College-boy Lane Coutell waits for his girlfriend, Franny Glass, to arrive by train. The big football game against Yale is this weekend. He rereads her letter, in which she repeatedly expresses her love for him. Franny arrives, and he asks her about the pea-green book she is carrying. She quickly puts it away and they walk out, with Franny making most of the small talk. Lane tells her the plan to get lunch, and Franny says she's missed him, though she quickly realizes that this is a lie.
In Sickler's, a preferred restaurant of the college intellectuals, Franny and Lane drink martinis. Lane dominates the conversation, boasting about his recent "A" paper that criticized French writer Gustave Flaubert. Franny says he's talking like a "section man" - a graduate student who takes over class when a professor is out, and invariably criticizes and ruins the author the class is studying. She apologizes for her outburst. She says she's tired of people like the section men, or even the famous poets at her college. Lane disputes her, but Franny says that poets are supposed to "leave something beautiful" with the reader, and that the ones at her college only get into your head. Though she says she likes them, she maintains she's "sick of liking peopleI wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect." Looking pale, she excuses herself to the bathroom. Lane pretends to look "attractively bored" for the benefit of the other restaurant patrons.
In the empty restroom, Franny, perspiring and very pale, enters the furthest stall and locks it. She sits down in a cramped position and cries for five minutes. She takes out her green book briefly, then returns it to her bag. She freshens her appearance and walks out of the bathroom looking stunning. She apologizes to Lane for her delay. She says she's not hungry and wants only a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk, which annoys Lane. He orders frog's legs and snails, then tells her about the plans to go to the game in his friend Wally Campbell's car. She finds Wally Campbell to be like everyone else, and rails against conformity for a while.
Their food arrives. Lane tells her he's been worried about her the last few weeks and tells her to eat, but when she looks at her sandwich she becomes nauseated. She says she quit her play and the theatre department. She says acting made her feel like an "egomaniac," and that she's sick of ego. Lane asks if she's afraid of competing. She says she's not, but she's afraid she "will" compete, which is why she quit theatre. She sweats more, and roots through her handbag, bringing out items, to find a tissue. Lane spots her green book and asks what it is. Eventually, she reveals it's called The Way of the Pilgrim, that her religion professor mentioned it, and that she took it out of the library and keeps forgetting to return it. She summarizes the book, which an anonymous 33-year-old Russian peasant wrote in the 19th-century. It starts with the peasant's wanting to know what the Bible's command to "pray incessantly" means. He searches throughout Russia for the answer, and is directed to a religious text called the "Philokalia" which explains an advanced method of prayer. He perfects the method, then continues walking and spreading the word.
Lane says he wants to show Franny his paper on Flaubert. She describes the pilgrim's method of praying, which uses the Jesus Prayer: "'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.'" After repeating the prayer for a long time, she explains, the prayer becomes "self-active" and synchronizes with the person's heartbeat, becoming a truly incessant prayer, and mystically purifies the person's outlook. She relates this feature to other religions whose practitioners repeat their word for "God." Lane is skeptical, and asks if Franny really believes in it. She ignores the question and says she simply finds it a fascinating coincidence that all these religions preach repetition of a mantra. Lane asks what the result is of the prayer, and Franny says one gets to see God.
The waiter takes away Franny's sandwich. Lane criticizes the simplicity of the prayer and their religions. Franny excuses herself to the bathroom. On the way there, she faints by the bar. She awakens five minutes later in the manager's office, dazed. Lane is concerned, and tells her not to worry about making the game when she asks about it. He tells her to rest at the guest house, then says maybe he can find a back staircase to visit her. He tells her he'll have someone get her water, and he'll hail a cab. He leaves, and Franny's lips repetitively form "soundless words."
A first-person narrator picks up the telling of the story, for what he terms a "prose home movie." He calls it a love story. He explains that he learned of the story through discussion with the three characters, all family members. He concludes by revealing that their last name is Glass and that the story will start as the youngest Glass boy reads a letter from his "eldest living brother," Buddy - who is the narrator, and who promises to leave himself "in the third person" for the remainder of the story (though it is still told in first-person narrative form).
Buddy narrates the story, which begins as handsome, 25-year-old successful television actor Zooey Glass rereads a four-year-old letter from Buddy in the bathtub. Zooey began publicly performing at age 7 with his six siblings (not all of whom appeared at the same time) on the long-running children's radio quiz show, "It's a Wise Child." (Buddy interrupts with a footnote, in which he runs through what the other siblings are up to now. The two most important are the eldest, Seymour, who committed suicide in 1948 in Florida, and the second oldest, Buddy, who is a "'writer-in-residence'" at a girls' college in upstate New York, and lives alone in a small house.) The public either despised or worshipped the Glass children. Most consider Seymour the "'best'" performer, while Zooey is second, namely for his "precocious wit."
In the letter, dated Mar. 18, 1951, Buddy tells Zooey he just finished reading a letter from their mother, Bessie, urging him to remove his phone in New York and install one in his house in the country. He tells Zooey to be kinder to Bessie, and admits that her letter really urged him to write Zooey and convince him to get a Ph.D. (in Math) before he dove into acting. Buddy doesn't think Zooey needs a higher degree for job security, and even thinks he would have been a "better-adjusted actor" had he and Seymour not thrown in their heavier literary loves into Zooey's "recommend home reading" when he was young. Buddy is anxious over the prospect of Zooey, a natural-born actor, ending up in the hackneyed, superficial world of movies. He writes that it's three year to the day that Seymour killed himself. He brings up Zen Buddhism, and says he and Seymour were reluctant to educate Zooey in the ways of knowledge until his mind had reached the Zen state of "no-knowledge" - that is, pure consciousness and communion with God, or "satori." Therefore, they educated Franny and Zooey first in the teachings of religious men before literary men. He urges Zooey to act, but to do so with all his "might."