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Critical Analysis of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
Everyone struggles to find their place in society. Some follow the rules society has set for them exactly, while others have a hard time dealing with the transition from childhood to adulthood. The Catcher in the Rye was written post World War II, and magnifies some of the problems America’s youth was going through. Salinger uses everything from comedy and obscenity to violence and death to get his point across.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye exemplifies the struggles a forlorn and confused youth can go through when trying to survive in society and find purpose and acceptance as an adult.
J.D. Salinger was born in Manhattan in 1919, the son of a wealthy cheese importer. “He grew up in a fashionable section of New York City, and spent his youth studying at various prep schools: after shuttling between several schools, his parents finally sent him to the Valley Forge Military Academy in 1934” (Phillips 3).
After returning from World War II Salinger began to write. In many ways, the novel combines details of Salinger’s early life with the postwar world in which it was written. Holden’s story, published in 1951, is set amid the conservative activity of the early ’50s, a time when the American industrial economy made the nation prosperous, and old-fashioned social rules forced the younger generation to repress its sexuality, factors which affect Holden’s story. The book created a huge amount of debate due to the “moral issues raised by the book and the context in which it is presented,” (Lomazoff 1).
Following the enormous reaction from the public to the novel’s first publication, he fled to a rural life in the hills of New Hampshire to evade public attention.
Holden Caulfield, a sixteen year-old boy recuperating in a rest home from a nervous breakdown, some time in 1950, narrates the Catcher in the Rye. Holden tells the story of his last day at a school called Pencey Prep, and of his succeeding psychological meltdown in New York City. Holden has been expelled from Pencey for academic failure, and after an unpleasant evening with his self-satisfied roommate Stradlater and their pimply next-door neighbor Ackley, he decides to leave Pencey for good and spend a few days alone in New York City before returning to his parents’ Manhattan apartment. In New York, he gives in to increasing feelings of loneliness and desperation brought on by the hypocrisy and ugliness of the adult world; he feels increasingly tormented by the memory of his younger brother Allie’s death, and his life is complicated by his growing sexuality. He wants to see his sister Phoebe and his old girlfriend Jane Gallagher, but instead he “spends his time with Sally Hayes, a shallow socialite Holden’s age, and Carl Luce, a pretentious Columbia student Holden treats as a source of sexual knowledge” (Phillips 2).
Increasingly lonely, Holden finally decides to sneak back to his parents’ apartment to talk to Phoebe. He borrows some money from her, and then goes to stay with his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini. When he believes Mr. Antolini to be making a homosexual advance toward him, Holden leaves his apartment, and spends the rest of the night on a bench in Grand Central Station. The next day Holden experiences the worst phase of his nervous breakdown. He wanders the streets, looking at children and talking to Allie. He tries to leave New York forever but when Phoebe insists on going with him he gives in, agreeing to go back home to protect his sister from the ugliness of the world. He takes her to the park, and watches her ride on the merry-go-round; he suddenly feels overwhelmed by an inexplicable, intense happiness. Holden concludes his story by refusing to talk about what happened after that, but he fills in the most important details: he went home, was sent to the rest home, and will attend a new school next year. He regrets telling his story to so many people; talking about it, he says, makes him miss everyone.
Setting is used by Salinger to symbolize Holden’s feelings and struggle as he enters adulthood. Having the story take place in winter adds to the depression Holden feels when he cannot find anyone who understands him. When Holden is drunk, and has tried to contact just about everyone but his sister and Mr. Antolini, the weather is noted to be cold. “I didn’t feel too drunk anymore when I went out side, but it was getting very cold out again,” (Salinger 153). Holden become very depressed thinking about Allie and death in general; the weather parallels Holden’s feelings. In addition, Holden’s trip from Pencey, in Pennsylvania to New York represents Holden’s journey from childhood to adulthood. In New York, as well as in adulthood, Holden discovers surviving by himself is harder than he thinks. New York is also very busy and hectic and can be compared to Holden’s decent from sanity.
Salinger uses style and language to help convey the theme of the novel. Holden’s tone and language illustrates how critical he is of the outside world, which is how many adolescents feel about society. Holden often makes a point of using the word “really” to assert the fact that something is really so, to prove to the reader that had not become a phony himself. Holden is distressed often by the occasional realization that he too, must be phony to exist in the adult world. Furthermore, as Holden’s experiences change, so does his use of crude language. When he is caught up in his own antics and is enraged, “sonuvabitch” and “bastard” frequently find their way into his vocabulary. However, when he “addresses the reader as a narrator, Holden rarely, if ever, slips into his habitual use of swearing” (Costello 77). “Sonuvabitch” is used for his extreme anger, as when he kept calling Stradlater a “moron sonuvabitch” for the boy’s seemingly offensive treatment of Jane Gallagher. Again, Holden’s sporadic use of “sonuvabitch” in his angriest moments alerts the reader to the serious quality of his anger. Salinger carefully used such speech patterns to help identify Holden’s character without lengthy descriptions of such. Here, the offending words lets the reader know when Holden is most angry and the types of situations that make him so, thereby offering further insight into his character, often through the use of a single word.
The tone of the story also facilitates the illustration of the theme of the novel by being comical and serious at the same time. The story is “emotional without being sentimental, dramatic without being melodramatic, and honest without simply being obscene” (Engle 3). Holden’s voice is typical of a teenager, never childish or written down to that age level. Holden’s tone makes the story more than just another account of adolescence, complete with general thoughts on youth and growing up. The humor in Holden’s character comes from his communication with the outside world. His innocence and hunger for stability and permanence make him both a tragic and touching character, capable of making dark activities on the surface seem hilarious and silly below.
Characters are used consistently through the story to display Holden search for himself and acceptance from others. Holden, the Protagonist, is the most fully developed character in the story. Phoebe, Allie, and Jane Gallagher are the only other character described almost as thoroughly as Holden is. They also are the only three people that Holden speaks about in entirely positive terms. Holden is searching for the kind of acceptance that he receives or received from these three people from all other characters that he comes into contact with. “Jane Gallagher and Allie, represent his everlasting symbols of goodness” that Holden is searching for (Davis 317). If these characters do not or cannot offer him acceptance or companionship Holden usually ends up calling them a “phony” or “moron”. This behavior is seen when Holden comes in contact with Sally Hayes. Holden is talking of her somewhat positively, but then when she answers, “Yes-who is this?” Holden calls her ” a little phony. I’d already told her father who it was.” (Salinger 106). As Holden’s realization that she is not what he is looking for becomes clearer so does his anger with her. He later continues his attempts to have Sally fill the emptiness he yearns to fill by asking her to marry him, and does not give up until she finally leaves.
Salinger also uses some characters to reveal past behaviors of Holden to clarify if not reinforce current behaviors. Salinger uses Holden’s meeting with Carl Luce to give a more broad perspective on his behavior. Once again, this reinforces that others consider Holden to have some significant problems, but Salinger takes this viewpoint further in this chapter. Carl indicates that Holden’s behavior when they meet at the Wicker Bar is typical behavior, and not the product of his altered psychological state. Holden has been suffering from his current problems since he went to Whooten with Carl Luce, and these problems have been significant; Carl even had suggested psychiatric treatment for Holden, a relatively significant recommendation in an era when therapy was highly stigmatized. Furthermore, this diagnosis comes from one of Holden’s peers. This perspective on Holden’s problems cannot be dismissed as easily as others, for Carl’s recommendation is not the advice of the elderly Mr. Spencer or another authority figure who presumably could not understand Holden’s problems.
Another two characters important to Holden’s as well as the theme’s development are two Pencey students whom represent contrasting types of reprehensible behavior. Ackley is showily boorish; in appearance and in manners he is disgusting and oblivious to all social graces. Hopelessly vulgar and unclean, Ackley is unaware of the contempt that Holden has for him, even when confronted with it. Stradlater, in contrast, is outwardly friendly and considerate; yet still one of the phonies that Holden abhors. Stradlater is playful and charming, but is still self-centered and arrogant. He flaunts his assets, whether physical or financially; whether giving away a tie or walking around the dormitory in a state of undress, he performs these actions to show what he possesses. These characters do, nevertheless, serve the purpose of showing the oppressive conditions that Holden faces at Pencey. Ackley and Stradlater demonstrate that Holden’s disgust for the school and its “phonies” is not completely unfounded. In addition, they begin to show the unreliability of Holden’s descriptions of people he comes in contact with. They are at the top of a long list of characters that Holden does not like, and will illustrate how the point of view of the story will affect perceptions of Holden and other characters.
The story is told in first person point of view narrated by Holden Caulfield. First person point of view reveals Holden’s memories, motivations, and thoughts. The first person point of view allows the reader to slowly learn that Holden might be mentally sick. Do to the first person point of view; Ackley and Stradlater appear to really be morons and unlikable characters. However, as Holden continues to view more and more character under the same light Holden, himself, is seen as the flawed individual. “Through the telling of the story, Holden has given shape to, and thus achieved control of, his troubled past” (Davis 318). Likewise, first-person point of view provides insight into the thoughts and reasoning of an adolescent trying to survive in the modern word. First person point of view reveals how a boy can create his own world of fantasy and live forms.
Symbolism is used by Salinger to exemplify the struggle of a child trying to grow up in an stressful modern society. The fact that Holden has flunked out of three Pennsylvania prep schools, symbolizes that he is not truly ready for adulthood. Holden was supposed to make his transition into adulthood during his years at preparatory school, but did not. In addition, Holden’s consistent questioning of what the ducks do when the river freezes over symbolizes Holden’s search for belongingness. Holden’s pond is his childhood. Holden knows he needs to grow up, and like the ducks he needs to figure out where he will go. Holden has also been somewhat forced into adulthood by his gray hairs and his height. This only strengthens the fact that Holden, like the ducks, is being forced to leave his home by nature.
Salinger also uses symbolism to illustrate Holden’s quest for communicability and purpose in life. Caulfield’s inability to communicate with others is represented symbolically in the uncompleted phone calls and undelivered messages, which appear throughout the novel. “On fifteen separate occasions, Holden gets the urge to communicate by phone, yet only four phone calls are ever completed, and even those are with unfortunate results (Kegel 55).” Holden, like most youth has a problem finding someone that he can talk to that can understand him. Holden’s search for communicability with others, and Holden’s first person after-the-fact narration indicates he has been successful in his search. Additionally, the shattered record symbolizes if not foreshadows the shattering of Holden’s dream to be able to take care of children. Holden wishes to be catcher in the rye, and hears the song right after he buys the record. He wishes to give the record to Phoebe, but it breaks, symbolizing his inability to protect children from the phoniness of the adult world. Holden has once again lost his purpose in life.
In essence, Holden Caulfield is a good guy stuck in a bad world. He is trying to make the best of his life, though ultimately losing that battle. Whereas he aims at stability and truth, the adult world cannot survive without suspense and lies. It is a testament to his innocence and decent spirit that Holden would place the safety and well being of children as a goal in his lifetime. This serves to only re-iterate the fact that Holden is a sympathetic character, a person of high moral values who is too weak to pick himself up from a difficult situation. The richness in the spirit J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, especially of the vision, the compassion, and the humor of the narrator takes an extensive evaluation of how lost, lonely, and confused adolescence can feel when growing up. Although not all youth are driven to the point Holden Caulfield is, many think about running away and being their own person. Most, however, probably do not want to run away and become a catcher in the rye. Who in their right mind would ever want to do that?
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