Author: JD Salinger
Genre: Classics, Fiction
My Rating: 4 out of 5
The Catcher in the Rye seems to be one of “those” books that is on all of the typical reading lists: high school must-reads, timeless classics, cultural icons. The tale of Holden Caulfield is familiar to most because of the novel’s notoriety: the troubled youth who finds himself expelled from (yet another) school and spends a few days gallivanting around New York City before fessing up to his parents. Even if you haven’t read the story, you’ve heard of it. The novel’s controversial themes of a teenage boy using strong language and encountering risqué characters (read as: prostitute) made it the focus of scorn among parents and placed the book on yet another popular list: the banned books.
Going into reading The Catcher in the Rye, I wasn’t sure what to expect. From what I had heard or read before, people seem to have strong reactions to the book. But when my experience with the novel was over, I didn’t feel too strongly one way or the other. After finishing The Catcher in the Rye, I felt exhausted, as if I had just made the whirlwind tour of New York City right alongside Holden Caulfield.
Contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, I did not find Holden unlikeable or even hateable. I don’t think the key takeaway from any novel should be whether or not you like the protagonist. And I don’t think that the reader of The Catcher in the Rye is supposed to decide whether Holden behaved well and should be his or her friend by the end of the book. Novels should not be dismissed because a protagonist has a series of flaws. In many cases, those flaws are what create the central conflict or are what the author is trying to draw our attention to in order to make a point.
So what point is Salinger making in The Catcher in the Rye? I’m sure there are a number of messages scattered throughout, and each reader will interpret them differently. One of the key takeaways for me was that Holden does not represent the adolescent experience as a whole. Holden is far too complex a character for that. I challenge the reader to look beyond his use of rough language and his propensity to dismiss his peers as “stupid” or “morons”. I contend that there is much more to Holden and that Salinger engineered Holden to act and speak the way he did with intention.
Holden speaks as if he has been through more than just typical teenage angst. We’re led to think that he’s a troublemaker who distances himself from others. He’s on his third or fourth school (he keeps getting kicked out or failing out), and as the novel opens, he has just failed out of his latest school. So the reader’s initial reaction may be to dismiss him as a kid who doesn’t want to apply himself (as his former teacher, Mr Antolini, later implies). But have you stopped to consider exactly what could cause teenager to go through what he has with school? Or why he would be so rough and judgmental with his peers? Holden is clearly unable to relate with anyone his age. He can’t seem to fit in, and he can’t seem to form any lasting connections with anyone. He talks like an adult and feels as if he is above his peers or simply can’t relate to them. But when he is around adults, he is equally lost and can’t relate or express himself effectively.
On the surface, Holden seems to end up in bad situations that reflect poorly on his character. But if you take a nonjudgmental look at him, he actually gets himself into some odd scenarios out of awkwardness or bad luck. However, he always seems to end up getting out of the situations with integrity. Holden is not a hateful person (he gives money to the nuns he meets during his train station breakfast). He is not a womanizer (he winds up with a prostitute in his hotel room, but only really wants to have someone to talk to). He is not hurtful to family (he clearly loves his siblings and deeply misses his brother Allie who is dead).
Holden’s journey around New York City does not strike me as that of a rebellious teenager out looking for trouble. He feels alone and knows that with his recent failure to stay in school, he’ll have more consequences instead of support and guidance from his parents. Unable to cope with the thought of dealing with this, he seeks to escape the pain for a few days and make a go of it on his own. Striving to navigate the town as adult-like as he can, he is still unable to relate to the people he encounters.
Holden’s story is that of an adolescent, but one that is compounded with the concept of what it is like to grow up after suffering trauma and loss. Holden is clearly not over the death of his brother (he still talks to him from time to time). He also insinuates at one point, quite subtly, that he has been the victim of sexual molestation in the past (when Mr. Antolini is petting him on the head while he sleeps, Holden wakes up and runs from the apartment, saying that whenever adults do that he feels weird, and it’s happened at least several times before).
I walked away from The Catcher in the Rye with feelings of empathy and sadness for Holden Caulfield. With all he has gone through and all he is trying to grapple with, he ends up feeling alone. Countless times throughout the novel, Holden points out how lonely he is. This is often implied as well as he contemplates making calls to friends and family at all hours of the day and night, trying to meet up with old acquaintances, and forcing conversations with random people including bartenders, nuns, and elevator operators. All Holden seems to want is someone to relate to and appease his loneliness. And at the end of the novel, we’re left hanging as to whether Holden is able to turn things around, whether his parents finally step up and help him instead of shipping him off to another boarding school.
Holden’s explanation of what he thinks the catcher in the rye really is was quite touching. While his sister corrects him (he has the lines of the song wrong), he tells her what the lyrics meant to him the way he thought they went. As the catcher in the rye, he would be able to catch, or save, the other children in the rye from jumping over a cliff. Holden didn’t have anyone to catch him when it felt like his life was going over time after time. The fact that he wants to try to save other kids from feeling like he did is touching. Throughout the book, he talks about how innocent kids are, especially his sister, and you get the sense that he does not have that innocence but wishes he had been able to hang onto it longer than he did.
Overall, I think the book had a great tone to it. I loved the descriptions of things that were woven into the narrative, such as the “vomity-looking chair” in the hotel lobby. While I didn’t have a visceral reaction to the book, I’m certainly glad that I took the time to read it and to get to know Holden.