The inherent aversion to corruption in society often inspires individuals to respond to the issue in hopes of minimizing the drastic effects it may have on people. This shared disdain for such corruption is analyzed in The Catcher in the Rye and The Grapes of Wrath. Both authors address the corruption; however they do so from different perspectives they come to differing resolutions. Both protagonists in their novels experience isolation as a result of society’s corruption; however, Salinger’s chooses to isolate himself whereas Steinbeck’s experiences isolation inadvertently. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath share a social commentary about how corruption pervades every aspect of society and due to society’s corruption, people either experience isolation by choice or through condemnation.
Alienation and isolation due to society’s corruption is relevant in both novels through the characterization of the protagonists. For example, Salinger develops Holden Caulfield, a socially inadequate teenager who distances himself from others due to their phoniness. From the onset of the novel, Salinger develops Holden’s desire to remove himself from society because of his belief that everyone is a phony. Although he disguises his motives to Old Spencer for leaving schools, Holden admits that “The reason [he] left Elkton Hills was because [he] was surrounded by phonies.
That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window” (13). Holden goes to great efforts to distance himself from others believing that he alone is genuine and authentic in society. Later in the novel, Holden makes plans to go on a date with Sally Hayes and nearly cancels on account of her ‘phony language.’ Analyzing her talk Holden thinks “Grand. If there’s one word I hate, it’s grand. It’s so phony. For a second, I was tempted to tell her to forget about the matinee” (106). Holden also mentally isolates himself; he avoids social situations and even when in them, he distances himself with the confidence that whomever he is with is not worth his time. Holden’s discovery of “fuck you” being written or carved publically further augments his hatred for society’s corruption and because of them, he condemns society as a whole, not willing to make an exception for anyone.
He ponders his death and thinks “If I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say ‘Holden Caulfield’ on it,… and then right under that it’ll say ‘Fuck you.’ I’m positive, in fact” (204). Holden is positive that all of society is corrupted and he judges those he encounters, as well as those he does not, never completely grasping that he is practically suspending whatever social existence he may have had. In The Catcher in the Rye Salinger’s protagonist’s objective is to be uninvolved in societal functions due to its corruption.
Similar to The Catcher in the Rye, a central focus of The Grapes of Wrath is separation from society and modern culture. Steinbeck’s protagonist, Tom Joad, upon his arrival in California, is alienated and shunned because he is labeled as an “Okie.” The reality of Tom’s alienation is revealed through the conversation he has with a migrant returning from California who found no work. The migrant man informs Tom that the term “Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it” (206).
Tom, representing his whole family, is discriminated against merely because he is from Oklahoma. After Tom and his family stop shortly on their journey the men who handle them discuss how subordinate the Okies are. The men wonder how Tom can make it through with such a junky car and they say “Them goddam Okies got no sense and no feeling. they ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas” (221). Tom is treated like he is subordinate largely due to his socioeconomic condition, which is significantly worse than the people of California. Such harsh condemnation due to a place of origination reveals how society’s corruption has lead to the inadvertent alienation Tom receives throughout the novel. Though Holden Caulfield’s isolation from others is deliberate, and Tom Joad is involuntarily segregated, isolation as a result of society’s corruption plays a significant role in both novels.
Salinger and Steinbeck also use different motifs to illustrate society’s corruption and its effect on people. In The Catcher in the Rye Salinger uses the motif of the preservation of innocence to clarify the gravity of society’s corruption. Holden loses his innocence as a child when his brother Allie dies.
Although he cannot come to terms with his brother’s death, Holden is confident that he can find solace by saving the other innocent children from the corrupt society they live in. Holden tells his younger sister Phoebe, his main inspiration for preserving innocence, that “[he has] to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…. [He will] just be the catcher in the rye and all. [He knows] it’s crazy but that’s the only thing [he’d] really like to be” (173). Holden’s only ambition in life is to rescue children from falling into society’s corruption. He is so infatuated with this notion that he even refuses to sleep with a prostitute that he has paid for. As the prostitute is waiting to do what she is getting paid for, Holden realizes how young she is and asks “Don’t you feel like talking for a while?” and then acknowledges that “It was a childish thing to say, but [he] was feeling so damn peculiar” (95). So troubled by her lost innocence, Holden cannot bring himself to go through with it.
Holden desires to drive out all evil throughout the novel, yet he realizes that he cannot. When Holden sees the words “fuck you” written in Phoebe’s school, Holden realizes that “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible” (202). The fact that he cannot save the world from society’s corruption is difficult for Holden to accept but instills in him even more passion to do all he can to preserve as much innocence as possible. Thus, Salinger suggests that society and its corruption is far beyond salvable despite great efforts.
Society’s corrupting influence of others can also be seen through Steinbeck’s motif of society’s lies and deception. Steinbeck reveals the corruption in the car dealers as the Joad family is about to embark on their travels. The Joads need to get a car and such a process is full of lies from the car dealers who exploit the migrants’ necessities to make more profit. The dealers manipulate the migrants by the day’s bargain: “Makes folks come in though. If we sold that bargain at that price we’d hardly make a dime. Tell ‘em it’s jus’ sold” (62). The cars dealers are selling pieces of junk for ridiculous payments from the migrants who believe that they had missed the day’s bargain. Society’s corruption is also embodied by the land owners in California who are sending out the handbills asking for men to work. A ragged old man informs the Joads that “This fella wants eight hundred men.
So he prints up five thousand of them things an’ maybe twenty thousan’ people sees ‘em. An’ maybe two-three thousan’ folks get movin’ account a this here han’bill” (189). The land owners are aware of the fact that migrants are so desperate for money and food and exploit their necessity by promoting their own need for people to work. When the multitudes of migrants come and are willing to work all day for only a couple biscuits, the land owners know they can use this for their own benefit by taking advantage of hard labor and little pay. Society’s corruption is depicted through the authors’ development of motifs that reveal how pervasive it truly is.
Salinger and Steinbeck’s commentary on the corruption of society and its effect differs greatly in the novels’ resolution of the protagonists and the development of their motifs. Although both authors use characterization to portray their social commentary, they go about it in two different manners. While the Grapes of Wrath, with respect to social alienation, focuses more on approval among those who are convincingly greater or “high-class”, The Catcher in the Rye’s main character’s intents are to be left out of society’s affairs and people themselves. Salinger’s protagonist is a stagnant character who makes very little progress in working through society’s corruption and trying to figure out how to handle it. Holden continues to fail to preserve the innocence as well as acknowledging his inability to get over the misconception that he himself has not been tainted by the corruption.
On the other hand, Steinbeck develops Tom Joad, who goes about great transformation throughout the novel. Tom continues to fight for what he knows to be a better form of society and even when he loses almost everything, continues to press on. The resolution of the two novels and their protagonists’ roles in them reveal the different views of social corruption they both have. Holden’s lack of progress reveals Salinger’s belief that the corruption permeating society is incurable. Contrasting that, Steinbeck’s dynamic protagonist who makes society a little bit better reveals his confidence that there will be a day in which society’s corruption will be minimized.
The motifs developed by the two authors also expose the difference in social commentaries. Salinger’s motif of preserving innocence shows his desire to salvage what he can from society; however, Holden’s realization that such a task is impossible symbolizes his conviction that society will always be corrupt. In contrast, the lies and deceit that pervade Steinbeck’s novel reveal society’s corruption in every aspect and phase of life but he resolves his book with the Joads being successful. Although the two authors make the same social commentary about society’s corruption, Steinbeck and Salinger present their ideas in fundamentally different ways with differing resolutions of their protagonists and differing motifs. Works Cited
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Viking, 1939. Print. Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951. Print.
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