A few years after publishing "The Catcher in the Rye" and introducing the world to Holden Caulfield and his iconic “people hunting hat,” J.D. Salinger turned his attention away from the troubles of an angry high school boy to the troubles of an angry college girl. Salinger published “Franny” in the “New Yorker” in 1955. The short story is about college student and aspiring actress, Franny Glass, who meets up with her boyfriend Lane to attend a weekend football game and ends up suffering both a crisis of faith and a crisis of identity. In 1957, Salinger published a follow up novella called “Zooey” that picked up where Franny’s tale left off, this time from the perspective of her wise-cracking older brother attempting to lift Franny’s spirits while she seeks refuge in their childhood home. These two pieces were later printed together as the single work, "Franny and Zooey," in 1961. However, here I’m going to look only at “Franny,” alone, the way it was originally published and put out in the world, before Franny’s story and breakdown became intertwined and overshadowed by the more “legitimate” spiritual crises of her older brothers.
“Franny” is notable for being Salinger’s only major work with a young woman in the lead. Salinger’s other stories tend to stick to portraying female characters as pure, pre-pubescent children with a wisdom far beyond their years or as vapid, nagging wives and mothers. Sybil from "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Esmé from "For Esme with Love and Squalor" and even sweet Phoebe Caulfield fall into the role of the waifish, innocent sage. Meanwhile, "Bananafish's" Muriel is framed as clueless and shallow for painting her nails and Zooey’s Bessie Glass is brutally demeaned and dismissed as “fat and stupid” by her grown son for daring to disturb him in the bath.
However, Franny Glass is neither the saint or the shrew. She’s a terrified, disillusioned 20-year-old on a desperate search for a greater purpose. Like Holden, one of her greatest concerns is the inauthenticity or phoniness of society. She later confesses quitting her position as a well-respected talented actress in the theatre department because accepting praise for her performance made her feel like “a nasty little egomaniac” and she admits, “I just hated myself.” Women are taught never to compliment themselves and instead seek validation from others (usually men). Instead of saying “Thank you” when a guy compliments us we’ve learned to deflect and diminish with a simple “Really? It’s such a mess this morning. You’re too kind.”
While in men confidence and pride at winning a big basketball game are encouraged, women who like their appearance or openly celebrate a big promotion at work are labeled vain and narcissistic. Holden expresses his frustration through over-confidence and outlandish boasts, such as physically fighting Stradlater and calling everyone at his prep school a bunch of morons. Meanwhile, Franny turns her anger inward, tearing herself down and questioning her own abilities and sense of worth. Their differing responses reflect a common difference between the genders approach to dating:
“When a woman gets rejected by a man she blames herself. When a man gets rejected he blames a woman.”
Despite being the story’s title character, the reader’s first look at Franny is warped and filtered through a letter written to her boyfriend Lane. The letter itself is clearly a calculated attempt by Franny to mask her worries and fulfill the role of sweet, bubbly girlfriend constantly telling him how much she adores him and quickly following up news of her father’s possible illness with “Anyways can’t wait to see you! Till Saturday, my flower!!” Yet, some of Franny and Lane’s imbalanced relationship manages to slip through here, when Franny writes, that if she spells something wrong “kindly overlook it” although she’s been taking his advice to use a dictionary more because she always sounds “so unintelligent and dimwitted when I write to you.” From these first sentences, it’s clear that Lane sees himself as more intelligent than Franny and takes on the duty of patronizingly correcting her mistakes. Here Franny also scolds Lane for never saying that he loves her writing, “I hate strong, silent men.” She also lets slip that she’s beginning to “look down on all poets except Sappho,” the ancient Greek poet who is most famous for her poems about female friendships and romantic relationships.
In the same letter, Franny even quotes a verse of Sappho to Lane she found particularly striking:
Delicate Adonis is dying, what shall we do?
Beat your breasts, maidens, and rend your tunics.”
Her admiration for this particular poem shows her longing for a world where even if the male hero (Adonis) falls short, the women will still join together and be strong.
As the story progresses it becomes clearer that Lane’s interested not in Franny as a person, but in the idea of Franny and what others perceive her as. When he sees her get off the train his first reaction is pride that he’s the only person who truly “knew Franny’s coat.” He views her first as a status symbol draped in raccoon fur rather than his partner. When they’re at the restaurant Lane silently relishes in being in a public place with “a girl who was not only extraordinarily pretty, but so much the better, not to categorically cashmere sweater and flannel skirt.” Not only does this sum up Lane’s opinion on Franny being entirely built on how she appears to the people around them. Similarly Lane’s affection towards her stems from her being “better” than all those “other girls” who he regards as cliché, airhead stereotypes based solely on the way they dress. If Lane Coutell was a real man in 2017, his Tinder bio would read “Ivy League. Future entrepreneur. Sick of bimbos Looking for someone who can actually keep up with me and talk about things that matter like literature and politics. Don’t worry, I’ll pay for dinner.”
Franny catches Lane’s moment of superiority and it causes her to feel extremely “guilty” as she feels she has to play along with the illusion and hide her knowledge of this moment of embarrassing vanity. She has been taught to conform to this vision of the picture-perfect partner. Rather than openly share her inner turmoil she goes to great lengths to hide her emotions and excuses herself to the restroom to cry and lie on the floor. Here, Franny is clinging to the idea that being upset and showing her emotions is wrong and will make her into the awful, crazy girlfriend and that she should only cry in private to spare Lane the embarrassment of dealing with her “hysteria.”
After this fit, Franny washes her face, smooths her hair, and applies a fresh coat of lipstick before returning to the table smiling and looking, according to Salinger, “quite stunning.” As long as she looks beautiful on the outside, her sadness stays unnoticed. Mere moments after Franny returns from the breakdown and once again puts on a cheery demeanor while ordering her food Lane hits her with a clearly irritated sigh before declaring,” A chicken sandwich for God’s sake.”
Lane’s desire to control what Franny eats is not out of any real concern for her health but at the idea of being in a high-class French restaurant and not ordering the “right choice” of frog legs or snails like he chose too. So many women encounter this same lose-lose dilemma on in the dating when they worry that ordering a large dish will make a man think they’re greedy or a pig while ordering a salad may brand them as too high-maintenance. Franny’s irritation at the ridiculous conditions of this arrangement snaps back, “You order what you want […] I can’t work up an appetite just because you want me to.”
Salinger further demonstrates Lane’s ‘super-male” sense of importance as he dominates the entirety of their interactions and treats Franny as a silent, adoring audience of his speech rather than an active participant in the conversation. In a particularly telling passage, Salinger writes, “Lane was speaking now as someone who has been monopolizing the conversion for a good quarter of an hour or so and who believes he has just hit a stride where his voice can do no wrong.” In the sentence immediately following Lane criticizes the character of his advisor by saying he “lacks testicularity,” equating inadequacy to the absence of male genitalia. This demeaning gendered judgment is finally too much for Franny and she breaks her silence by interrupting, “Lacks what?”
The sudden use of her voice throws him both literally and figuratively off balance as he readjusts his position and hastily corrects his phrasing to “masculinity.” Franny refuses to let his sexist declaration go ignored, refuting with “I heard you the first time.”
Towards the end of the story, Franny does make the effort to gain an active standing in the date and changes the topic of conversation to the book she’s been reading called “The Way of the Pilgrim,” about a monk learning to pray without ceasing in order to speak directly with God. The importance of this book is obvious to the reader as Franny’s voice rises in volume and for the first time in the entirety of their interactions she’s shown as passionate and excited about what she’s discussing rather than hesitant or, in her words, “terrible and destructive.”
Unfortunately, Lane spends the majority of her explanation ignoring Franny in favor of playing with his frog legs and complaining that the food is “too garlicy.”
In the final, few pages he does seem to show a brief moment of acknowledgement and asks Franny what would happen if the monk is successful in his quest. Franny starts to answer his question, but the sudden shift in power and autonomy is too much for her to handle and she ends up fainting in the middle of the restaurant and being carried out by both Lane and a male waiter. The final line of the story concludes with Franny, left alone, lying on the floor when “her lips began to move, forming soundless words, and they continued to move.”
While both “Franny” and “Zooey” feature Salinger’s impressive writing and a touching brother/sister bond that still remains vastly underexplored by today’s media, “Franny” still could have been much stronger if Salinger had let it stand on its own. Imagine if rather than following up this bittersweet attempt at connection with 80+ pages of a sage older male figure swooping in to “talk some sense” into this misguided girl and save her from herself, readers were left only with that striking image of the young woman trying desperately to communicate, but being left only with silence.