“The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) by J. D. Salinger

Novel, published by Little, Brown and Company, July 1951, text reset March 2014, paperback edition, 234 pages. ISBN: 978-0-316-76948-8.
The Catcher in the Rye | Prose & Paper

It’s an American classic and it still has a great impact on so many readers: The Catcher in the Rye by Jerome David Salinger (1919-2010). After a few friends had recommended the book to me, I decided to finally read it when I found myself in a reading slump. Reading a classic that you have already heard a lot about can be dangerous. There is this expectation that builds up over years of hearing about it. Describing a novel as a classic only contributes to that. Those books, sadly, often disappoint me the most, as, for example, in the case of The Alchemist.

Now, with less than 250 pages, The Catcher in the Rye is a relatively short book. It is the story of Holden Caulfield, a teenager living in New York, who was expelled from prep school only two days prior. We follow him from Pencey prep school to the Edmont Hotel in New York where he is staying for a few days before he heads home to his parents’. Turns out that it wasn’t Holden’s first time to be expelled and his parents still don’t know that he flunked out yet again.

We see Holden in quite a few social situations, with his roommate at Pencey, his history teacher, women in a nightclub, a prostitute, his ex-girlfriend Sally Hayes, his sister Phoebe, his former English teacher. However, what Holden does is not as important to the story as his thoughts. The Catcher in the Rye is a first-person narrative from Holden’s point of view, and these interactions merely illustrate what is really important: his quest for the truth, and his disappointment in adults and their phoniness, as he calls it. The beginning of the book gives it away already:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

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It also sets the tone for the rest of the book. The direct approach to the reader shows the book’s metafictional quality. The word “truth” hints at the topic’s significance, while the mention of this “lousy childhood” is important to keep in mind when reading certain situations that are described later in the book. Though the language used to tell a story is important in any book, drama or poem, it is always worth paying special attention to it in a first-person story. There is a number of words that are repeated frequently. Cluster them, and they give you a hint of what is important to the story.

Words and phrases like “(god)damn,” “phony,” “sad,” “depressed,” “sonuvabitch,” “sore,” “crazy,” “dopey,” “that kills me,” “bastard,” “like a madman” support Holden’s not-so-optimistic outlook, if not on life in general, then at least in his current situation. Holden also expresses some sort of black-and-white-thinking, which is shown in the excessive use of the word “always.” “I have to admit it,” “I swear,” “no kidding,” and “really” emphasize how important truth is to him. Holden’s frequent complains about the phoniness and hypocrisy of people, especially adults, is a little surprising, considering statements like this:

I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s aweful.

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So, what we are seeing here, is this: a teenager on the brink of becoming an adult, losing his innocence, mourning it almost, trying to deal with it, and mostly: trying to fit in. When reading the book, you get the feeling that he doesn’t feel like he belongs. He seems to feel different from other people, which he struggles with. The unreliability of his narration underlines that he is still figuring out the world as well as himself. The way he tells his story with an unmatched ease, to me, emphasizes his need to connect with someone.

While there is no explicit mention of sexual abuse, Holden hints at it on a few occasions. Circling back to the beginning of the book yet again, “lousy childhood” might just have been a lax expression. It might as well have been a hint at sexual assault of a sort that he encountered in childhood. Holden mentions a situation at prep school he does not want to describe in detail because of its disturbing nature, which leads to believe it must have been more than “just” a physical confrontation between boys. He later describes an encounter with his former English teacher who was not only watching Holden while he was sleeping on the couch, but also touching his head. The way Holden reacts, he jumps off the couch and almost immediately leaves the apartment, suggests a possible trauma.

Speaking of trauma, it certainly seems like Holden has not begun to process his younger brother’s death. Allie has been dead for three years, and yet he is quite present in the book. They seem to have had a special connection, and while Holden is still processing his death, Allie represents hope and the innocence of childhood.

My plan to write a short blog post clearly failed. While The Catcher in the Rye has a lot more to offer and to discover than I covered here, the topics that stand out the most, to me, are his is relationship to phoniness, and the struggle to figure out who he is. In contrast to The Alchemist, this novel did not disappoint. It might not become my favorite book, but I do understand its appeal and recommend reading it.