J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has become, since its publication, an enduring classic of American literature. The novel is a favorite because of its humor, its mordant criticism of American middle-class society and its values, and the skill with which Salinger captures colloquial speech and vocabulary. The Catcher in the Rye, ironically enough, has received some criticism over the years because of its rough language, which Holden Caulfield cites to denounce. The novel’s story is told in retrospect by the main character, Holden, apparently while staying in a psychiatric hospital in California.
What Holden tells is the story of his disenchantment with his life and the direction it is taking him. Throughout the novel, Holden speaks of his loneliness and depression; the story of a few days in his life indicates how sad and lonely his search for moral values is in a society in which he finds them sorely lacking. As the novel begins, Holden has been expelled, immediately before Christmas, from an exclusive preparatory school in Pennsylvania. He knows his parents will be angry with him, so he decides to spend a few days in New York City before going home. In New York, Holden endures several adventures before explaining to his only real friend, his sister, Phoebe, just what it is he believes in. This discovery of some moral identity does not, however, save Holden from hospitalization.
From the beginning of the novel, readers see Holden as the champion of the downtrodden: children, for example (whom he sees as essentially innocent, fragile, and uncomplicated), and those who have been persecuted by others. At the same time, Holden shows no patience for hypocrisy and self-delusion (except his own; readers need to keep in mind that the narrator is institutionalized), as seen in any number of his acquaintances. Holden’s idealism does not spare even his own older brother, D. B., whom Holden accuses of prostituting his writing talent as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Holden admires courage, simplicity, and authenticity. He is preoccupied with the lack of justice in life, a point that leads him to defend a girl’s honor in a fight with his Pencey roommate, Ward Stradlater, and results in another beating in New York, when Holden refuses to be cheated by a pandering hotel elevator operator. Moreover, Holden is devastated by the death of his younger brother, Allie, and it turns out that one of Holden’s heroes is a former schoolmate named James Castle, who commits suicide rather than contradict his beliefs. In a well-known passage late in the novel, Holden sees obscene graffiti on the walls of Phoebe’s school. He is enraged that someone would affront children in this way, and he manages to efface one set of obscenities. Later, however, he finds more such graffiti and depressedly comes to the conclusion that one can never erase all obscene scribblings from the walls of the world.
Salinger’s novel takes its title from two key episodes that involve children. The first of these is Holden’s chance observation of a little boy, who, with his parents, is strolling along a city street. Evidently, the happy boy is singing to himself, humming a song Holden calls “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Holden is impressed with the fact that the boy is simply enjoying his own music, pleasing only himself in naïve artistic integrity.
Much later, when Holden spends an evening with Phoebe, he defends himself against his sister’s charge of moral bankruptcy by indirectly alluding to the little boy. Holden tells Phoebe that he would like to be a “catcher in the rye,” a man who watches over children, protecting them from falling from a cliff while they play. Holden’s fantasy elaborates his obsession with innocence and his perhaps surprisingly traditional moral code.
It is important to realize that Holden’s intention of making a new life for himself in the West places Holden Caulfield in a tradition of American literature in which young people seek out a better life away from the corruptions of civilization. Such characters seek to realize the American Dream and the ideals of justice, purity, and self-definition on the country’s frontiers, away from cities. Unfortunately, Holden’s move westward takes him only to a mental hospital; one wonders if this development is cruel irony or, perhaps, a real start on a new life for Holden.
“The Catcher in the Rye”—a novel by Jerome D. Salinger, published in 1951—is one of the most brilliant novels in American literature of the 20th century. It describes the delicate inner world of a 17-year-old teenager, Holden Caulfield, who constantly reflects on the reality that surrounds him. “The Catcher in the Rye” was translated into almost all languages of the world, and has had a continuing impact on the minds of both adults and teenagers.
The novel starts from Holden’s expulsion from the Pencey Prep School for failing exams in almost all of his classes, except English. This is not the first time Holden has got kicked out of a school, but this time he has also quarreled with virtually everyone there. He decides to return to New York, where his parents live, but at some point he realizes that he cannot tell them that he was expelled. Thus, he checks into a hotel, planning to stay there for some time.
Holden finds it difficult both to live in this world, and to live outside of it. Trying to dispel his bad mood, he goes to a night club, but quickly gets bored and tired of it, so he returns to his hotel room. The lift operator, who also works as a souteneur, offers him to buy a prostitute. Holden agrees; when they both enter the room, Holden changes his mind, and the girl calls the souteneur: he punches Holden and extorts 10 dollars from him for his inaction.
Next morning, Holden arranges a date with Sally Hayes, a girl whom he dated in the past. Together they go to the theater to watch the play that Sally wanted to see. And once again, Holden gets disappointed: he finds the play foolish, and the actors, whom everyone admires, seem factitious to him. After the play, he and Sally go to skate, but since they both skate poorly, they decide to take a table instead. Holden tells Sally about the feelings of disappointment that overwhelm him in relation to the reality surrounding him; he keeps listing the aspects of life that he “hates,” and offers Sally to leave the city and settle down somewhere in Massachusetts, but then it turns out that Sally does not share his views. He mocks her, and after quarreling they break up.
After getting drunk with an acquaintance, Holden decides to visit his sister, Phoebe, who, as he says, is the greatest girl in the world. They discuss her school life, and then she asks him, what he is going to do with his life. Holden answers that all that he wants is to be the catcher in the rye. He describes how little children would be playing in the rye field, located on a high cliff; his task would be to catch those of them who gets too close to the edge, thus saving them from falling down. Then, willing to avoid meeting with parents and after borrowing some money prom Phoebe, Holden leaves.
He goes to Mr. Antolini’s, his former literature teacher’s residence. Mr. Antolini and his wife sympathize with Holden, and try to give him some advice, but he is too exhausted to delve into their meaning. He falls asleep; in the middle of the night he suddenly awakens, because he feels that Mr. Antolini is palming his forehead. Holden suspects his teacher in bad intentions, and escapes; later he understands that his suspicions were unreasonable, and becomes even more depressed.
Holden decides to leave to the West. He sends Phoebe a note, in which he asks her to come to the rendezvous, because he wants to give her back the money that he borrowed. Phoebe comes with packed suitcases—she wants to go with her brother, and Holden is extremely touched. For some moment, Phoebe starts to behave just like Holden, claiming that she got tired of everything, and Holden suddenly accepts the more responsible and mature point of view, for some time forgetting about his denial of everything around him. He dissuades Phoebe to leave, and together they go to the zoo; Phoebe rides the carousel, and Holden watches her with admiration.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print.
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