So I recently re-read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time in about twenty years (or maybe longer, although I shudder to think) because I am teaching Grade 11 this year and Salinger’s classic coming-of-age story is on the reading list. Now I have to figure out what I really think about this book – not just what I want the kids to think I think about it. It’s a problem because I believe that Holden Caulfield is definitely a character adolescents should encounter, if only because he (and this novel) is alluded to in so much of the literature, music, and films that followed.
If you’re out of the loop, The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and concerns almost-17-year-old Holden Caulfield, a smart but disenchanted student who has just been kicked out of Pencey Prep, a fancy boarding school in Pennsylvania. “You’ve probably heard of it,” Holden tells us. “They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time.” Holden is flunking all his courses except for English (he’s a voracious reader) and so he’s being sent home.
When the novel opens though, Holden is recounting “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown” from a rest home in California. Once he establishes where he is, Holden starts to tell his story – embellishments (by his own admission, Holden is “the most terrific liar”) and all.
There is no question that The Catcher in the Rye is dated. Holden peppers his speech with “goddam” (a rather tame expletive by today’s standards), he smokes and drinks (not that today’s teenagers don’t, but there is something old-fashioned about the way he treats these vices) and he’s able to spend an extended amount of time in New York City without breaking the bank (I wish!). Everyone Holden encounters is a “phony” and despite his obsession with sex, Holden is still a virgin. That said, there is something thoroughly modern in Holden’s quest to make sense of his life, which has gone seriously off the rails.
At its heart, The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about growing up. Holden doesn’t want to, not really. It is perhaps the reason why he’s still a virgin and why he thinks the Museum of Natural History is a perfect place.
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still just be finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.
Holden can’t stop time, although I think he would desperately like to. He also can’t undo the fact that his beloved brother, Allie, is dead. “You’d have liked him,” Holden tells us. He is preoccupied with the loss of innocence that precipitates the headlong fall into adulthood. He tells his little sister, Phoebe, that he would like to be a “catcher in the rye,”
…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…
Holden’s narrative amounts to a desperate cry for help, for someone to listen to him, for someone to answer his questions, questions which, on the surface (like, where do the ducks in Central Park go when the pond freezes over) seem innocent, but which really demonstrate Holden’s search for meaning.
In Holden, Salinger has created a timeless character who will always have something to say to anyone who cares to listen.