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Analysis

Beauty

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Franny and Zooey, for all their cynicism, both know how to appreciate beauty and artistry in the world around them. Franny's admiration for great literature – her reaction to the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, for instance – reveals a genuine humility on her part, one we might miss in the midst of all her judgment and complaining. We start to see that what really bothers her about the "section men," the graduate students who can wax purple about literature in front of undergraduates, isn't just their arrogance, but their lack of appreciation for beautiful work. She complains that they "knock" and "ruin" the great writers for their students (Franny.2.23). This is in part Franny's complaint – that the real beauty of literary genius can be missed or destroyed.

Then there's her issue with so-called "poets":

"I know this much, is all," Franny said. "If you're a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you're supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you're talking about don't leave a single, solitary thing beautiful." (Franny.2.51)

For Franny, art is about beauty, not about showing off or being a brainiac. To create beauty, then, an artist or writer has to step away from his own ego, and focus on the work instead of himself. In Franny's opinion, guys like Lane are just too narcissistic to do this, and as a result their work isn't genuinely beautifully – in this particular case, she argues, it isn't even real poetry.

The idea of artistic beauty comes up again in Buddy's letter to his brother Zooey. He worries that Zooey's expectations of the theatre are unreasonably high – that he expects too much artistic beauty from a medium that can not provide it. He writes:

"Have you ever seen a really beautiful production of, say, The Cherry Orchard? Don't say you have. Nobody has. You may have seen "inspired" productions, "competent" productions, but never anything beautiful. Never one where Chekhov's talent is matched, nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy, by every soul onstage. You worry hell out of me, Zooey. […] I know how much you demand from a thing, you little bastard. And I've had the hellish experience of sitting next to you at the theatre. I can so clearly see you demanding something from the performing arts that just isn't residual there. For heaven's sake, be careful." (Zooey.3.5)

Since Franny maintains the same high expectations (for the theatre, for poetry, for college classes), we can apply Buddy's warning to her character as well as to Zooey's. Both the young Glass siblings suffer from their high demands of art and literature – it is one tendency that contributes to their general dislike of people and judgmental attitude towards others.

Yet it's also a tendency that keeps them from sliding too far into pessimism. Zooey's ability to recognize beauty anchors him, as when he looks outside the window while speaking with Franny and sees a dachshund reuniting with its master after a brief separation:

The joy of reunion, for both, was immense. The dachshund gave a little yelp, then cringed forward, shimmying with ecstasy, till his mistress, shouting something at him, stepped hurriedly over the wire guard surrounding the tree and picked him up. She said a number of words of praise to him, in the private argot of the game, then put him down and picked up his leash, and damn it," [Zooey] said, "there are nice things in the world – and I mean nice things. We're all such morons to get so sidetracked." (Zooey.6.83)

Zooey's reaction to this scene is a fundamental part of the advice he will later give Franny over the phone; we'll talk about that in "What's Up With the Ending?" For now, if you're interested in exploring this idea further, spend some time with these passages and let us know what you think:

  • "What? Who doesn't? Exactly what don't I think isn't beautiful?" A minor groundswell sounded behind the shower curtain, as though a rather delinquent porpoise were suddenly at play. "Listen, I don't care what you say about my race, creed, or religion, Fatty, but don't tell me I'm not sensitive to beauty." (Zooey.4.47)

  • Franny took in her breath slightly but continued to hold the phone to her ear. A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as if it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself. (Zooey.8.80).

  • "[Buddy] said that a man should be able to lie at the bottom of a hill with his throat cut, slowly bleeding to death, and if a pretty girl or an old woman should pass by with a beautiful jug balanced perfectly on the top of her head, he should be able to raise himself up on one arm and see the jug safely over the top of the hill." (Zooey.6.87)

  • "He had a theory, Walt, that the religious life, and all the agony that goes with it, is just something God sicks on people who have the gall to accuse Him of having created an ugly world." (Zooey.6.87)

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