An Introduction to ‘The Catcher in the Rye’

 

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This novel, first published on this day, 16th July in 1951, by the enigmatic J. D. Salinger, belongs to a category of fiction made popular by writers as diverse as Dickens and Joyce.  It is Bildungsroman, or novel about upbringing and education – a novel of maturation.  The heroes of novels of this type are invariably young people or children seeking to find their identities and roles in the big bad world.  Nineteenth-century examples are David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1861), both by Charles Dickens.  The most famous twentieth-century example is James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916).  Probably the most famous example from American fiction before Catcher in the Rye was the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Many of these novels go far beyond the treatment of the educational development of the central figure, and concern themselves with profound spiritual and moral experiences.

 The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the efforts of an adolescent American to relate to a grown-up world that he finds deeply flawed and fundamentally unsympathetic.  The central figure, Holden Caulfield, leaves his boarding school and spends a weekend in New York City.  Here he finds himself alone in what he sees as a grown-up world of corruption, unkindness and hypocrisy.  The main theme of the novel is Holden’s resistance to growing up into this kind of world, which, as he sees it, undermines youthful innocence and integrity.  The novel has no real plot.  It consists mainly of the observations of Holden on his experiences, particularly on the ‘phoniness’ of those he encounters.  His attempt to reconcile himself to the values of the adult world is a failure.  He retreats from this failure into mental illness, and writes his story while under psychiatric treatment.

Resistance to loss of innocence

The title of the novel is a glance at Holden’s dream of protecting other, younger children from the curse of maturity, of saving such innocents before the world corrupts them.  One of Robert Burns’s most famous songs has the line, ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’, Holden has misheard the words and thinks the line should go, ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’.  He uses the mistaken version as a slogan for his own dream-activity.  He will catch the innocent children who play in the ryefield because they are in danger of falling over the unseen edge of a cliff.  His vision of his saving role is pathetic in its futility:

 ‘I thought it was “If a body catch a body”,’ I said.  ‘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 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 it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.  I know it’s crazy.’

 An uncaring adult world

Part of Holden’s depression arises from his awareness of himself as an innocent abroad in a world of phoney values, a world which, like Holden himself, needs love but does not know where to find it.  It is, in many of its manifestations, a world that believes that it can get on without love, or even without decency.  What passes for love in the adult world through which he moves is little better than selfish exploitation.  Most of those with whom he comes in contact are crudely dismissive of him and his concerns (the taxi-drivers, for example), try to exploit him for money, like the offensive pimp in the hotel, or seem ready to abuse him sexually, like Antolini, his former schoolmaster, to whom he turns in desperate need for help and advice.  It is not surprising that Holden cannot form a viable or stable relationship with adult society.  That society cannot give him the love and affection for which he craves.  These values seem to be associated in his mind with two things: death and the innocence that disappeared with the loss of childhood.

The death-motif and its association with love appear from time to time in Holden’s references to his much-loved brother, whose death from leukemia has blighted his family.  His longing to preserve innocence in a world given over to destroying it makes him the idealist who rubs obscenities off walls so that small girls will not have to see them.  In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger, who clearly approves of his hero, raises fundamental questions about man’s inhuman treatment of his fellow-men.  What, we are forced to ask, makes New York an abode of indifferent, uncaring individuals?  Is the answer to be found in some radical flaw at the heart of human nature, or in society?  The novel suggests that human nature is not primarily to blame for the sufferings which Holden and others like him have to endure.  Salinger conveys a sense that the world is populated by fallible, foolish, pompous, careless, morally weak individuals rather than by evil ones, and that human beings are potentially loving and joyful if only society will permit them to satisfy these basic longings.  It was this aspect of The Catcher in the Rye that caused it to appeal most widely to a generation of American students in the nineteen-fifties.  As Anthony Burgess has pointed out, the novel was,

‘a symptom of a need, after a ghastly war and during a ghastly peace, for the young to raise a voice of protest against what the adult world was doing, or failing to do’.

Holden’s depression

The Catcher in the Rye has a single unifying theme: the nervous breakdown or intensifying depression of a sixteen-year-old boy.  The progress of Holden’s psychiatric illness is chronicled not from its origins but through its critical phase.  This is done with remarkable understanding of how depression actually works, and how it affects behaviour and the processes of thought.  Salinger is particularly impressive in his handling of the correlation between depressive illness and physical symptoms.  As his depression intensifies, Holden experiences psychosomatic symptoms, which feature a morbid fear of painful death (‘I figured I’d be dead in a couple of months because I had cancer’) and much physical distress (‘The thing is, if you get very depressed about something, it’s hard as hell to swallow’).  What we learn about him from his own narrative of his life makes his depressed state comprehensible enough.  The death of his much-loved brother Allie from leukaemia is one major influence on his mental and emotional states, leaving him with a grievance against the unfairness of things.  His emotional difficulties are not eased by his relationship with his parents.  His mother has been depressed since Allie’s death, and is not a positive force in his life, while his father, preoccupied with being successful, never discusses problems with him.

Holden is thus deprived of the parental guidance every adolescent needs.  His lack of emotional stability is not surprising.  The boarding school to which he is sent is no substitute for his parents.  His primary need is for the kind of understanding and sympathy that will see him through a difficult period in his life.  Whenever he seeks this from his acquaintances he is rebuffed or ignored.   As he ruefully remarks, Stradlater is not interested in a person’s ‘lousy childhood’, while Ackley will respond only if yelled at.  Both Ackley and Stradlater make little of the few achievements that might give Holden some badly needed self-confidence and self-esteem.  When Holden puts a heartfelt question to his history instructor (‘Everybody goes through phases and all, don’t they?’), the latter cannot answer him.  His old girl-friend Sally Hayes can do no better than the others in providing the understanding he needs if he is to keep depression at bay.  Carl Luce, an ex-schoolmate now at Columbia University, responds coldly and unfeelingly to Holden’s plea for help in sorting out his mental and emotional confusion, callously advising him to see a psychiatrist.

As a final despairing gesture, Holden turns to a man he respects, his teacher Mr. Antolini.  The latter can help him no more than the others could.  He lectures him at length, but fails to notice how deeply disturbed he is.  At this stage, Holden is at breaking-point, descending to deeper levels of depression, while Antolini is telling him that an academic education will give him an idea what size of mind he has.  Salinger provides some obvious pointers to Holden’s lack of mental stability in his numerous self-contradictions.  Our hero tells Antolini, for example, that a teacher at Pencey, ‘was intelligent and all, but you could tell he didn’t have too much brains’.  He also claims that there were a couple of classes he didn’t attend for a while, but that he didn’t cut any.  The outcome of the episode with Antolini is that Holden is more depressed than ever.  Convinced that society has finally failed him, he decides to run away and pretend to be a deaf mute, so avoiding, ‘any goddam stupid useless conversations with anybody’.  He will make no further efforts to gain the understanding of other people, and will renounce the ‘phoney’ world.

Phoebe, an agent of redemption

If he is to be redeemed from his hopelessly depressed state, this must now be through the voluntary, unsolicited intervention of somebody else.  His sister Phoebe becomes the agent of his redemption from total despair.  When Phoebe insists on running away with him, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot take responsibility for her, and decides that he must go home, not for his own sake, but for hers.  This gesture of submission is rewarded with a fleeting spell of intense happiness, lovingly described.  The sight of Phoebe going round and round on the carousel fills him with inexplicable joy and tranquility, although the contradictory account of how he fares in the rain is a sinister indication of his confused mental state:

‘My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway.  I didn’t care, though.  I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round.  I was damn near bawling.  I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.  I don’t know why.  It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going round and round, in her blue coat and all.  I wish you could’ve been there’.

 After his painful quest, involving disappointment, frustration, bitterness, depression and disillusionment, Holden has at last found something beautiful in a world he has so often condemned as ‘phoney’.  This does not necessarily mean that he novel has a happy ending.  We know that the carousel will have to stop, and Holden and his sister will have to return to the world from which all his instincts have been urging him to escape.  The best things that life has to offer him are the few fleeting moments of exaltation he has experienced watching Phoebe on the carousel.

Holden’s distorted view of the world.

The Catcher in the Rye is often read as a sympathetic account of a good-natured, sensitive boy confronted by a cruel, dishonest world, populated by freaks, exploiters and phoneys.  The following is typical of his view of other people:

 I was surrounded by jerks.  I’m not kidding.  At this other tiny table, right to my left, was this funny-looking guy and this funny-looking girl.

It is clear from the novel that Salinger likes Holden and expects his readers to like him, but the question must be asked, how likable is he?  Does he deserve to be taken at his own valuation as an idealist who suffers at the hands of others?  Are we to applaud his trenchant exposures of virtually all those who cross his path?

The presentation of Holden involves an obvious paradox: the childlike idealist with the vulnerable, sensitive nature can appear heartless and cruel in his comments on almost everybody else.  There is the curious fact that although he is constantly protesting against the phoniness of almost everybody else, he himself is far from exempt from this fault.  In this context, phoniness means hypocrisy, empty, insincere moralising and fraudulent attitudes and behaviour.  It is true that Holden is upset by such things; as he puts it, they cause him to ‘puke’.  The only people he can think of as being free from phoniness are his sister Phoebe, the two nuns he meets in the sandwich bar, and children in general.  Were he also to look more closely at himself, he would have to acknowledge that he shares the qualities he condemns in others.  He often tells lies, often pretends to be someone he is not, and can be quite bitter in his comments on his friends, while at the same time pleading for charity and kindness towards himself.

The key to Holden’s character is his mental confusion.  This shows itself particularly in his inability to see people and their activities in proportion.  Again, his lack of a proper sense of proportion expresses itself in an outrageously exaggerated habit of speaking.  By referring to almost everybody and everything in grossly inflated language, he can make relatively innocuous circumstances sound wicked and dangerous.

It is not enough for him to describe a woman who sits next to him at the cinema as the slightly inconsiderate person she is; he feels obliged to describe her as being ‘about as kind-hearted as a goddam wolf’.  He doesn’t like Ossenburger the undertaker, and takes exception to the man’s religious inclinations.  His dislike vents itself in great crude fantasies in which Ossenburger features as a monstrous fraud who shoves corpses into a sack and dumps them in the river, who prays fervently to Jesus to send him more corpses and who bores a captive audience with ‘about fifty corny jokes’.  He describes places and their atmospheres in the same wildly exaggerated fashion, particularly when their impact on him is unfavourable.  A hotel lobby cannot seem merely stale-smelling to him; it must convey the impression of ‘fifty million dead cigars’.  No wonder Phoebe tells him, ‘You don’t like anything that’s happening.’  This is because his view of reality is hopelessly distorted; his depressed state makes him so utterly negative about experience that he cannot see that even the worst people and situations have some redeeming qualities.

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