Zen and the Art of the Glass Family in J.D. Salinger’s Short Stories

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  • Author Paul Thomson
  • Published April 13, 2010
  • Word count 786

While J.D. Salinger is best known for his 1951 classic The Catcher in the Rye, his own favorite works center on a family of brilliant, reclusive, unorthodox former child prodigies known as the Glasses. (Think Royal Tenenbaums, only with vaudeville performers for parents.) Through these short stories, Salinger not only fleshes out his most cherished creations, but also elaborates on his relationship with Zen Buddhism, which he studied for decades. Following these stories through the years demonstrates a gradual refinement in Salinger’s approach to spirituality, which transitions from being highly physical to highly abstract.

In "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which was first published in 1948, Salinger introduces Seymour Glass, the oldest and most likeable of the Glass siblings. While relaxing on a Florida beach for his honeymoon, Seymour befriends a young girl named Sybil, whom he entertains with jokes, conversation, and good ol’ fashioned frolicking. On their last day together, Seymour tells her a story about a fantastical, greedy creature called a "bananafish" that lives (in a pineapple?) under the sea. As the story goes, these fish swim into holes, stuff themselves silly with bananas until they’re too big to escape, and tragically die of "banana fever." An effective tale for endearing oneself to a four-year old, yes, but the fact that Seymour then goes back to his hotel and shoots himself gives us a bit more pause for thought than if the day ended with, say, a picnic.

While the end of A Perfect Day for Bananafish is undeniably jarring, one interpretation of Seymour’s bananafish story which seems to clarify matters is that it’s an allegory for the rampant post-WWII consumerism to which Seymour is so spiritually opposed. And when Sybil happily exclaims that she does, indeed, see a bananafish in the water,Seymour has an epiphany that he IS the bananafish (goo goo g’joob); realizing that he is just as caught up in the physical world as the next guy, he goes back to his fancy hotel resort to take his own life. What remains open to debate is whether his death represents succumbing to a symbolic banana fever or taking the ultimate stand against the material world by leaving it.

When Franny and Zooey was published in 1961, Salinger’s spiritual interests figured into his writing much more obviously than in Bananafish, but less viscerally. "Franny" chronicles a spiritually-turbulent weekend with Seymour’s youngest sibling, Franny, who, like Seymour, wants to completely redefine her relationship with the physical world. Inspired by a nineteenth-century religious text, Franny loses interest in her studies, her boyfriend, and her basic survival instinct, eventually passing out due to lack of food. This "break" from the physical echoes Seymour’s death some years earlier, though to a much lesser extreme.

In "Zooey," Salinger’s exploration of spirituality becomes still more intangible. After her dramatic fainting spell, Franny returns home in hysterics and refuses to go back to college. Thanks to her older brother Zooey, however, she comes to a place of true clarity: Zooey not only points out her self-righteousness in making a dramatic performance of what should be a deeply personal experience, but also reminds her to appreciate the sanctity of everything around her – including ma’s "consecrated chicken soup" – instead of searching for it in the mountaintops.

By the time Salinger published Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter sand Seymour: an Introduction in 1963, his literary approach to Zen Buddhism had become extremely abstract. "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters" attempts to recount the day of Seymour’s wedding party as narrated by his little brother, Buddy. "Seymour: an Introduction," however, tackles the much more demanding challenge of explaining Seymour himself – not for the reader’s benefit, but for Buddy’s own. In this sense, the act of writing becomes a discovery process for not only Buddy, but also the reader, whose task it is to figure out just what the hell Buddy is talking about.

With criticisms of being pretentious, showy, and "intolerably dull," it’s difficult at first to see how "Seymour: an Introduction" is supposed to convey an advanced level of clarity in the overall spiritual trajectory of the Glass novellas. What some people don’t know, however, is that Salinger is playing with the idea of the Zen koan, a riddle that must be understood spiritually rather than cerebrally (see also: one hand clapping). Just think back on Seymour’s advice that Buddy "try not aiming so much" in a game of marbles; after all, "If you hit when you aim for it, it’ll just be luck." Whether this is a cleverly employed literary strategy or simply a convenient out for bad writing remains a matter of personal interpretation.

Shmoop is an online study guide for Literature, novels like A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Franny and Zooey and many more. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale.

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