By Ara Welch
It is the consensus of most critics that Seymour Glass is the most important character and the leader of the Glass family. This is a point that is obvious from the stories that Salinger has written about the Glass family. Seymour is looked up to and revered by all the children in the family and is his mothers “favorite, most intricately calibrated, her kindest son”(Franny 89). When catastrophe strikes in Franny and Zooey, the only person Franny wants to talk to is Seymour. Why is Seymour the most important person in the Glass family?
Seymour is the eldest child. Therefore, all will come after him. In a sense, nothing new can be done after Seymour has done it. All that is left is to imitate and learn from the child genius. This is what all the Glass children seem to do. In Franny and Zooey, we learn that Seymour and Buddy educated all of the children. Together, the eldest boys of the Glass family taught their siblings literature, philosophy, and religion.
Seymour was also looked up to and relied upon by the children of his family. In Seymour: an Introduction, we learn that Seymour and Buddy were both active in taking care of their younger siblings but there was a slight difference in the reactions of the children to each of them. Buddy says:
When Seymour told one of the twins …to take off his or her rubbers on coming into
the apartment, each and all of them knew he mostly mean that the floor would get
tracked up if they didn’t and that Bessie would have to get out the mop. When I told
them to take off their rubbers, they knew I mostly meant that people who didn’t were
This is an important difference because it shows how both Buddy and Seymour were leaders. Seymour was a leader because the children idolized him. Buddy was a leader because he wanted to be, even though it was not as accepted. Also, Buddy is a leader because he is naturally responsible and does what he is told. The main difference between the children’s reactions to the two is that of an equal versus a parent. Buddy sounds like a parent but Seymour sounds like an equal.
Seymour is also the resident problem solver. We see the evidence of this in Seymour when Buddy tells a story about his younger brother Waker. It was late on the night of Walt and Waker’s birthday when Seymour and Buddy came upon a fight in the living room. Apparently the young Waker had given away his new birthday present to a boy in the park. His parents were incensed that Waker had given it away just because the boy had asked for it. When it becomes clear that the argument will not be solved in this way, Seymour steps in and Buddy says “… and I knew, from experience, that peace in our living room was about to be restored, however miraculously”(240).
The final reason why Seymour is considered the main character of the Glass family narrative is that he continues to leave his mark on his family. As the eldest child Seymour has affected everyone in his family. His suicide is their greatest tragedy. In Franny and Zooey, we clearly see the evidence.
Throughout the bathroom scene between Zooey and Bessie, we see much of the effects of Seymour’s suicide on his mother. “She was wearing her usual at-home vesture-- what her son Buddy… called her pre-notification-of-death uniform”(73).
Later, we hear from Zooey a description of her eyes that fully shows the effect of her son’s death:
Where once, a few years earlier, her eyes alone could break the news… that two of
her sons were dead…where once Bessie Glass's eyes alone could report these
facts, with an eloquence and a seeming passion for detail that neither her husband nor
any of her adult surviving children could bear to look at, let alone take in, now… she
was apt to use this same terrible Celtic equipment to break the news… that the new
delivery boy hadn't brought the leg of lamb in time for dinner or that some remote
Hollywood starlet's marriage was on the rocks. (Franny 89-90)
Bessie wears the effects of her son’s death constantly.
Bessie is not the only one that shows the effect of Seymour’s death in Franny and Zooey. Franny is also quite obviously affected. While away at school, Franny has been having an identity crisis. She tries to cope with this problem by reading two books from Seymour’s collection. These two books are deeply imbedded in spirituality and contain what Franny thinks will be her salvation, but without Seymour as a guide, she becomes lost. The result of this is a collapse on her family’s couch where she refuses to eat and rarely speaks.
Although Bessie and Franny are the only members of the family that readily expose their loss, there are more who suffer. In Seymour, we get more then a glimpse into Buddy’s suffering. He has struggled daily since Seymour’s suicide and uses his writing to cope. Seymour is really a character study on Buddy. As Buddy writes about his brother, he reveals more and more about himself and his personal struggle in life. We know that just the writing of stories about his brother affects him physically when he breaks into a sweat after writing about the time that his brother gave him advice on shooting marbles (237).
There are quite a few Glass family members left to suffer the loss of Seymour but none show it as readily or as often as the above three. In Franny and Zooey, Bessie says that Les lives in the past. He wants the past to come back so he can hear all of his children on the radio again (83). Zooey hides his feelings of loss under the angry surface. He says he hates his two eldest brothers for making him a freak with the education they pushed on him (138). His loss is masked with resentment for his elder brothers. Of Walt and Waker nothing can be said as Walt died in the war and Waker is not present in any story because he has gone off to be a missionary. Boo Boo isn’t around much and so we have no real evidence as to her feelings.
Though Seymour was a leader, problem solver, and left a lasting mark on his family he is not the most important character of the Glass Family, he can’t be. He does not have the characteristics of a leader. Buddy says of Seymour in Seymour “He was our blue-striped unicorn, our double-lensed burning glass, our consultant genius, our portable conscience, our supercargo, and our one full poet…he was also our rather notorious ‘mystic’ and ‘unbalanced type’ ”(124). One example of Seymour’s mysticism, even at a young age, is given to us in Seymour. In this story Seymour, Buddy, and a neighborhood child are playing marbles. When Buddy is having trouble knocking the other child’s marble off the curve Seymour advises him not to aim. When Buddy tries to understand what Seymour is saying to him Seymour replies “If you hit him when you aim it’ll just be luck…”(236). Buddy really wants to understand what Seymour is saying so that he can take his advice but Seymour doesn’t realize that, to Buddy, his advice is incomprehensible and frustrating. This shows an aspect of Seymour that makes him unable to be a leader. If he cannot recognize when his advice makes no sense and cannot better explain himself, then he is not capable of leading.
Buddy also says of Seymour that he “very frequently behaves like a fool, even an imbecile” (Seymour 127). This is proven mainly in Raise High where Seymour does not even show up at his own wedding. We also see evidence of this trait in A Perfect Day for Bananafish. The phone conversation between Muriel and her mother is filled with points in time that Seymour has acted unreliably. The “funny business with the trees”, the “business with the window”, “Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away” and “What he did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda” are all examples of Seymour’s unreliable behavior (Nine Stories 6). Granted that these behaviors could be chalked up to his impending premeditated suicide, but they are also evidence foolish behavior showing through.
The final reason that Seymour cannot be the main character and leader of the Glass family is his death in 1948. The Glass stories span the years of 1942 to 1959. This means that Seymour was only an active character for the first seven years (see appendix). As such, the bulk of the Glass narrative takes place sans Seymour. If Seymour is the main character and the head of the Glass family then he is only that until 1948, when he steps out of the picture.
The stories are not about Seymour. They would not have happened without his death but they are not about him. In fact, Lyle Glazier says, “…Seymour proves to have been a catalyst, someone who changes other people and makes them active,” not the most important character, but without his death none of the subsequent stories could follow.
As a catalyst, the story of Seymour’s death gets the Glass narrative started. This is the end of Seymour’s real involvement in the Glass family stories. Seymour is the beginning, not the main character. The single most important character in the Glass family narrative is Buddy. Salinger devoted all of Seymour, the last of the Glass stories, to him and yet critics still aren’t getting this message. So many critics have focused their attention on Bananafish and the character of Seymour that they have missed the point completely. Buddy is the character on which they should focus. The evidence is clearly in the texts.
First of all Buddy acts as the spokesperson for his family on several occasions. In Raise High, Buddy is the only member of Seymour’s family to attend his wedding (10). Not only does he represent his family at the ceremony, but also he becomes the spokesperson for Seymour and his integrity. Throughout the story, Buddy stands up for Seymour or the entire family no less than eleven times and in nearly as many different ways. He does this by not acknowledging certain comments, calmly denying unrealistic rumors, and, in the end, he all but shouts in defense of his brother. I believe that the clumsiness with which Buddy takes up his position signifies that this is the first time he has taken on this role. The story Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters takes place very early in the Glass family narrative and I believe that this is the first time that it becomes obvious that the family needs a leader and that Seymour isn’t or can’t be it. As the stories go on, Buddy becomes more adept at his position but I do not think he finds himself altogether suited for it because of his own daily struggle with the grief of his loss. Even so, Buddy continues to act as the spokesperson for his family. The other example of this is that Buddy travels alone to pick up Seymour’s body (Franny 62). That is a large responsibility and a good signifier of Buddy’s position as representative of his family but it is not the only proof.
Buddy is also a very influential person in the family. He is called upon for many much smaller tasks as the life of the narrative continues. The main instances of this occur in Franny. In this story it is obvious that Zooey and Bessie both greatly rely on Buddy. The story opens with Zooey in the bathtub reading a four-year-old letter from Buddy about what Zooey should do with his life. The letter was written at the behest of Bessie who hopes that Buddy will persuade Zooey to get his Ph D. Zooey quiet obviously depends on Buddy because he has carried his letter around for four years and it shows the wear and tear of a well-read letter.
Another example of Bessie’s reliance on Buddy is how distraught she gets when she cannot get a hold of him, his school, or his neighbors (Franny 78). One of the best examples is when Bessie says “The one person who is supposed to know about all this funny business” in reference to Franny’s collapse on the couch and the spiritual books she has been reading (Franny 84). This shows how Bessie is relying on Buddy to understand and be able to take care of Franny’s problem.
The final example of just how influential Buddy is to this family is the tactic Zooey turns to after he has failed to help Franny see the solution to her problem. Zooey is not seen as a very companionable or reasonable person. Bessie says to Zooey that he intimidates people and if he likes someone he does “ all the talking and nobody can even get a word in edgewise” (98-99). This shows up in Zooey’s conversation with Franny. He never seems to get anywhere because he keeps making Franny cry. Eventually he gives up and goes into Buddy and Seymour’s old room and calls the house phone from it. When Bessie answers, he pretends to be Buddy. As Buddy, Zooey has much better luck getting Franny to talk to him even though she eventually sees through his guise. As Buddy, he was able to get her to talk because Buddy is more patient, kind, and willing to listen.
Now that we know that Buddy is the main character of the Glass family stories it is important to see why this is important to know. Why does it matter that critics have always focused on Seymour instead of Buddy? Why does it matter that they were wrong? The importance is simply this: Salinger intended Buddy to be the main character of his stories. The reason? Salinger and Buddy are very nearly one and the same.
It is well known that Buddy has claimed authorship of all of the Glass family stories: A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction, as well as Teddy (not a Glass Family story). Why would Salinger put Buddy’s name to these works?
One reason is clear. Buddy is Salinger’s storyteller for the Glass family. Through Buddy we know of the rest of his family because Buddy is our primary source of information about them. Buddy is his filter. The word filter here simply means a way of seeing the characters through Buddy, through Salinger. If an event takes place in front of Zooey and Buddy is telling about it, then we have the event filtered through Zooey, Buddy, and Salinger. This happens because we have the event, let’s use Franny’s breakdown on the couch, seen through Zooey’s eyes, as told by Buddy, who was created by Salinger. Why has Salinger done this?
First, I want to compare this situation to a similar construct in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This story is also filled with filters. The character Marlowe tells the story inside the frame story. One of the people in his audience, an unnamed, unspecified person, is the narrator of the frame story (Conrad). There are many reasons why Conrad chose to write his story in this manner yet critics don’t all agree on any one best explanation. Some say that Conrad was distancing himself from the content of racial abuse in order to portray a clear picture of the circumstances. Others say that Conrad was doing just the opposite. Chinua Achebe, noted author and critic, contends, “Conrad was a bloody racist”(Richter 328). His proof is that Marlowe is very much like Conrad; in fact they have the same occupation and have had a similar trip into the Congo. He has basically said that Conrad is only trying to create an artificial distance between him and the character so that he can allow his true feelings about “niggers” to come through without being condemned as a racist. This is, in a way, what Salinger has done with Buddy.
Buddy has become a way for Salinger to prove that these events are real. It lends him credibility because the audience can feel Buddy’s constant, insistent, presence. Buddy is immediate to all the stories because he intimately knows each of the characters. This simultaneously shuts the true author out and yet brings him closer. Sometimes this can make a reader feel uncomfortable. Donald P. Costello says “… Buddy’s very existence- as a brother to the family at hand- allows Salinger to increase his ‘nervous involvement’” (134). This is exactly what you feel while reading Seymour. You begin to feel the nervousness and the lack of distance in the author. Why would Salinger intentionally allow us to feel his presence?
I believe that Salinger’s presence in his stories began accidentally. When reading his work, many people and critics naturally associate Salinger to Seymour. This is not an outstanding error. I believe that if there is one character that is most like Salinger perceives himself to be it is Seymour. However, I also believe that Buddy is the man that Salinger wishes to be. Buddy is fairly well adjusted, he is balanced, and he has accepted his position in life. He has found a way to balance his siblings’ idealism with existence in the real world. This is the majority of the Glass family problems. They were raised with Seymour’s standards which, according to Lyle Glazier, “ are too high for anyone, even himself, to live by…”(248) and so they struggle to reconcile these standards with reality. This is exactly what Franny and Zooey are struggling with in Franny. Their standards are so high that they are always disappointed and always will be unless they can find some way to live at peace with the world and not compromise their standards. This is what Buddy has discovered.
Buddy is the person that Salinger wants us all to learn from. He exists to teach us a lesson. This is why he is the family storyteller. He is our teacher, our example, and our leader. What is the lesson we are to learn from him? Maybe only Salinger knows that for certain but I believe Salinger would have us each search out our own “pieces of holy ground”. He would have us all find our one true thing we are to do, even if it is only to go to teach in a small classroom with less than average writers, as is Buddy’s holy ground, or to live alone and write for only yourself, as is Salinger’s holy ground. He would have us all admit to ourselves what it is we are supposed to do and go out and do it instead of forever complaining and searching for better. Through Buddy, Salinger is trying to give us his version of the meaning of life. The ultimate message: Find your holy ground, there lies happiness and truth.
© Ara Welch