Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with “cynical adolescent.” Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. It begins, “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. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.” His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.*
Ooh, the book that stirred up quite a frenzy when it was originally published, and still causes some controversy now. Whenever people see me reading this book, they wonder whether it’s required reading for some class or other, but I got really curious because it’s one of those books that excite such strong opinions and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Keep reading to see what I think.
When I began reading The Catcher in the Rye, I thought Holden Caulfield was, pardon the word, an ass. I could not think of a better term to describe him without using worse words, because he really is an ass. Being the sunshine-y, vomiting rainbows kind of person, I could not stand a character who is such a darned pessimist, grumbling about every tiny thing like it’s the end of the world. Holden’s the type of guy who sees the glass not only as half-empty, but really helluva phony that it’s depressing. It would be totally like him to come to the really witty conclusion that all the water in the world is phony if you just leave it in a glass with air taking up half the space, thinking it’s important and all. Sort of like that.
One of my biggest pet peeves is when people think they’re so cool that everything they do is justified. Holden blames everybody for his mistakes, and holds minimal to zilch remorse at the thought of getting kicked out of school. The book seemed like an endless diatribe that doesn’t do anybody, even him, any good. Some parts made me think about life and all (oh my gosh. I am starting to sound like him. Help.), but most of the time I didn’t even think. I just zoned out, filtered away all the cussing and stuff, much like when somebody yells at you, making me read the passages like an automaton.
Aaaaand he repeats phrases all the time! I’m not even going to type those phrases here, since I’m quite sick of reading those and I don’t want to exert myself and remember. I mean, it’s okay to repeat phrases (I do that all the time), but please, not every other sentence or something. By the end of the first twenty pages, I was wondering how his brain could stand spouting the same things over and over and over and over again. I could not give a Slitheen‘s fart about his rants, which make up about 90% of the book. The best job for him would totally be as a dartboard or something for target practice. I already set my mind to giving this book 1 star.
Maybe that was the point. Holden was supposed to be an angsty, rebellious teenager in the first place. I admit, I still think it’s a wee bit overdone, but I think J.D. Salinger is brilliant. It’s perfectly normal to hate a book character, especially a whiny one, but if it’s because the characterization is perfect, then you can’t help but concede that the writing is really good. There are a lot of books that receive a lot of hate because the characterization sucks (I’m looking at you, Twilight), but for sure that’s not the reason why The Catcher in the Rye is controversial. Yeah, Holden starts hating on everyone the instant he sees them, but for a few parts of the novel, you can see the layers of him that have more depth in it. His affection for his sister, Phoebe, was what made an impact on me most of all. I really didn’t expect him to take break from complaining about silly stuff all day. It’s like his whiny exterior melts off into a ball of marshmallow-like stuff the moment he thinks of his sister. So maybe Phoebe is the only (living) person he cares about other than himself, but it’s enough to make him human. That, and sometimes I find him funny. I will never forget this quote:
“You can hit my father over the head with a chair and he won’t wake up, but my mother, all you have to do to my mother is cough somewhere in Siberia and she’ll hear you.” <—-LOOOOL WINNER because my parents are EXACTLY like that
because I didn’t expected that and I probably read it at a time when I was on a sugar high, so it won Holden some plus points for me. I laugh easily like that.
I still don’t like Holden, and I probably never will, but I now see why a lot of people like this book. At some parts, I found myself relating to his thoughts and realizations (right before he jumps into an entirely different topic, anyway) and you could see that he is just a kid trying to make sense out of life. I do not approve of his way of coping with things, but I could sympathize with his confusion. It’s a dead giveaway even from the way he speaks. He is desperately trying to make a path for himself in the world, and still failing at it. He’s actually a big softie, though he will never admit it, what with being unable to defend himself, and his regard for vulnerable people, like James Castle and Ernest Morrow’s mother. Holden is probably moaning about everything as a way of estranging himself from the world, maybe to protect himself from its “phoniness” through the only way he knows how. He feels alone in the myriad of things that are constantly changing in his life: his brother Allie’s death, moving from school to school, etc., which could explain his dream of being a “catcher in the rye”. He is projecting, wanting to protect the kids from falling off of cliffs when all he really wants to do is project himself. I am coming to these realizations as I type this, and I have to concede that this book really is beautiful after all.
I am giving this 3 stars instead of the 1 star I originally planned because J.D. Salinger is a genius and he deserves those 2 extra stars. I couldn’t get invested in his characters, but I surely could get invested in his writing.
Even if I really hate Holden.
If you want to know the truth.
I just realized how much I love dissecting characters. This is awesome.
In a nutshell…
Author: J.D. Salinger
Original Language: English
Genre: Coming of Age, Classic