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This year, the world celebrated the 100th birth of the famous American writer, Jerome Salinger. The anniversary has given rise to the new debate around his work. However, it seems that people have been reading and discussing Salinger’s most prominent book, The Catcher in the Rye, since its first publication in 1951. The book has been especially popular among adolescents as it has managed to depict “the experience of millions of teenagers” (Priest 210). Although young people are encouraged to read this book and interpret it in their own way, it is still crucial that they do not misunderstand it. Thus, this paper, starting with the outline of characters and plot, discusses potential interpretations of The Catcher in the Rye and proposes the opinion of the paper’s author.
The Plot of the Book
The novel begins with 16-year-old Holden Caulfield recalling how he spent two days in New York before last Christmas. He is dismissed from the school again and after having a conflict with his roommate, decides to leave his sanatorium and go to New York. However, he cannot simply return home because parents believe that Holden is still in his school. This makes him stay at some hotel, but soon, he starts feeling very lonely. He visits nightclubs and calls a prostitute to his room, but it only makes him worse.
The next day, he meets his ex-girlfriend and classmate, but they cannot handle Holden’s behavior. After getting drunk, he comes to his family’s house to see his younger sister. During their conversation, he claims that he wants to be “the catcher in the rye,” which prevents small children from falling from the cliff. Holden leaves when he hears parents coming and tries to spend the night at the house of his former teacher. However, Holden interprets some of his teacher’s actions as harassment, and thus, has to spend the night at the railway station. The next day, he plans to run away, but when his sister insists on leaving with him, he takes her to the zoo instead. At the end of the story, Holden says he will start visiting another school in autumn.
Holden Caulfield and the Theme of the Book
It seems that The Catcher in the Rye solely concentrates on a single character – Holden Caulfield. All other characters serve the purpose of telling Holden’s story and showing his features. As it might be seen from the plot, the tragedy of Holden is that he can live neither with nor without people. In Holden’s view, the whole world is being “phony,” and he denies being a part of it (Nadel 8). As a result, he finds himself absolutely lonely and unable to establish contact with society. According to Yahya and Babaee, the mental condition of Holden can be described as “inconsolable mourning” (1827). This means that he cannot see any future for him in the world he belongs to, as it makes him confused. The famous scene from the book is when Holden sincerely asks the taxi driver where the ducks from the Central Park fly to in winter. This scene aims to show that Holden is embarrassed by the complexity of the world.
All feelings of Holden described above lead to his willingness to be “the catcher in the rye.” Holden wants to catch children who are playing by the cliff because he believes that they will soon find themselves in the same state of mind, and thus, need someone’s help (Anderson 65). In Holden’s view, only he is aware of the world’s phoniness and can help children not to fall from the cliff.
Although it is clear that The Catcher in the Rye focuses primarily on Holden Caulfield, understanding the book merely as the reflection of adolescent problems seems not entirely correct. The problems of growing up that were already discussed occupy an important place in Salinger’s novel, and its popularity is probably mostly due to them. However, some critics suggest that The Catcher in the Rye not only addresses the eternal issue of confrontation between a teenager and the world but also reveals and condemns some characteristics of a certain historical era. Yahya and Babaee view Salinger’s novel as an opposition to the values of post-war American society, especially to a “conformist culture” (1825). In that context, Holden Caulfield appears as the representative of society with a distinct system of values that does not tolerate conformism and phoniness.
At the same time, Holden expresses the trauma of those members of American society who have experienced war and saw all its misery. He constantly recalls his brother, Allie, and cannot bear this burden (Yahya and Babaee 1827). This may be similar to ex-soldiers reminiscing about their experience on the battlefield. All in all, it can be seen that Salinger’s book addresses specific social issues and is not limited to the problems of adolescence.
Personal Opinion on the Book
Now that the issue of the novel has been discussed, the author tries to express the opinion on the meaning of the “catcher in the rye” metaphor and the main message of the book. Obviously, the role of the catcher is to prevent children from falling from the cliff. Thus, the questions are who these children are and what falling from the cliff actually means. As it was discussed earlier, Holden believes that he needs to catch children because, in his view, they require his help to face this world when they grow up. On this occasion, falling from the cliff means becoming isolated and lost adolescents in the complex and unfriendly world full of duplicity, which has precisely happened to Holden.
However, it seems that the metaphor of “catcher in the rye” may be interpreted in a broader context. If Salinger tried to depict the controversies and problems of post-war America, then the role of the catcher could be understood as preventing future generations from creating a similar society. Holden realizes that there is no place in this world for him, but still, he hopes to catch the children and save them from entering it. If they fall from the cliff, they will also become “phonies,” and thus, another generation will be lost. The presence of the catcher symbolizes the hope for the new world, even though for Holden, it is probably out of reach.
It seems that Jerome Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye will remain one of the most famous books among young adults for years. Holden Caulfield embodies many challenges of adolescence, and that is what makes him so appealing to the reader. However, young readers of this book perhaps should understand it not only as a reflection of their problems. As it was shown in this paper, The Catcher in the Rye can be interpreted in a context broader than the challenges of adolescence. The book contains Salinger’s opposition to the post-war American society and its fundamental values. The phoniness and duplicity – so despised by Holden Caulfield – have not disappeared from the world and still guide people in many of their actions. Therefore, The Catcher in the Rye continues to be relevant nowadays and deserves the attention of readers, no matter if they are teenagers or adults.
Anderson, John P. Guide to Enjoying Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Franny, and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. Universal Publishers, 2017.
Nadel, Alan. “Rhetoric, Sanity, and the Cold War: The Significance of Holden Caulfield’s Testimony.” J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, edited by Harold Bloom, Infobase Publishing, 2014, pp. 5-20.
Priest, Benjamin. “The Catcher in the Rye and the Ill Member of the Group: Holden Caulfield and Adolescent Development.” Psychodynamic Practice, vol. 22, no. 3, 2016, pp. 209-222.
Yahya, Wan Roselezam Wan and Ruzbech Babaee. “Salinger’s Depiction of Trauma in The Catcher in the Rye.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 4, no. 10, 2014, pp. 1825-1828.