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October 14, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Salinger and the Tragedies of the Entitled

A worn paperback version of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye sat on a shelf in the third floor communal kitchen of Waldhäuser Ost.  The abandoned book with dogeared pages and a cover curling at the corners reeked of destiny.  He had informed me that I must read this life altering masterwork.  I examined the book, left by some departing student on the same day that I was to embark on a 4 hour train journey to a new city, where I would arrive too late to check into my flat, where I would check into a hostel and devour the whole book before 24 hours would pass.  Perfect.

Yesterday I finished reading Franny and Zooey and as I was nearing the end I realized that, while there are discernibly universal themes, this book, as with The Catcher in the Rye was about the perceived trials and tribulations of entitled, upper or upper middle class, white Americans.

I found both novels to be engaging, I pored over Salinger’s language, and as so many others have, I could relate to the characters and their dilemmas.  Oh, what dilemmas.  I think it is even more the case in Franny and Zooey but these are the dilemmas of the young and affluent, those who are afforded fine educations and the time and resources to have breakdowns and personal crises, rendered immobile by internal existential debates and confusion over their perception of self or their role in society.

Coming from a solid middle class background, having received a fine k-12 education and an above average college education from a private institution, I can, of course, relate to these tragedies of the entitled.  Those of us who are not truly worried about affording food or housing can afford to spend copious amounts of time ruminating on the authenticity of our peers, the sincerity of ideas, the value of the opinions of this or that intellectual, theology and philosophy and the goddamn stars in the sky.  I don’t mean to imply that those lacking this financial comfort don’t have these roving thoughts of great depth, they just don’t have the luxury of doing so in such a casual manner.

Franny or Holden could have breakdowns and drop out of or get kicked out of school, they could go on long train journeys home or to the city and they could spend days on end exploring their personal crises and the depths of their minds and they could sob for countless hours or drink and hire prostitutes – whatever they wanted.  They could check out of reality for days or weeks and when their minds are finally at ease, when they are again at peace with their internal demons, they could start where they left off.  Franny could easily go back to school and resume acting.  Holden could begin school again and could eventually become a financially stable and upstanding citizen.

Someone lower class?  Lower middle class?  They couldn’t afford to be so frivolous about things.  The less money a person has, the more every dollar is worth to that person.  To throw away a semester of school is a huge loss!  To spend days on end without working or dealing with one’s responsibilities could mean a huge loss of income, it could mean having trouble keeping a roof over one’s head or food on one’s table.  I won’t even try to imply that people of all socio-economic classes might have breakdowns, but while some young, white, rich kid can have a breakdown in the comfort of their or their parents’ home, someone with less money available might very well end up shivering on the streets.

Holden Caulfield is a hero to many, not in the same way as he was a hero to himself in the novel, but I know a number of people who see Holden to be some literary kindred spirit.  The same might be said of Franny, I could imagine fellow college alumni commiserating with Franny and her crisis.  At the same time that I can relate, I rather hate myself for it, for being so comfortable, for having it so easy that I recognize myself in fictional, moneyed, tragic youth when I want to, like Franny, be able to empathize with the poor, simple pilgrim.  Now go ahead and imagine that I am a character in one of Salinger’s fabled unpublished works as you read my verbose and damning commentary about protagonists whose lives and thought processes parallel my own and imagine me sitting at my desk, biting my lip as I realize the loop I’ve found myself in.

In any case, my favorite line from Franny and Zooey is this:

“You’d better get busy, though, buddy. The goddam sands run out on you every time you turn around.  I know what I’m talking about.  You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.”

That’s from Zooey’s lecture of Franny, which is, frankly, most of the Zooey portion of the book.  It’s near the very end, when he finally breaks through, when he provides her with advice or imparts some wisdom that she has been seeking or needing all along, it seems.

Who is your literary hero or to which literary figure do you most relate?

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