CATCHER IN THE RYE
The book, Catcher in the Rye, has been steeped in controversy since it was banned in America after its first publication. John Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman, asked the former Beatle to sign a copy of the book earlier in the morning of the day he murdered Lennon. Police found the book in his possession upon apprehending the psychologically disturbed Chapman. However, the book itself contains nothing that might have lead Chapman to act as he did. It could have been just any book that he was reading the day he decided to kill John Lennon and as a result, it was the Catcher in the Rye, a book describing a nervous breakdown, that caused the media to speculate widely about the possible connection. This gave the book even more recognition. The character Holden Caulfield ponders the thoughts of death, accuses ordinary people of being phonies, and expresses his love for his sister through out the novel. So what is the book Catcher in the Rye really about?
Superficially the story of a young man getting expelled from another school, the Catcher in the Rye is, in fact, a perceptive study of one individual’s understanding of his human condition. Holden Caulfield, a teenager growing up in 1950’s, New York, has been expelled from school for poor achievement once again. In an attempt to deal with this he leaves school a few days prior to the end of term, and goes to New York to take a vacation before returning to his parents’ inevitable irritation. Told as a monologue, the book describe Holden’s thoughts and activities over these few days, during which he describes a developing nervous breakdown. This was evident by his bouts of unexplained depression, impetuous spending and generally odd, erratic behavior, prior to his eventual nervous collapse.
Some critics have argued that Holden’s character is erratic and unreliable, as he has many of the middle-class values that he claims to reject. Later on critics began to have praised the twisted humor of the main character. These critics have commented that the structure of the novel helps you understand Holden’s unstable state of mind. Alastair best remarked: “There is a hard, almost classical structure underneath Holden’s rambling narrativ. The style, too, appears effortless; yet one wonders how much labor went into those artfully rough-hewn sentences” (qtd. in Davis 318)
A large field of critics took a positive view of the novel. Paul Engle commented that the story was “emotional without being sentimental, dramatic without being melodramatic, and honest without simply being obscene”(3). Engle also wrote the authenticity of Holden’s character, the idea that his voice was typical of a teenager, never childish or written down at that age level. Engle wrote “The effort has been made to make the text, told by the boy himself , as accurate and yet as imaginative as possible. In this, it largely succeeds”(3). Many people repeat Engles viewpoint, the Catcher in the Rye is not just about age it is a unique story of a unique child. Engle writes, “The story is engaging and believable…Full of right observations and sharp insight, and wonderful sort of grasp of how a boy can create his own world of fantasy and live forms”(3)
Holdens continuous thoughts on the death are not typical of most teenagers. His near obsession with death might come from having experienced two deaths in his early life. He constantly dwells on Allie, his brother’s death. From Holden’s thoughts, it is obvious that he loves and misses Allie. In order to hold on to his brother and minimize the pain of his loss, Holden brings Allie’s baseball mitt along with him where ever he goes. The mitt has additional meaning and significance for Holden because Allie had written poetry, which Holden reads, on the baseball mitt. Holden’s fixation with death can be seen in his viewing of a dead classmate, James Castle. It tells the reader something about Holden that he lends his turtleneck sweater to his classmate, with whom he is not at all close.
The book The Catcher in the Rye is thought by many people to be a tragedy, but by some critics it is to be considered humorous, keen, and intelligent. Whenever a character is nearing the point of no return in a Salinger piece, it is usually done by route of comic (Stevenson 216). Many other critics have made a point that much of the humor in The Catcher in the Rye comes from Holden’s misunderstanding about adulthood. An example of this is shown in Holden’s relationship with an old schoolmate, Carl Luce. Although he is older and more experienced than Holden, he is not as mature as Holden believes him to be. After a try at communication with Luce fails, Holden flees to Phoebe, the only person he completely trusts (Davis 318). The humor in Holden’s character comes from his communication with the outside world. In some ways his need for love and stability in life is very sad but Holden’s character makes it funny by almost not caring.
However, during his psychological battle, life continues around Holden as it always had, with the majority of people ignoring the “madman stuff” that is happening to him, until it begins to affect their well defined social codes. Progressively throughout the novel we are challenged to think about society’s attitude to the human condition. Does society have an “ostrich in the sand” mentality, a deliberate ignorance of the emptiness that can characterize human existence? And if so, when Caulfield begins to probe his own sense of emptiness and isolation, before finally declaring that the world is full of “phonies”, each one out for their own phony gain. Is Holden actually the one who is going insane, or is it society which has lost its mind for failing to see the hopelessness of their own lives.
Holden has strong feelings of love towards children as evidenced through his caring for Phoebe, his little sister. He is protective of her, erasing bad words from the walls in her school and in a museum, in order that she not learn from the graffiti. His fondness for children can be understood when he tells her that, at some time in the future, he wants to be the only grown-up with “all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.” He’ll stand on the edge of a cliff and catch anybody who starts to fall off the edge of the cliff. He got this image from his misinterpretation of a line from Robert Burns poem, “if a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.”
It is obvious by studying the reviews of The Catcher in the Rye that most critics enjoy picking apart the character of Holden Caulfield, studying his every action and the basis for that action. Reviewers of the novel have gone to great lengths to express their opinions on Salinger’s main character. Some consider Holden to be considerate, others consider him arrogant, but a large majority of them find him completely entertaining.
One character that Holden is compared to in some ways is Hamlet. Like Hamlet, as Charles Kegel wrote, Holden is a “sad, screwed-up guy”(54), bothered by words which only seem true, but really quite phony. The integrity and truthfulness that Holden cannot seem to find in others he tries to maintain within himself. Holden often makes a point of using the word “really” to state the fact that something is really so, to prove to the reader that had not become a phony himself. Holden is frightened often by the occasional realization that he too, must be phony to exist in the adult world.
Catcher in the Rye will continue to be apart of public and critical debate. When we are honest we can see within ourselves unrevealed elements of the forces operating within Holden Caulfied, and because of that I would recommend this thought inspiring novel as a delightful and enlightening description of our human condition. However, be careful, for that very reason it is not comfortable reading.