I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger several years ago when I was in high school, and, frankly, I didn’t get it. In retrospect, when I was a teenager, I read books that were plot-driven, exciting and had observable action – The Catcher in the Rye is not one of those books. Now that I am who I am now (grown up, more appreciative of character studies and analysis), after re-reading the book, I appreciate The Catcher in the Rye so much more.
The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden Caulfield, a teenager who is expelled from his prep school, Pencey Prep, and spends a weekend in New York City. During his time in New York City, Holden reflects on his life, on others and on his perspective of the world.
Regarding what I said in the beginning of this review, The Catcher in the Rye isn’t a book that places importance in the plot, but strongly emphasizes the narrative style and characters. Holden is an interesting character, but his characterization is central to the story. Often people criticize The Catcher in the Rye as a symbol of contemporary cynicism or teenage hypocrisy; for me, I think The Catcher in the Rye, or more specifically, Holden, is a representation of the alienation and disconnect that we feel with others.
Holden, throughout the book, criticizes people and strangers alike to be ‘phony’ – people who behave superficially, pretentiously and hypocritically. Phoniness is an interesting concept to me because it’s multifaceted, and depending on your perspective in life, can be interpreted differently. As for me, and I do acknowledge that I bring a bias to this perception, phoniness was to describe the inauthenticity of people in a world dominated by social conventions. It’s the sense that when you’re in a public setting, you are upset but cannot express that sadness because that breaks the social convention of appearing neutral, calm or a demeanour that doesn’t draw unwanted attention.
The way we present ourselves superficially and inauthentically – the sociologist Erving Goffman calls this ‘face work’ – have become necessary to live in society and, more so, function successfully in society. If you do not conform to society’s standards, then you’re marginalized to rim of society and there, you cannot survive because people will not like you. However, The Catcher in the Rye is not a criticism of society’s requirement to conform, but is an analysis of someone who is aware of the need to be inauthentic/phony, and is having great difficulties – frustrated about, even – reconciling that this phoniness is acceptable and pervasive. The important thing is not get hung up about whether people are truly phony or not (personally, I think a lot of people are) and that Holden is a phony himself and this should invalidate his narrative, but – bearing in mind that Holden is an unreliable narrator – the important point is an exploration of how Holden feels disconnected to larger society, and struggles to find an authentic connection with someone that is not impaired by ‘phoniness’.
The more profound things about The Catcher in the Rye was the way it portrayed alienation. Though Holden does not explicitly talk about his alienation, it can be inferred from his frustration and also from his failed attempt to connect with Sunny. Above all, however, Holden feels lost. And this feeling lost is not a disease or illness or an impairment of his character, but it’s a representation of that sense of loss we feel sometimes; those times where we question ourselves. Holden didn’t hold his life to have any meaning. I see Holden as a person who is swept under the current – of change, of a rapid transformation of everything around us – and has no idea where to go from there. In a way, I think the narrative and plot – being a lack of the latter – mirrors the emotion that this book is trying to convey: the feeling of being suspended in time, where so many things happen around us which ultimately amount to nothing.
I think one of the more interesting things is his relationship with his sister. Perhaps I am projecting my values and self onto Holden too much, but when he was with Phoebe, he was behaving like ‘himself’. Passages where he was with Phoebe were devoid of frustration of phoniness, cynical soliloquy, but involved him acting upon impulse and without restraint; I interpreted this as authenticity; that his sibling-love for his sister was real to him and was the driving force of the twist in the end. And in a way, I feel that way. Aside from a very small few, my sister is someone who I can be myself when I am around her, to the extent that ideas of phoniness just do not apply to Holden and I’s sisters. Maybe this is a far-fetched analysis, but that’s what I felt when reading the book.
If there is one thing that The Catcher in the Rye does right, though, is that it’s a portrayal of true apathy. Though I related to Holden, the problem with Holden himself is that he’s an accurate representation of the jaded student, the defeated activist and the person who has relinquished their destiny to something they believe is beyond them. Holden is so aware of the phoniness around him, he is aware of all these problems, but he ultimately does nothing and would much rather choose a life of a deaf-mute in which he has no responsibility and no obligations to anybody. I think he represents the problem in society – someone aware, someone able, but someone who ultimately chooses nothing. And I think that is the tragedy in this – even though he decides not to run away in the end, but who knows what he does after? – that, in the end, no matter how frustrating and how much we endure, we give up anyway and instead of trying to find our will, we let whatever we think is “inevitable” happen.
With that said, I really enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye. There were times where I laughed – and that is something that seldom happens – and there were times where I was able to reflect on my own thoughts and feelings, which is something I appreciate a book being able to do. Furthermore, The Catcher in the Rye is an interesting topic to discuss with friends; mostly because Holden is an unreliable character and many details are ambiguous and up for interpretation, you’ll find a variety of opinions and perspectives when discussing this book. The Catcher in the Rye is a kind of book that does not age – for me, it’s a book I will read five years from now as an introspection exercise — to see if I have changed as a person, and to see if I ever lose the Holden in me.
Book Title: The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Published by: Little, Brown and Company; on 1951
Pages: 277 pages