Franny and Zooey and Rites of Passage

Yesterday, I finished re-reading Franny and Zooey. This is the third or fourth time I’ve read the book, which I found early on in high school. I relate to it the way that a whole slew of folks relate to Catcher in the Rye, which Salinger is of course much better known for.

For those who haven’t raed the book, it follows Franny Glass, the 20-year-old youngest sibling of a large family of kids who spent much of their childhood performing on a radio quiz show called It’s a Wise Child. After reading a book taken from the room of her  beloved eldest brother (who committed suicide several years before the book takes place), she attempts to pray without ceasing. Disillusioned by college, she has a nervous breakdown. The rest of the book consists of the next-oldest sibling, her 25-year-old brother Zooey, talking her out of her breakdown.

I always took more to Franny than to Holden Caulfield. I suspect that I would like him more if I reread Catcher in the Rye now, but when I first read it I was too close in age to him not to find him annoying. Franny was enough older than me that I liked her. True to form, now that I am the same age that she is, I see why Zooey is annoyed by her breakdown even as I have spent much of my time at Emory struggling with the same disillusionment.

In class this semester we talked about the structure of rites of passage. We focused on two models—one from van Gennep, and one from Lincoln. I think it’s interesting how the two Salinger books follow the two models.

Van Gennep‘s three-part structure for rites of passage (separation, liminality, incorporation) works incredibly well for many male initiation rituals. Professors love to use the example of fraternity hazing to illustrate the model, and to van Gennep’s credit it works very well. However, it doesn’t work for a lot of women’s rituals, which often depend on individual biological realities (like when a specific girl begins to menstruate) and focus on the girl’s relationship to her family, rather than her peers.

Lincoln‘s model attempts to find a more universal pattern from women’s rituals. In it, women’s rituals follow the model of seclusion, metamorphosis, and emergence. The woman’s ritual takes place alone or within her family home, rather than with the other girls of the village.

Neither model is universal, and there are plenty of cultures which violate the “correctly”-gendered model or conform to neither, but they are useful frameworks. It wasn’t until this year that I realized that Catcher in the Rye follows van Gennep’s pattern and Franny and Zooey follows Lincoln’s.

It was interesting to have my coursework so directly impact my interpretation of a book that I love. Buddy Glass, the narrator, asks whether the story is a mystical story or a love story, but it is of course also a story about a very American rite of passage. We talk a lot in my anthropology classes about how Americans lack rites of passage, and I think that Salinger shows two very American rites of passage in these books.