The Catcher in the Rye, a novel by J. D. Salinger

Salinger’s novel, published in 1951, comes in at number 64 on the Modern Library’s List of the 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century.  This bildungsroman story follows the activities of one Holden Caulfield over a three-day period, exploring the ever-present, irrepressibly relevant issue of what it means to be an adolescent.  We were all once teenagers and no doubt most readers of this novel could likely relate personally to some of the experiences Holden describes.  Confusion, angst, alienation, rebellion, identity, belonging – these are the themes this short, but marvelously complex work.

“Mr. Salinger’s rendering of teen-age speech is wonderful: the unconscious humor, the repetitions, the slang and profanity, the emphasis, all are just right. Holden’s mercurial changes of mood, his stubborn refusal to admit his own sensitiveness and emotions, his cheerful disregard of what is sometimes known as reality are typically and heartbreakingly adolescent.

In New York Holden’s nightmarish efforts to escape from himself by liquor, sex, night clubs, movies, sociability—anything and everything–are fruitless. Misadventure piles on misadventure, but he bears it all with a grim cheerfulness and stubborn courage. He is finally saved as a result of his meeting with his little sister Phoebe, like Holden a wonderful creation. She is the single person who supplies and just in time—the affection that Holden needs.

Certainly you’ll look a long time before you’ll meet another youngster like Holden Caulfield, as likable and, in spite of his failings, as sound. And though he’s still not out of the woods entirely, there at the end, still we think he’s going to turn out all right.”

Nash K. Burger – New York Times

The Narrator

For me, the most impressive aspect of “The Catcher in the Rye” is Holden’s first person narrative voice.  It is unique and engaging.  The colloquial language Salinger utilizes to emphasize Holden’s voice is terrific – phony, ‘that killed me,’ flit/flitty, crumby, ‘old Phoebe.’

 “Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right – I’ll admit that.  But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.”

Chapter 2, page 8

The Introduction

‘IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.’

Chapter 1, page 1

The introduction sets up the narrowness of Holden’s story.  He isn’t going to tell us everything we want to know.  He’s not going to tell us much about his family.  We don’t find out until page 38 that his brother Allie has died.  He only alludes to the fact that he is telling his story from a mental hospital (although some reviewers speculate that Holden is writing from hospital where he is being treated for TB).

 Adults vs Kids

Holden struggles with the adult world he sees before him.  He often describes adults as ‘phonies’ and he struggles with what he sees as adult hypocrisy.  His teachers, his parents, the women in the bar, Maurice the pimp, the taxi drivers – it seems like the whole adult world is against him.

“How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t”

Chapter 22, page 172

His most loyal ally is his sister Phoebe, who is still firmly planted in the world of childhood.  The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age story (a bildungsroman novel) in which the protagonist is struggling to face his future.  It is difficult to articulate any specific change in Holden between the beginning and end of the novel, except perhaps he is more sensitive to his own feelings by the end.

‘I’m sorry I told so many people about it.  About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about.  Even old Stradlater and Ackely, for instance.  I think I even miss that goddam Maurice.  It’s funny.  Don’t ever tell anybody anything.  If you do, you start missing everybody.’

Chapter 26, page 214

Throughout the story, Holden is judgmental of everybody, perhaps this section should be titled ‘Holden vs the World.’  He fails to connect with just about every other character in the book except for Phoebe.

Holden’s predicament of being stuck between the two worlds – adulthood and childhood – is a universal experience that defines adolescence.  Holden’s labeling of every adult as a “phony” is an expression of his bewilderment at the complexity of adulthood and his inability to compromise his naïve ideas of the world, conceived and affirmed during his childhood.  He longs for a static world stuck behind glass display cases and explained in neat summaries like those he finds at the Museum of Natural History.  Holden’s multiple social interactions (with his ex-teachers, Carl Luce, the Floridian women, Maurice, Sunny, Sally, Mrs. Morrow) all illuminate his awkwardness and inability to gauge the appropriate tenor, attitude and expectation of adults and adult themes.  Holden protects his ego by labeling these people “phonies” and withdrawing from this incomprehensible adult world.

The Red Hunting Hat

The Red Hunting Hat is a central symbol throughout the book.  Holden wears it when he wants to reconnect with himself and removes it when he is around adults he knows.  He recognizes that he cannot go through adulthood wearing the hat but is not ready to abandon the hat altogether – until he passes it on to Phoebe at the end.

It has also been noted that the hat’s color is the same as that of Phoebe and Allie’s hair.  This congruence is said to signal those times when Holden is reconnecting with his younger siblings and his own childhood.

The Ducks in Central Park

Why is Holden always worried about the ducks in Central Park?

One explanation is that the ducks are aligned with the world of childhood, and so Holden feels protective towards them (as he does towards all children).  He wants to warn the ducks that winter is coming – just as he wants to warn children against becoming phonies/compromising on their principles or honesty when they get older.  Time, as evidenced by the progress of seasons, is a major source of angst for Holden.  He feels that time is forcing him towards an adult world that he doesn’t understand and is uncomfortable in.

That Quote

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know its crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know its crazy.”

Chapter 22, p 173

The title is taken from this quote.  It’s interesting when we learn that Holden has the words of Robert Burn’s poem wrong – it’s ‘can a body meet a body, comin’ through the rye’, not ‘can a body catch a body, comin’ through the rye.’

Closing Remarks

“The Catcher in the Rye” is the second most taught book in US schools (behind Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”).  According to “the Internet,” over 65 million copies have been sold making it the 11th most sold book ever.  I’m not sure what this means.  Is a book automatically a good book because it has sold 65 million copies?  Probably yes, that’s a lot of books.

What do you think?


About 100greatnovels

In 1998 the Modern Library published a list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. This blog is to function as an online book-club to discuss the books included on this list. Please feel free to leave comments regarding your thoughts on the novel examined in each post. PS. Please ignore the Reader's List. This blog focusses on the Board's List (at least for the time being).
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