Leila B smith- Higher English Critical essay- Book: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D Salinger is a novel in which there is a central character who is a mixed up adolescent, for whom I have opposing feelings. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield is still today quite easy for teenagers to identify and empathise with. I find him annoying but at the same time feel sympathy for him. As the story unfolds I have become fonder of his character and can justify much more of his behaviour.
The story of this young teenage boy is narrated in the first person. We embark on a moving journey to discover a character that provokes contrasting emotions. This intimate account delves into the life of a rather unstable young man who has been marked by the trauma of losing his younger brother enhanced by other dark events in his life.
Holden can be very funny, for example, when he just starts tap-dancing out of the blue, on the stone floor of the bathroom for no apparent reason other than self-amusement. Then he can be really annoying for example when he goes into Ackley’s room after the fight with Stradlater and will not leave him alone and disturbs his sleep incessantly.
The writer effectively engages the reader by using the first person technique which makes for a much more close up and personal read. We get to see the ins and outs of a complex, contradictory personality. We observe the world through Holden’s eyes and become used to his way of interpreting reality which enables us to empathise more with his character.
As Holden shows us inside his mind, we become more familiar with his quirks and idiosyncrasies, his ups and downs, his erratic and at times manic behaviour can seem almost normal. This stream of consciousness gives us much more insight into Holden’s essential nature.
Right from the very beginning of the story, the author portrays a realistic and authentic teenage voice for Holden, the central character of this novel, who swears continuously using words or phrases such as “damn” or “touchy as hell”. He often exaggerates and one of my favourite expressions of his, used on more than one occasion is “that killed me”. The use of very colloquial language or slang draws the reader in: “my lousy childhood” or “he’s got a lot of dough” is just a sample of the kind of language used which is very chatty and familiar. This is also augmented by use of repetition; “and all” particularly stands out. All these factors influence the creation of a convincing and long lasting character.
Having read a little about the background of the author, I can now see how certain details of his own experience are visible in an autobiographical sense. Having gone from one prep school to another or having been warned about possibly being sent to a military school was a reality in Salinger’s life. He also had a non conformist attitude towards life which is revealed in Holden’s character.
The novel is essentially a monologue which takes place in a therapy session in a “rest home” (mental hospital) where Holden opens up and pours out his thoughts and feelings. His troubled and immature nature, without barely any filter gives tremendous insight into the way his mind works and how he perceives life. This stream of consciousness taps into the emotions of the reader, we discover his obsessive nature, exaggerated judgement of other people, his true colours; which knock down the protective shield he uses, coming across as much tougher and harder than he is in reality. Of course we must not forget his almost pathological dishonesty which at times I find amusing and others ridiculous.
The fundamental, life-changing event is obviously his brother, Allie’s death:
” I was only thirteen and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it”
This is the catalyst to the downward spiral of successive negative circumstances that lead Holden to hit rock bottom. Although it seems clear that Holden’s parents realise the trauma Allie’s death has caused I get the feeling that he feels alone and has to deal with very complex emotions with lack of support.
“The thing that was descriptive about it, though, was that he had poems written all over the fingers... He’s dead now. He got leukaemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18, 1946. You’d have liked him.”
It’s clear from the text that Holden loved and admired Allie and feels that everyone would feel like he does about him. His recollection of specific details like the date shows how deeply this tragedy affected him. There was a before and after that would never be the same again in his life.
We cannot but empathise and feel sympathy for Holden the minute we discover what he has been through and how it has affected him. My ambivalent feelings dissipate when I understand that many of these manias or misconducts are in fact just a reflection of a heart broken, confused young man. But I cannot fully dismiss some of his much more annoying traits, though trivial by comparison, are important to mention:
“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. But we chewed the fat for a while. That is, she chewed it. You couldn’t get a word in edgewise...She gave me a pain in the ass, but she was very good-looking.”
Holden is extremely judgemental of others, full of negative projections. He himself behaves at times in exactly the same way as all these people he’s condemning. The last sentence reflects a level of superficiality that he supposedly hates. If she weren’t pretty, he wouldn’t even bother with her. He is critiquing her in his mind but having a totally different conversation with Sally over the phone. That’s quite “phony” in my eyes.
“We’ll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out. Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere, with a brook and all, and, later on, we could get married or something. ..Wuddya say? C’mon wuddya say? Will you do it with me? Please!”
His fantasy is so naive. My eyes roll and the desire to shake him back to reality at this point is a fact. He also sounds so desperate which causes rejection in itself, regardless of the incoherence of his ideas. Then as always throughout this novel, mixed feelings appear and magically what seemed totally infuriating becomes endearing until you actually feel sorry for him and understand his real need for meaningful connection and communication and ultimately love.
I find Holden Caulfield a tremendously intriguing character. I was so absorbed by the world in his mind that I quite resented it when the book ended and had the feeling that something was missing and there must be a sequel. I feel that he could represent many different things to different people. Although there is an element of a failure in him, on the other hand one can also see a hero. He is a rebel, he detests facades and superficiality. He is desperately trying to find meaning in his sad life and feels totally lost, rejected and misunderstood, which he often brings upon himself. He rejects the adult world but on the other hand pretends to be a lot more grown up than he is. He believes in true love and feels shame and embarrassment because in his mind sex should only be considered on that basis but then gets upset and feels guilty if he feels attraction to ladies he doesn’t like. All these qualities and weaknesses, these quirks and contradictions make a very genuine believable character.
I am left with a bitter -sweet memory of a young man who felt he did not really belong anywhere nor to anyone, relieved by the existence of Pheobe, his sister, who is in a way, his saviour. No matter how annoying Holden’s behaviour can often be, there is always a reason or at least a good excuse to justify it which leaves me little option but to decide that empathy is key to accepting people as they are and knowing that we all have our shortcomings. I have definitely discovered that I feel much more sympathy than true annoyance. He came to life in this novel, in his planet of black and white and good or bad where there’s no place for scales of grey, well maybe, I still wonder sometimes how he is getting on.