Witty, punchy and inexhaustibly surprising, J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” is highly relevant to society up to this day. The American author’s stories about rebellious teenagers struggling to change the world before it would change them might as well take place in the embrace of the 21st century, in a decade in which defining and describing youth is more difficult than ever. In his controversial coming-of-age story, Salinger paints the colourful portrait of an audacious, yet astonishingly misanthropic character radiating genuine Peter Pan vibes: Holden Caulfield is tired and sick of the world that he is a part of and he dreads the idea of growing up. Add a series of stunning narrative fireworks and the breathtaking setting of 1940s New York City, and the final result is an immortal story about the dramatic leap from youth to adulthood.
The novel takes place over three days in December 1949 and is told in flashback one year later by the main character himself, now a patient in a medical institution that is not explicitly described. Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old boy from New York City, is expelled from Pencey Preparatory Academy in Agerstown, Pennsylvania, due to poor schoolwork. Instead of breaking the news to his parents or trying to take any kind of academic initiative, Holden decides to leave for New York City and think his life through. This is the start of a long string of hilarious, sometimes even absurd adventures blended in with moments of recurrent reflection upon the self, that help Holden develop as a young adult and reach a few significant conclusions about life and people. One particular thing stays the same, though: Holden doesn’t want to grow up. Briefly outlined during the first few chapters, his desire to always stay young becomes painfully striking towards the end of the story.
The ‘catcher in the rye’ is the title metaphor of the novel and concentrates a meaningful idea filling up the basis for Salinger’s story. After buying a musical record for his little sister Phoebe, Holden spots a young boy singing “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” (a poem written in 1782 by Robert Burns) ; the image itself makes Holden feel a little less upset and alone. Later on in the book, due to a mishearing of the poem’s lyrics, Holden starts imagining a particular fantastic conjuncture: a rye field on the edge of a cliff in which thousands of children play, whilst he is sitting by the border of the field, catching children who accidentally get too close to the ravine – therefore, Holden would be the ‘catcher in the rye’. For Holden, ‘catching the children in the rye field’ equals to saving them from losing their innocence. The ‘catcher in the rye’ is a metaphor characterising Holden himself, a confused and restless teen who has the atypical desire to not grow up. For Holden, adulthood means arrogance and immorality, not freedom and independence. Perfectly aware that he is slowly drifting down the same corrupted path, Holden decides to become the ally and protector of children on the adults’ side. His main focus is Phoebe, his 10-year-old sister and the character our protagonist seems to care about the most. Ultimately, the resolution of the novel emphasizes the fact that Holden decides to sacrifice his own still pure soul to ensure that his sister will remain a child at heart as long as possible.
Despite its quite obvious celebration of concepts such as childhood and youth, “The Catcher in the Rye” is one of the several American novels which had been greatly challenged by the public and the publishing industry alike. The book has experienced numerous waves of rejection throughout the years, being the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States between 1961 and 1982. Also, the book was featured in multiple lists of challenged literary works throughout the following decades, up until 2009. Many tie the controversy of Salinger’s novels to the main character’s frequent use of bad language, many sexual references, blasphemy, encouragement of rebellion and promotion of actions such as smoking and drinking. At the same time, the inclusion of such contentious topics and elements of everyday life represented a literary breakthrough for the 1950s American literature. Salinger’s bold initiative would later establish him as one of the most important American authors of the 20th century, due to his unique style and literary sincerity. Furthermore, Salinger blazed trails for the next generations of authors, who had the opportunity to write truthfully about similar topics. An accessible novel coming in just in time, “The Catcher in the Rye” changed the way American literature was written at the time towards new, thrilling directions.
Another argument arising as far as the book is concerned is its strange association with several shootings, such as Robert John Bardo’s shooting of Rebecca Schaeffer and John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt on American president Ronald Reagan. The same book was in Mark David Chapman’s possession after he fatally shot English singer and songwriter John Lennon. In the Chapman case, the book was described as a “statement” for the homicidal gesture, and Chapman identified himself with the book’s protagonist and narrator. Many researchers and psychologists have mulled over the idea that “The Catcher in the Rye” might prompt towards murder, and the topic is intensely debated up to this day.
Last but not least, Salinger’s novel paints a comprehensive and fascinating fresco of the post-war American society, as seen through the eyes of a confused and tired teenager. The reader is gradually accustomed to a materialistic, intensely self-absorbed society that shows concern solely for superficial, ephemeral things. The main character is unable to relate to it and seeks to grow as alienated to it as possible, while trying to define his own identity and explore himself introspectively. His values and ideas are a thousand miles away from the ones he has taken in from the adults in his life, and he has no interest in making an effort to change his beliefs just so he would fit in. At the same time, the book’s subjective narration seeds bias in the reader himself: he becomes Holden’s ally in his particular sort of estrangement. The sad assumption that society is both corrupt and corrupting becomes striking by the end of the novel, in comparison with the feelings and thoughts the protagonist holds dear: the power of innocence and the allure of never-ending childhood. Beneath this essentially happy realisation, though, a depressing truth lies; “The Catcher in the Rye” can easily be considered ‘the voice of alienation’ (Aubry).
Brilliant through its style and attractively witty through its wide thematic approach, “The Catcher in the Rye” remains the defining book for the youth of many generations. One would be surprised to realise just how relatable this book is still, in the cradle of a world going through major changes very fast. Therefore, it is safe to say that Salinger’s outstanding novel will continue to be meaningful from now on, hopefully in a more secure literary environment.
Aubry, Timothy (N/A) The Catcher in the Rye: The Voice of Alienation [online] available from https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/fifties/essays/catcher-rye-voice-alienation [30 October 2016]