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Booklog: The Catcher in the Rye

June 20, 2007

The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger
Read: 6.17.07
Rating: Excellent

This is the fifth or sixth summer in a row that I’ve read The Catcher in the Rye, and that’s in addition to my canonical reading in high-school, so by now it feels a lot like meeting up with a friend I only see once a year: I notice how I’ve changed since the last encounter, and even how the text itself reads differently each time. Many of you likely read this book as a teenager or student, and found yourself identifying with Holden Caulfield in a way that was both exciting and a little frightening. As a result of so many people having this experience, the text has acquired a connotation that I really don’t think it deserves, that of being synonymous with “teenage angst” or some other such foolishness. Those who come to it with a more critical eye tend to realize that Holden, in addition to being a uncertain teenager, is mentally unstable and clearly suffering from heavy depression (don’t forget that he clearly mentions that he is writing from a sanatorium at both the very beginning and very end of the book — something that is easy to forget as he tells his actual story); this reading, The Catcher in the Rye as a chronicle of depression, is, I believe, equally dismissive and unhelpful.

A good exercise when reading The Catcher in the Rye is to distinguish between the things Holden says and does that display signs of depression and those where he is simply unable to cope with someone or something being phony and unbearable. In the latter case, Holden is deconstructing social norms and exposing them for the exercises in affectedness they really are. For example, having to say “Glad to have met you” to someone you’re not at all glad to have met. Most of us are able to do and say things that we know to be phony without any trouble: either because we’re not thinking about it, or because we know that “that’s just what you do.” Any of you who were even mildly rebellious teenagers know that once you start fully understanding why adults act the way they do, it’s hard not to get really upset about it and want to forge into a new way of being.

Further, it’s helpful to think of Holden’s struggles with “phonies” as an example of the trouble we all have — young people especially — of dealing with the problem of “other people.” How do we know what others are thinking? Are the really saying what they mean? Usually, it’s best not to overanalyze, but once you start thinking about motivations and the masquerades that hide them, it’s not hard to cast every action and word into a cynical light. Then there is the problem of trying not to do or say anything phony yourself — and the confusion that results when you do — as you learn how to see yourself in the eyes of another, combined with the rather low opinion of yourself that results, and you have a hell of muddle. No wonder Holden is depressed.

Many of things about himself and the world that Holden does not understand could be easily dismissed by a detached, analytic viewer (not that this would help him feel any better). To take a simple example: it’s not mystery why he necks with girls he considers “terrific phonies,” even after promising himself he won’t do it again — he’s a teenage boy. More meaningfully, his attachment to his sister Phoebe and his life-dream of being “the catcher in the rye” who saves kids from falling off a cliff, is clearly a psychological result of his younger brother Allie dying not too long ago (Holden himself almost seems to recognize this). It wouldn’t be hard to view the entire novel through this lens: Holden is overly attached to childhood and its innocence, and can’t get along in the adult world until he achieves some sort of “closure” about his brother’s death. Fair enough, but this reductionist view — and others similar to it — is not very edifying, and it certainly doesn’t begin to explain why the novel is so incredibly good.

For, as you read, you can’t help but agree with Holden and his observations: surely boys at pep schools are really mean, headmasters do favor rich parents over poor ones, and the way people act when going to see highly-regarded theater is completely absurd. You and I know this, but we don’t take it as hard as Holden, because he’s depressed. Holden’s unreliability and lovability as a narrator are inseparable. Sure, he’s deeply depressed, but he’s also deeply perceptive, and right about the world more often that not. The trouble, obviously, is his reaction to it.

At the end of the book, Holden receives a lecture from his old teacher, Mr. Antolini, in which he encourages Holden to go back to school and become a scholar:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused or frightened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, many of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them — if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.

Indeed. Mr. Antolini’s words may seem a little trite, but they’re probably just the right thing for Holden’s teenage ears. Neither deep depression nor the certainty that everyone is a ruthless phony is a new idea; the truth, as Holden is right on the verge of knowing, is much more complicated, and irreducible. It’s a lesson we could stand to learn, too.

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10 comments

  1. It’s been quite a while since I read Catcher in the Rye (and I had almost no literature in school, so I didn’t get to it till my 20’s or beyond) but the feeling has stuck with me. Holden was, to me, a character who expressed the true feelings that teenagers go through in a way that I’d never read before. I’ve since read some excellent novels geared to young adults, but I think Catcher must have been a book ahead of its time.


  2. I really don’t think Salinger had any intention of gearing this book towards “young adults,” especially not the way that we commonly think of it (as a publishing phenomenon). I think Salinger used a teenage protagonist because it made the story so much more powerful and true, not in an attempt to gain a particular audience.


  3. Maybe a teenager could still relate to children and be wary of adults (while not being an adult himself) — which makes Holden’s age the perfect vantage point for observing what he does.

    I think there’s an element of Holden himself that is a phony — such as necking with girls he considers to be thus. (Or is a phony different from a hypocrite in Holden’s eyes?) That’s what makes him complex and interesting, too.

    A classic, no doubt. It’s great to see this novel standing the test of time.


  4. Gosh, Ted, that’s not what I meant at all.


  5. I completely agree with you that The Catcher in the Rye is not a novel about “teen angst”. I hate it when people see Holden as just another rebellious teen who’s going through a phase or something. The novel and it’s protagonist are much deeper than that.


  6. Sorry, Nancy, if I am overly defensive. I would really like to distance this novel from any of the “teen” or “high school” connotations that it has gathered over the years.


  7. […] typically read Franny and Zooey right after reading The Catcher in the Rye, during the summertime, when I am in a state of mental disarray. I admit that it is often reading […]


  8. I agree Iwith you that The Catcher in the Rye is not a novel about “teen angst”. holden is just talking about all his true feelings that teenages may have. actually, it’s great to see this novel standing the test of time.


  9. I agree with much of what you say, but I will argue that Holden is an extreme version of a depressed teenager. Allthough many shares his oppinions it’s not many that express them to the same extent.


  10. Personally I am one of the people that do not find Holden sympathetic at all. This would not necessarily detract from the value of the book, but it makes it a highly unpleasant read. I agree that it is a good chronicle of a mental unstable teenager, and many of the questions raised are intriguing. However I feel that most of these questions have been dealt with in better ways in other novels, less infused with teen angst.



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