The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye, the only novel of the reclusive J. D. Salinger, is the story of Holden Caulfield, a sixteen-year-old boy who has been dismissed from Pencey Prep, the third time he has failed to meet the standards of a private school. He delays the inevitable confrontation with his parents by running away for a forty-eight hour "vacation" in New York City. A series of encounters with places and people in the city serves to further disillusion Holden and reinforce his conviction that the world is full of phonies. He plans to escape by going West and living alone, but even his little sister Phoebe, the only person with whom Holden can communicate, realizes that her brother is incapable of taking care of himself. When Phoebe reveals her plan to go with him, Holden accepts the futility of his escape plan and goes home.
A focus of controversy since its publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has consistently appeared on lists of banned books. The American Library Association's survey of books censored from 1986 to 1995 found that Salinger's novel frequently topped the list. Just as consistently, however, the novel has appeared on required reading lists for high school and college students. Critical views of The Catcher in the Rye show the same polarization. Some critics have praised its honesty and idiomatic language; others have faulted its self-absorbed hero and unbalanced view of society. Holden Caulfield has been called a twentieth-century Huck Finn, an autobiographical neurotic, an American classic, and a self-destructive nut.
Through the decades, as the controversy has ebbed and flowed, The Catcher in the Rye has remained a favorite with adolescent readers who see their own experience reflected in Holden Caulfield's contempt for the "phoniness" of adult life. The very qualities that lead some parents and other authorities to condemn Salinger's novel—the profanity, the cynicism, the preoccupation with sex—predispose youthful readers to champion it. In Holden, adolescents see the eternal outsider, sickened by the world around him, unable to communicate the emotions that consume him, and aware that his innocence has been irretrievably lost. It is a familiar image to many adolescents. Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller, Jr., in an early essay on The Catcher in the Rye observed that Holden Caulfield is unique among American literary heroes because he both needs to return home and needs to leave home. But these conflicting needs, while they may be unique in an American hero, are typical of adolescents struggling to achieve a separate identity. Holden may be faulted for his self-absorption, but in his consciousness of self, as in his angst, the character is true to adolescent experience.
Even the obscenities and profanities that Holden speaks, a major cause of official objections to the novel, affirm his status as quintessential adolescent. He sees obscene speech as the only valid Page 459 | Top of Article response to the obscene hypocrisies of the profane adult world. The irony, of course, is that Holden himself has already been contaminated by the world he despises. The child of affluent parents, he clearly enjoys the benefits their "phony" world affords him. He spends money on taxi rides and nightclub visits, and even as he condemns lies and fakery, he himself lies and participates in the fakery. He is acquiring the survival skills that will allow him to operate in the fallen adult world, a fact he himself acknowledges: "If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff."
Critics often classify The Catcher in the Rye as a quest story, but Holden's quest, if such it be, is aimless and incomplete. Holden's New York misadventures occur during the Christmas season, a time when Christendom celebrates the birth of a child who became a savior. But the Holy Child has no place in this world where the cross that symbolizes his sacrifice has become merely a prop carried by actors on a Radio City stage. A self-proclaimed atheist, Holden inhabits a world where true transcendence can never be achieved. Yet longing for a heroic role, he dreams of being the "catcher in the rye," of saving "thousands of little kids" from plunging over the cliff into the abyss of adulthood. Ultimately, however, as he comes to realize while watching his little sister Phoebe circling on the carousel in Central Park, children cannot be saved from adulthood. Only the dead like his younger brother Allie are safe. Heroes belong in coherent worlds of shared values and meaningful connections; Holden's world is the waste land, all fragments and dead ends. Would-be heroes like Holden are "crazy mixed-up kids" who end up in California institutions.
The Catcher in the Rye is most frequently compared to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another account of an adolescent male's escape from the confinement of education and civilization. The similarities between the two novels are obvious. The narrator/protagonist in each is a teenage boy who repudiates adult hypocrisies and runs away in search of a less flawed world; both youthful protagonists speak in richly idiomatic language, and both are comic figures whose humor sometimes offers grim truths. But Huck's longing for freedom is undiluted by dreams of saving others, and Huck's world has a duality that Holden's slick society lacks. For Huck, the corruptions on land are balanced by the "free and easy" life on the raft. Huck has the Mississippi; Holden has a duck pond. Huck's abusive father is balanced by the tenderness and concern of Jim; Holden's father is irrelevant, a disembodied payer of bills. Other adult figures who have the potential to nurture Holden through his crisis are mere passing images like the nuns to whom he gives money or phony betrayers like Mr. Antolini who seems to offer Holden compassion and understanding only to make sexual advances to him later. His peers offer Holden no more than do the adults. They too are phonies, like the pseudo-sophisticated Carl Luce and Sally Hayes, or absent, idealized objects like Jane Gallagher.
Nowhere is Holden more clearly a creature of his time than in his inability to connect, to communicate. The Catcher in the Rye is filled with aborted acts of communication—truncated conversations, failed telephone calls, an unconsummated sexual encounter. Most of the things which awaken a sense of connection in Holden are no longer part of the actual world. The precocious Allie who copies Emily Dickinson poems on his baseball glove, the museum mummy, even Ring Lardner and Thomas Hardy, the writers Holden admires and imagines that he would like to call up and talk to—all are dead. In a particularly revealing moment Holden fantasizes life as a deaf-mute, a life that would free him from "useless conversation with any body" and force everyone to leave him alone. Yet this fantasy indicates Holden's lack of self-knowledge, for his isolation would be an act, his deaf-muteness a pretense. He defines alienation as a job in a service station and a beautiful, deaf-mute wife to share his life. Therein lies the pathos of Holden Caulfield. He can neither commit to the inner world and its truths nor celebrate the genuine that exists amid the phoniness of the public world. The Catcher in the Rye, for all its strength, fails as a coming of age story precisely because its protagonist, who is terrified of change, never changes. Mark Twain's Huck Finn sets out for the territory and freedom, James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus experiences his epiphany, T. S. Eliot's Fisher King hears the message of the thunder. J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield can only, as he himself says at the novel's end, "miss everybody."
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