“The Catcher in the Rye”

  • So you write a blog?

I couldn’t deny it. Yes, I replied. What kind of blog? Oh, I write about whatever comes to mind, really, but it’s mainly about books.

  • So you read a lot?

Not a lot, I explain. Compared to many other book bloggers, I actually read very little. But yes, I do read, and I like thinking about what I read, and putting down my thoughts – such as they are – on paper. Or on a laptop screen, at least.

  • So what do you think of The Catcher in the Rye?

Now, that question came out of the blue, and I wasn’t quite prepared for it. But I said, truthfully, that it has been many decades since I read it, and I remember I rather enjoyed it at the time.

A pause. And then:

  • I hated it. I don’t know why it’s regarded as a classic. It was just this whiny kid going on and on. Irritated the hell out of me. I felt like slapping him.

Oh, I said. Well, never mind. Fancy another drink?

Now, to be frank, I don’t really understand why it’s considered a classic either. Oh, not that it’s a bad novel – it clearly isn’t: but if I were to compile one of those tiresome list of The Greatest Novels I Have Read, I don’t think I’d include The Catcher in the Rye. But I suppose it depends on where exactly you draw the line separating the Great from Nearly-Great-But-Not-Quite, or where exactly you separate that from Very-Good-But-Certainly-Nowhere-Near-Great, and so on. But whatever category you put it in, I don’t think it can be denied that the book is a cultural phenomenon. It’s one of those books that is read even by those who don’t normally read books. The impact it has made is more than literary, and that in itself demands attention.

When it was first published in the early 1950s, it was, perhaps rather quaintly from our contemporary perspective, deemed controversial. Many schools banned it from their reading lists. That in itself gave it the frisson of forbidden goods. It was, seemingly, anti-establishment, a handbook of teenage rebellion. However, nowadays, it is actually required reading in many schools, and that kills off whatever street-cred it might have had. And anyone looking in it for a frisson of that rebellious anti-establishment vibe is likely to come away thinking “Huh?”

For, looking around various comments on the net, I do not get the impression that The Catcher in the Rye is much liked these days – certainly not as much liked as it used to be in my own teenage years, back in the 1970s, when it was considered essential reading. The comments I see now mostly seem to agree that Holden Caulfield really is simply a “whiny kid”, and deeply irritating. Whether I should take these comments as in any way representative of contemporary tastes, and whether the tide really has turned so spectacularly since my teenage years, I do not know. But it seemed intriguing.

Now, even if we were to concede that Holden really is just a “whiny kid”, disliking a character, even the principal character, is, in general, a poor reason for disliking a novel. But I do concede that in this particular novel, we need, if not actually to see the world through Holden’s eyes, to be at least in sympathy with his perspective: otherwise the novel would make little if any emotional impact. In the course of the novel’s action, Holden has what we may describe as a mental breakdown: merely to stand in detached and unsympathetic judgement over this is unlikely to bring us very close to the heart of what the novel is about.

But what is the novel about? The general consensus appears to be that it is about teenage angst, and teenage rebellion. But even when I read it as a teenager I could see that it wasn’t that. Or, rather, the angst it depicts is not something that can reasonably be described as teenage angst.  Something described as “teenage angst” must, by definition, be widespread amongst teenagers: but no other teenager in this novel feels anything like the mental agonies that Holden goes though; and Holden himself is as powerfully alienated from people of his own age group as he is from adults. What we are asked to observe is not, I think, a general condition, but rather, an affliction affecting one particular individual.

And Holden is not really rebellious. His “rebellion” really amounts to no more than walking out of the residential school he attends (he is obviously from a privileged background), and spending a few days by himself in New York. And even in those few days, he doesn’t actually do anything bad, as such: even when he has the opportunity to sleep with a prostitute, he finds he cannot go through with it. Of course, he dislikes all that he sees around him, but, beyond expressing his dislike, he does little to rebel against them.

In many ways, he is very much a product of the society he finds himself disliking. His attitude to homosexuality, for instance: while not openly hostile or malicious, homosexuality is nonetheless something he finds disturbing, and, by modern standards at least, we would certainly deem him “homophobic”. But given the background he has grown up in, it really would have taken a very fearless and independent thinker to hold what we may nowadays consider tolerant and enlightened views on the matter; and Holden as a thinker is neither fearless nor independent. Indeed, he is not much of a thinker at all: his dissatisfaction with life is purely an instinctive, emotional response to what is around him, not an intellectual stance.

So why is he so dissatisfied? Holden himself cannot explain this, for, firstly, he does not analyse himself, and is possibly incapable of doing so; and secondly, neither is he very articulate. His general sense of dissatisfaction is something he feels, but which he cannot understand, or express in words even if he could. So it is up to us, as readers, to try to look beyond his natural inarticulacy. One word he uses frequently is “phoney”. He doesn’t explain what he mans by this, but we can see that he tends to apply this word to describe what he regards (although he would possibly be unable to articulate it thus) as emotional shallowness, or insincerity. And this he sees all around him. People say things, do things, not because they feel it, but simply because that is the form, as it were, simply because this is what everyone does. What appears to dissatisfy him is a lack of feeling, a lack of emotional depth in peoples’ day-to-day lives. But why seems it so particular with him? However, as with Prince Hamlet (in this if little else), he knows not “seems”: for Holden, it is. It is the seeming in others that he deplores.

And the reason for this, though not immediately apparent, emerges slowly over the course of the novel, and takes centre stage in the climactic passage towards the end, where he meets with his sister Phoebe: Holden is still in grieving for the death of his brother Allie, and he cannot understand why the rest of the world isn’t also in grieving with him. How can people – even his own parents – carry on with their lives as before after something so momentous as this? How can they all go inside to take shelter from the rain immediately after his funeral?

This, I think, is at the heart of the matter. The novel is not about teenage angst, or rebellion, or about the difficulties of coming to age: it’s about a sensitive young lad who cannot articulate his grief, nor understand how the rest of the world, his own parents included, could fail to grieve as he does, could carry on living when his own life seems to have come to a halt. And considered as such, it strikes me as a very poignant novel, and not deserving the opprobrium so frequently heaped upon it these days.

I honestly can’t remember how many years it has been since I last read it. And, unlike many other books I have read, it is not one that has been a prominent presence in my mind in those years. But when, prompted by the conversation I reported at the start of this post, I started to think back on it, I was surprised by how vivid it had remained in my mind, by how well I remembered it – even above many other novels that are arguably of a higher literary quality.

A great novel? No, probably not. It probably doesn’t have the artistic scope that one might expect from something labelled “great”. But I think it’s a minor masterpiece, all the same.

20 responses to this post.

  1. I like your comments. I did not read The Catcher in the Rye at a time when I could have reacted to it as a teen ager or young adult. Instead I read it in my 70s because I had heard so much about it and knew it was admired as a picture of teen age angst. I was just too old for that kind of thing. I found Holden to be a whiny, self-involved over privileged brat. As a picture of how the world looks to such a person, I suppose it had some merit, but I soon had enough of being trapped in his head and emotions.

    You may be on to something. It may be better to regard the novel as a picture of an essentially phony world as reflected in Holden’s rejection of it. His rejection has no place for compassion or for understanding what others must work for and even suffer to make the luxury of his rejection possible. It is not a big picture novel, more a scratchy portrait down in one corner of that larger picture.

    Reply

    • Hello Nancy,
      Holden certainly does come from a privileged background (which is, incidentally, hardly his fault); but grief affects all of us, regardless of how privileged or otherwise we might be. And Holden certainly has reason to grieve.

      He rejects emotional shallowness; he rejects the failure to engage honestly with emotions; he rejects the propensity to hide emotions away. This rejection is not, I think, a “luxury” – for it is a strange kind of “luxury” that causes such mental turmoil – but, rather, Holden’s own honest emotional reaction to the unfeeling world he perceives around him.

      And you’re right, it is not a “big picture novel”; but neither,I think, does it set out to be. It is a portrayal of a teenager who, not surprisingly, cannot see the “bigger picture”.. But his own little corner is depicted, I think, with a great poignancy.

      Reply

  2. I think you’re on the right track with the “Hamlet” comparison. Holden is lost in grief, unpinned from the world, which he is realizing for the first time is indifferent to his–or anyone’s–pain. He’s also realizing that the world isn’t to be trusted because most of the surrounding culture is false, and he hates this falseness. He points out one thing after another as “fake,” all through the novel, while he keeps drawing attention to small moments that most people would consider insignificant but are full of real, heartfelt emotion, of genuine life. Underneath the veneer of angst is a beautiful novel about love and beauty. It’s probably too sentimental to be taken as seriously now as it was when it came out, like most of Salinger’s writing, but it’s still a work of longing for truth and meaning. Holden wants something “real,” but he doesn’t know what that is, because how much genuine life has he seen? But he’s right on the edge of adulthood, and his desire to catch children is a desire to save/shelter them, so he is compassionate–in only one direction–and part of his anger is at the adult world’s ability to move along after the death of a child. So maybe what he wants is not so much to be the catcher, but to be caught in the arms of a concerned adult?

    It’s been about forty years since I read Catcher in the Rye, so this is what I remember, not necessarily what’s in the book. But your description sounds like the book I read.

    I go through phases when I think Prince Hamlet is the most annoying character in literary history, but then I remember that all he really wants is the freedom to grieve, to love, and to know the truth; and he wants everyone else to want these same things. So he’s not such a bad guy after all, despite the hand-wringing and the constant whining.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott,

      I was debating with myself whether r not to include that reference to Hamlet, for I certainly didn’t want to suggest that Holden is like Hamlet in anything except in this particular feature: they both feel that a failure to adequately grieve for the dead devalues our own lives. Hamlet is an intellectual, and supremely articulate; Holden is neither. But we need to read through his inarticulacy to find an essentially sweet and sensitive lad, who, as you say, “keeps drawing attention to small moments that most people would consider insignificant but are full of real, heartfelt emotion, of genuine life”. This is an important point: he isn’t by any means rejecting everything.

      And yes – I hadn’t considered this before, but I think you’re right – he wants to be caught in the rye himself before he falls down the cliff. The idea of children having access to something wonderful that we lose as we get older has a venerable pedigree: Rousseau and Wordsworth come readily to mind. And Holden feels this instinctively: there is something beautiful in the way a child perceives the world, that we lose in our adult years. And Holden does not want to lose it.

      Reply

  3. Oh, Holden Caulfield! It’s time I revisted him. I haven’t re-read the book since I was fifteen, when I absolutely loved it, and was inspired to start writing a novel (now lost!) about my own teenage life in the style (as far as I could copy it!) of Holden. For a heady few weeks, I wanted to be a female version of Holden, thinking sarcastic thoughts about the world around me, exposing the follies of others and generally letting rip. I think perhaps you had to be 15 in the fifties or sixties to get the full buzz from the book; strange how Salinger never managed to write anything as good again.

    Reply

    • Yes, when I read it as a teenager, it did resonate. But reading it now that I am approaching 60 (and I did do that recently), I found it resonated in a quite different way. It reminded me of an emotional openness I had as a child, but which I had to discard simply to be able to live my life with other humans. I really do think this is a fine novel, and not one to be dismissed as “for teenagers only”.

      Reply

  4. Over 50 years since I read. I only remember when he was on a bus and spit a really nasty booger out a window that was not open. As it ran down the window, the elderly lady said “how disgusting” to which he replied “hey, ain’t it though?”. That story makes the entire book worth reading. The other coming of age book at that time “A Separate Peace”, 1959, by John Knowles was more remembered as enjoyable as was The Rector of Justin (1964) by Auchincloss. And, how about “Infinite Jest” (1996) as a more recent addition to this genre, although Wikipedia informs that it is hysterical realism .

    Reply

    • Hello Terry, good to see you here. I’m afraid I can’t comment on any of the other books you refer to, as I haven’t read them (I’m really quite badly read you know!) but, as I say in my other posts, I find Holden a sweet and sensitive young lad beneath his inarticulacy: his boorishness is no more than skin deep, and his skin happens to be very thin!

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  5. Posted by Di on August 5, 2019 at 7:20 pm

    I think it’s a minor masterpiece. In the IB, I wrote my Extended Essay (4000 words) about it.
    I suppose lots of people, I mean young people, don’t like it nowadays because they only see Holden Caulfield as an annoying kid they can’t relate to, and fail to see that the point of the book is his grief, and his anger at the unfairness of the world.

    Reply

  6. Posted by caromalc on August 5, 2019 at 10:13 pm

    We read this as our bookclub book last year. Since we are all middle-class, middle-aged (does 69 still count as middle-aged?) women, we didn’t sympathise much with Holden, although we could see some of his troubles as coming from the death of his sister. I think we mostly objected to the repetitive nature of his language. Everything was ‘phony’ and it just became a bit much after a while.
    I wonder if it has just dated a bit.

    Reply

  7. Himadri, you ol’ bastage! Long time no seeum.
    TerribleTerryC above alerted me via email that you had written a posting about one my my favorite (to bash and disparage) books in the world. You may remember some of our past discourses on Salinger’s “classic”.

    Anyway, rather that rant all over again, if you don’t mind, I’ll post a link below to my analysis of Catcher from my own blog. I’m too lazy to retype everything here these days. I’ve become old. 😉

    https://noctslackv2.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/the-catcher-in-the-rye-some-thoughts/

    Ah… the memories!

    Speaking of memories, old friend, I was just the other night reminiscing about our very interesting and productive group read of Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, an experience that led me, thanks you you, Sir, to a much more serious appreciation of this man’s literary output.

    Take care, old friend!

    ~Eric

    Reply

    • Hello Eric, great to see you around these parts again!

      Holden is indeed from a rich background, but that’s hardly his fault, and it seems a bit unfair to hold that against him. But people from privileged backgrounds can experience emotional trauma too. And I think this is what this novel is – a depiction of emotional trauma, and a teenager’s poignant incomprehension at a world that considered human emotions essentially disposable.

      As for Pickwick Papers – well, for me, that novel, as you know, is sheer delight. I must revisit it soon!

      All the best for now, old chum,
      Himadri

      Reply

  8. Posted by guy wells on August 7, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Read it in 1963 or 1964–age 16–and again in the 1980s. Left me cold the first time, though it was much touted by English masters. (As preppies, we laughed at the incredible luxury & laxity of Holden’s dorm as described by Salinger, which really hurt his credibility for us.) Three years later, though, many of us were enthusiastic in rejecting the “phoniness” of the dominant culture–viz. the film “The Graduate.” But Salinger was no fool, and most of the comments here reflect how well he was able to capture and present a picture of the 15-year-old’s mindset from the inside–something I only saw when I’d gotten over being that age myself.
    The book my friends and I liked better in 1964 (never assigned, but voluntarily read and passed around) was “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles. I haven’t re-read it since, but I’d guess that we were more comfortable with the image of our minds and personalities we found there.

    Reply

    • Hello Guy,
      It’s intriguing how many people feel that they understand “The Catcher in the Rye” better when revisiting it as an adult. I feel the same way. I enjoyed it as a teenager, yes, but a recent reading proved far more satisfying.

      I’m afraid I don’t know “A Separate Peace”: I’ll look that up.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  9. Posted by alan on August 8, 2019 at 6:22 am

    When we were young, “sad” wasn’t a pejorative term.

    Reply

    • Yes, but I’ve often wondered whether “sad” is now a pejorative term because we as a society look down on people feeling sad, or whether it’s because we think that it is “sad” that people can be so isolated from the word around them. I suspect it is the former. However, at the same time, I think there is a far greater understanding of mental illness than there used to be. We now have sympathy for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: it wasn’t that long ago, after all, that we were shooting them for “cowardice”.

      Reply

  10. I read “Catcher” at age 12 and found it brilliant. Holden C. was my male counterpart: somebody who could spot a “phony” from miles away. He was hilarious and I envied his freedom in the city. I wanted a boyfriend like him!

    Picking up the volume again at age 14, I realized how filled with tripe it is. Certainly it is a good book for the young and disaffected who dream of small rebellions but who cannot afford the luxury of one.

    I did a quick reread at age 50 or so and noted the lack of literary merit but the emotional offering was great for somebody stuck in a K-8 elementary school.

    Reply

    • Hello Gubbinal,
      I’m afraid I must disagree with you on virtually all points!

      First of all, while I certainly won’t claim that “The Catcher in the Rye” is up there with the likes of “Ulysses” or “The Magic Mountain”, I think it does exhibit considerable literary merit. That it communicates so much through the voice of a generally inarticulate young lad with a limited vocabulary is, I think, meritorious.

      And I don’t think it’s full of tripe at all! It is, as I said in my post, a depiction of grief. A young lad is going through a mental breakdown because he cannot overcome grief for his dead brother. And he is disturbed by a world that appears not to feel his pain.

      I re-read the book recently, and I found it genuinely moving.

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

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