is that affectation, without something like love, is just affectation, and that’s what Lane represents. That’s the affectation of literature without any human connection. That’s why when he talks on and on, it’s as if Franny isn’t even there listening to him. He’s been going on a quarter hour, and he’s just hitting his stride. Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Bessie: they all try to speak directly to each other. The family language is what makes them very human; they embody this very specific family language.
And so, I would argue to you that Salinger imagines literature as a performance of this kind, a performance of a language of family love that is nevertheless also an aesthetic language. And I think, actually, probably the best image of that is in Seymour’s diary. When Zooey sits down to make that phone call, he opens up Seymour’s diary and he sees Seymour’s account of his birthday celebration, where the family had put on a vaudeville show right in their living room. Remember, his parents are vaudevillians. And that description, which I won’t read just because we’re running out of time, it’s on 181 and 182. You can look at it yourself. It’s brimming with pleasure and love. This is why Buddy really can’t insist that Zooey is wrong about this being a religious novel, because being a religious novel and being a love story are finally for Salinger the same thing. It’s the performance of human connection. That’s the phone line; that’s conversation; that’s letters. The performance of family conversation is like acting, and that is why Zooey impersonates Buddy; he’s acting. But Franny can hear the specific voice, and this is when you know that Franny is not just a sort of empty air head. She may be mistaken about who she’s praying to in the Jesus prayer, but she damn well knows the timbre of her brother’s voice and his particularity of speech. And so, when he tries to imitate Buddy, she finds him out very quickly. And this is when you know that Franny really does benefit from Seymour and Buddy’s religious education in the same way that Zooey has.
And so, if we step back for a minute now from my reading, there are a couple of things I want to say. First of all, I hope you can see, using that as a model, how I went from big claims about the novel into specificity to support those claims. That’s the structure of any good literary argument. The attention moves from the very small to the large and back again. There is a kind of rhythm to that, that folds in those obvious parts of the novel to a more thematic set of concerns, in this case about the religious philosophy of this novel. So, as you think about writing papers, go through that two-step process of thinking about the large picture of what a novel is doing as a piece of literary art, and then thinking about a focused set of concerns. And, in the final development of your paper, making sure that those two can relate to one another.
The second thing I want to say is less about paper writing, and more about the trajectory of this course and what we’re seeing in common between these novels. So, you can read this very closely to On the Road. If Dean cared for “nothing but for everything in principle,” you could say, conversely, that Salinger cares for everything in particular, and in principle, nothingness. It’s nothingness that is the mystical state rather than everythingness. And it’s interesting to think about whether those two are really opposites. I think these novels imagined them to be opposites, but it’s something for you to think about, about whether they really are. So, Zooey’s specificity is the specificity of doctrine, but it’s also the specificity and more importantly the specificity of person. So that’s the everything that he cares about, person. I will stop there, and please bring both On the Road and Franny and Zooey to section this week. And, by the way, one last thing: If you’ve been sketchy about your section attendance, I suggest that you try to pull up your socks and go. We will be talking about papers in the section. It will be helpful to you, and it will also give you a chance to talk about these books, so please do go.
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