In J.D. Salinger’s brilliant coming-of-age novel, Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old prep school adolescent relates his lonely, life-changing twenty-four-hour stay in New York City as he experiences the phoniness of the adult world while attempting to deal with the death of his younger brother, an overwhelming compulsion to lie and troubling sexual experiences.
Salinger, whose characters are among the best and most developed in all of literature has captured the eternal angst of growing into adulthood in the person of Holden Caulfield. Anyone who has reached the age of sixteen will be able to identify with this unique and yet universal character, for Holden contains bits and pieces of all of us. It is for this very reason that The Catcher in the Rye has become one of the most beloved and enduring works in world literature.
As always, Salinger’s writing is so brilliant, his characters so real, that he need not employ artifice of any kind. This is a study of the complex problems haunting all adolescents as they mature into adulthood and Salinger wisely chooses to keep his narrative and prose straightforward and simple.
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This is not to say that The Catcher in the Rye is a straightforward and simple book. It is anything but. In it we are privy to Salinger’s genius and originality in portraying universal problems in a unique manner. The Catcher in the Rye is a book that can be loved and understood on many different levels of comprehension and each reader who experiences it will come away with a fresh view of the world in which they live.
A work of true genius, images of a catcher in the rye is abundantly apparent throughout this book.
While analyzing the city raging about him, Holden’s attention is captured by a child walking in the street “singing and humming.” Realizing that the child is singing the familiar refrain, “If a body meets a body, comin’ through the rye,” Holden, himself, says that he feels “not so depressed.”
The title’s words, however, are more than just a pretty ditty that Holden happens to like. In the stroke of pure genius that is Salinger, himself, he wisely sums up the book’s theme in its title.
When Holden, whose past has been traumatic, to say the least, is questioned by his younger sister, Phoebe, regarding what he would like to do when he gets older, Holden replies, “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
In this short bit of dialogue, Salinger brilliantly exposes Holden’s deepest desire and expounds on the book’s theme. Holden wishes to preserve something of childhood innocence that gets hopelessly lost as we grow into the crazy and phony world of adulthood.
The theme of lost innocence is deftly explored by Salinger throughout the book. Holden is appalled when he encounters profanity scrawled on the walls of Phoebe’s school, a school that he envisions protecting and shielding children from the evils of society.
When Holden gives his red hunting cap to Phoebe to wear, he gives it to her as a shield, an emblem of the eternal love and protectiveness he feels for her.
Near the beginning of the book, Holden remembers a girl he once knew, Jane Gallagher, with whom he played checkers. Jane, he remembers, “wouldn’t move any of her kings,” an action Holden realizes to be a metaphor of her naivete. When Holden hears that his sexually experienced prep school roommate had a date with Jane, he immediately starts a fight with him, symbolically protecting Jane’s innocence.
More sophisticated readers might question the reasons behind Holden’s plight. While Holden’s feelings are universal, this character does seem to be a rather extreme example. The catalyst for Holden’s desires is no doubt the death of his younger brother, Allie, a bright and loving boy who died of leukemia at the age of thirteen. Holden still feels the sting of Allie’s death acutely, as well as his own, albeit undeserved, guilt, in being able to do nothing to prevent Allie’s suffering.
The only reminder Holden has of Allie’s shining but all-too-short life is Allie’s baseball mitt which is covered with poems Allie read while standing in the outfield. In a particularly poignant moment, Holden tells us that this is the glove he would want to use to catch children when they fall from the cliff of innocence.
In an interesting, but trademark, Salinger twist, Holden distorts the Robert Burns poem that provides the book’s title. Originally, it read, “If a body meets a body, comin’ through the rye.” Holden distorts the word “meet” into “catch.” This is certainly not the first time Holden is guilty of distortion; indeed he is a master at it.
This distortion, however, shows us how much Allie’s death has affected Holden and also how much he fears his own fall from innocence, the theme that threads its way throughout the whole of the book.
By this amazing book’s end, we must reach the conclusion that there are times when we all need a “catcher in the rye.” We are, indeed, blessed if we have one.
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