Critical essays on those boys are a goddamn dime a dozen
Narration in Salinger’s Franny
Today we have a guest post bya professor of philosophy at MIT who writes . I enjoy everything I read on Mostly Aesthetics: it always makes me think differently about literature. I’m especially glad Brad chose to write about Franny, an excellent story by J.D. Salinger, of Catcher in the Rye fame. Once you’ve enjoyed this essay, do remember to subscribe to Brad’s Substack.
The next bookclub is on 26th November, 19.00 UK time. We are reading Darwin. Selected Letters and The Origin of Species. For letters, any edition will do, and it’s less essential than Origin.
On November 9th, I am running my final salon in the ‘How to Read a Poem’ series.
Franny is a story about a spiritual crisis. A careful reader who attends to some other of the story’s features, therefore, will fear he’s become a “section man,” one of those blindly over-eager students that Franny herself complains about, who run around the English department “ruining things for people,” who are “so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths.” This warning heard if not heeded, I think it fruitful to inquire into how this particular story is told.
Franny is told, for the most part, in standard third-person omniscient narration. In its first sentence—“Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather”—the omniscience is manifest in its specificity. It is not just cold, it is cold enough for an overcoat. But like an itchy tag on a comfortable sweater, here and there an anomolous moment rakes its jagged edge across your brain. Sometimes specificity is absent; sometimes we are left with only a partial perspective on what is going on.
The lack of specifity is not always puzzling. Early on we read that “Twenty-some” young men are waiting at the train station, and of those, “no more than six or seven” are out on the cold platform. Well how many is it, exactly? Omniscient in “omniscient narration” means all-knowing, so why the coyness? But there is nothing here to get up in arms about. How many? is unanswered because the exact number does not matter.
Other times, the lack of specificity is not in the narration, but in the mind of a character. Lane, Franny’s boyfriend who meets her at the station and takes her to lunch, boasts over their meal about a paper he wrote for a literature class, which the instructor has told him might be publishable. This inspires Franny’s complaints about “section men,” and the conversation begins to turn sour. Franny “found herself looking at Lane as if he were a stranger, or a poster advertising a brand of linoleum, across the aisle of a subway car.” So which is it, is Lane a stranger or a subway advert? But this isn’t a case where the reader is left a little in the dark. Instead, Lane’s appearance to Franny, or her attitude toward him, is itself fuzzy, and either of the precise descriptions—“stranger”; “poster advertising linoleum”—by themselves would only imperfectly covey that appearance and attitude.
But sometimes, when there really is something the reader is left uncertain about, it matters a great deal. As Franny’s lunch with Lane builds towards a crisis, it becomes clearer and clearer that their values and ideals run at right angles. Lane regards a couple of English professors at Franny’s school as “two of the best men in the country...At least they’re poets,” and Franny, dismayed, replies that “they’re not real poets. They’re just people that write poems that get published and anthologized all over the place, but they're not poets.” Then:
She stopped, self-consciously, and put out her cigarette. For several minutes now, she had seemed to be losing color in her face. Suddenly, even her lipstick seemed a shade or two lighter, as though she had just blotted it with a leaf of Kleenex.
Not only, at this moment, are we not told what mental state Franny was in, we are not even told definitely how she looked. She “seemed” to be losing color in her face—but was she? Franny’s internal life, and the way it manifests in how she looks, are the center of the story. Readers don’t care how many people waited for that train; they care intensely about this. A few moments later:
There was a faint glisten of perspiration high on Franny's forehead. It might only have meant that the room was too warm, or that her stomach was upset, or that the Martinis were too potent.
It “might” have meant one of those three things? Well did it? Which one? Or—as the passage implicitly suggests—did it mean something else entirely?
These, however, are not the main questions I want to take up. Instead I’d like to ask to whom it was that Franny’s face seemed to be losing color, and from whose perspective the perspiration “might” have meant that the room was too warm. Certainly not to Lane. He—this is part of the problem—isn’t paying enough attention to her to have taken in these facts. With Lane ruled out, two other hypotheses suggest themselves. Maybe, here and elsewhere, talk about how things “seem,” or what “might” be the case, is talk of how things seem to the narrator, or of what the narrator judges possible. Or, a second suggestion, maybe this language serves, not to create a definite fact about a narrator’s uncertainty, but instead to directly cause uncertainty in us: reading, we are to imagine that we aren’t quite so sure how Franny looks, or what the way she looks means.
I admit to liking neither of these possibilities. Huck Finn has a narrator, a Mississippi boy, and his personality and character are strongly present in the narration. No personality or character is strongly present in the telling of Franny, and not only because none of it is in the first person. On the other hand, when Franny “seemed to be losing color in her face,” I cannot make sense of the thought that she seemed that way to us; we had no prior impression of the color of her face on which to base such a judgment.
One might search around for a third option—maybe “she had seemed to be losing color in her face” means that if someone had been attending to her appearance it would have seemed to that person etc. But another moment in the story makes me think the “narrator’s perspective” hypothesis is the best.
As it becomes unmistakable to Franny that Lane is a spiritually empty windbag, she leaves the table for the ladies’ room, and curls into a ball in one of the stalls:
Then she placed her hands, vertically, over her eyes and pressed the heels hard, as though to paralyze the optic nerve and drown all images into a voidlike black. Her extended fingers, though trembling, or because they were trembling, looked oddly graceful and pretty. She held that tense, almost fetal position for a suspensory moment—then broke down. She cried for fully five minutes.
Normally, to judge that someone’s appearance is graceful, or pretty, one must see for oneself how that person looks. So when we read that Franny’s fingers “looked oddly graceful and pretty,” it’s natural to imagine, not that we somehow know this about her fingers “directly,” without knowing just how they look, but to imagine rather that we take these facts on the testimony of someone better placed to judge them. But this intelligence who can, as we cannot, perceive Franny’s appearance in this fragile moment, is, in virtue of playing that role, the narrator of the story. What then of the objection that Franny is very different from stories with obvious narrators like Huck Finn? Maybe this narrator is effaced, making their presence felt only here and there, and otherwise mostly lurking in the shadows. More important I think is that this story’s narrator, when felt, is no ordinary person, but a sort of angelic presence, hovering sympathetically and sorrowfully over Franny, loving her helplessly.