The World of Holden Caulfield:
Revisiting The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger. Photo by Lotte Jacobi. 1951
I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in 1970 as a teenage girl with a disaffected outlook on the world very similar to the narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield. I recall thinking it was a wonderful book I could relate to on many levels: as a child of the 60s, I shared Holden’s disdain for pretentiousness, discourtesy, hypocrisy, regimentation, and social climbing. I longed desperately for some measure of peace with myself and the world around me in spite of my contempt for the behavior I observed in people – phonies, as Holden would call them. That was as far as I could go with my appreciation for this wonderful book at that young age.
A week ago I decided to have a reunion with Holden for the first time in over 30 years. What emerged from my excursion back to his world was a sense of awe at Salinger’s masterful creation of a bright teenager from an extremely prominent family experiencing what we would now refer to as a total meltdown. It is an account completely lacking in self-pity, inexorable in its downward spiral, and ruthlessly unsparing in its appraisal of the various people Holden encounters.
The quintessential agonized adolescent for all ages, Holden Caulfield has lost his younger brother to leukemia, a cataclysmic event for his entire family. His grief haunts him throughout a series of events that only serve to exacerbate his struggle. The reader enters Caulfield’s world as the semester is coming to an end just before Christmas. His parents do not know about his expulsion yet, so the reaction of his brilliantly successful father, his grieving, anxiety-stricken mother, and the rest of his family is looming before him.
Things spiral further out of control as he loses his temper with his stereotypically handsome, athletic roommate on a Saturday night. The end result is a bloody-faced Holden, too stunned to properly clean his face before he ventures out of the dormitory and into the heart of New York City. His plan is to stay there until he is due home on Wednesday.
The ensuing events, most of them direct confrontations with the darker side of humanity as Holden desperately attempts to alleviate his loneliness and despair, only serve to exacerbate his tenuous hold on his sanity. The pace of the novel increases proportionately as he free-falls deeper into depression and increasingly more desperate acts.
Eventually the reader learns that Holden has at some point been further traumatized as witness to a tragic, gory suicide. And the teacher who emerges from this event as a hero in Holden’s eyes turns out to be a predator.
At 16, I saw Holden as a rebel and a maverick. At 54, I saw him as a frightened child desperate for help but unable to find it, a tragic enigma unable to find his way through the evils of the world in spite of his privilege and intelligence. He is simultaneously ferocious in his antipathy toward the human race and desperate in his desire for human companionship and love. What stands out is not his rebellion, but his love for others, good and bad alike.
It is this great love and longing for humans and their companionship that emerges in the narrative – that and the disturbing series of emotional shocks that rob him of his innocence as he attempts to find solace. He is a latter-day Werther, whose sorrows are as stark as the bleak landscape of his inner world, yet his narrative is never maudlin or complaining. The voice of Holden Caulfield is as real as it gets – his coming of age moves inexorably to a struggle to survive.
And so it is that the worth of this great novel is confirmed and enhanced – it is a timeless, haunting story that everyone should read. Sadly, an entire generation of young people are now deprived of this important work of literature because of their parents’ religious zealotry. Today’s teenagers, who must go to school wondering if they can get through the day without getting shot and killed, simply cannot be allowed to read a great novel with foul language in it, so say the Philistines who call the shots at our nation’s schools. It is both an irony and an injustice, the ultimate kind of blindness that Salinger sought to expose in his masterpiece, Catcher in the Rye.
Rebecca Parton lives in Dallas, Georgia with her son and daughter, her two cats, and her miniature schnauzer. A lifelong bookworm, she spends most of her spare time reading history and literature. She has a degree in history from Louisiana State University and works in Atlanta as a Senior Technical Writer and Trainer.
Copyright©2008 Rebecca Parton and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.