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Controversy in Catcher in the Rye

In this novel, the author creates Holden Caulfield, a boy that is the world’s punching bag’, and illustrates his difficult life through presenting his failures clearly to the reader. Salinger shows that Holden has had a ‘deprived’ childhood by explaining to the reader that Holden’s beloved brother Allie died at a young age. Holden still has not gotten over this unfathomable loss. Another way the author shows Holden’s depravity is by making the parents look as if they are not part of his life. Holden does not have a good relationship with his parents and this is presented very clearly in the novel. This novel is predominantly about showing Holden’s attempts at achieving his goals in life only to fall flat on his face to fail. A first-time reader of The Catcher in the Rye might not know what to think after reading the novel. It is not the typical novel. The Catcher in the Rye, a controversial novel by J.D. Salinger, is a work of fiction that proves itself commendable through its strong use of symbolism, its modernist themes, and significant use of characterization.

This novel, considered to be a well-constructed piece of fiction, is known to have a very complex structure; it has three parts of the plot that make up this structure. Showing Holden Caulfield’s life at school makes up the first part of this structure; his escape to New York in search of sexual escapade is the second. The third and final part of the structure is his collapse, backward into childhood, and unknowingly into insanity. Holden’s life at school is shown as him being a ‘loner’. First of all, when everyone from the school is at the football game, Holden is in his room.

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He says that everyone is supposed to be there and if they lost you were supposed to commit suicide or something. Holden not taking any part in the ‘important’ things of school shows his rejection of society. He is aggravated by the beliefs of the people who are his leaders. They believe life is a game. Holden can’t understand the concept that life is nothing more than a game. “Game my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hotshots are, then it’s a game, all right – I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hotshots, then what’s a game about? Nothing. No game.” (Salinger)

The second phase of the structure of the book is Holden’s attempt to understand his sexuality. He has four different attempts at sexual satisfaction: his telephone call to the girl who is “not quite a whore”; his evening at the Lavender Room with the three girls from Seattle; his encounter with the prostitute; and his proposal to Sally Hayes. In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger used symbolism throughout the novel. Three major symbols were the ducks, the Museum of Natural History, and Jane Gallagher. They all represent Holden in a way, and Salinger uses these symbols very well.

While Holden is wandering around New York City, he asks many people about what happens to the ducks in the pond when it freezes. I think this really symbolizes Holden. He isn’t really wondering about the ducks, he is wondering about himself. He wants to know what will happen to him when the weather gets really cold. He wants to know if he will have to go home, because he is really afraid to. This relates to the theme of going home, which is a recurring theme during the novel. The novel is basically his slow return to his home, and he is wondering whether he should go home or stay outside and freeze.

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The other two symbols, Jane Gallagher and the Museum of Natural History, both represent the theme of the past. Jane Gallagher was an old friend of Holden’s, and he mentions her many times during the story. He mentions that he will call her, but he never gets the nerve to. She is an important part of his past that he misses a lot, and he wants to go back and be with her again. The Museum of Natural History represents a different aspect of his past. While Jane Gallagher makes Holden want to return to his past, the Museum of Natural History sort of changes his mind. He remembers how he used to go there all the time, and how he was different, but the wax figures were always the same. He realizes that he can’t go back in time, because he is not the same as he used to be. He also realizes that he will never be the same as he used to be. J.D. Salinger’s use of symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye is very helpful in conveying hidden messages. He uses different symbols to use these messages, such as Jane, the Museum and the ducks. They all represent Holden, showing the way he thinks and acts.

The book, Catcher in the Rye, has been steeped in controversy since it was banned in America after its first publication. John Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman, asked the former Beatle to sign a copy of the book earlier in the morning of the day he murdered Lennon. Police found the book in his possession upon apprehending the psychologically disturbed Chapman. However, the book itself contains nothing that might have lead Chapman to act as he did. It could have been just any book that he was reading the day he decided to kill John Lennon and as a result, it was the Catcher in the Rye, a book describing a nervous breakdown, that caused the media to speculate widely about the possible connection. This gave the book even more recognition. The character Holden Caulfield ponders the thoughts of death, accuses ordinary people of being phonies, and expresses his love for his sister through out the novel.

So what is the book Catcher in the Rye really about? Superficially the story of a young man getting expelled from another school, the Catcher in the Rye is, in fact, a perceptive study of one individual’s understanding of his human condition. Holden Caulfield, a teenager growing up in 1950’s, New York, has been expelled from school for poor achievement once again. In an attempt to deal with this he leaves school a few days prior to the end of term, and goes to New York to take a vacation before returning to his parents’ inevitable irritation. Told as a monologue, the book describe Holden’s thoughts and activities over these few days, during which he describes a developing nervous breakdown. This was evident by his bouts of unexplained depression, impetuous spending and generally odd, erratic behavior, prior to his eventual nervous collapse.

Some critics have argued that Holden’s character is erratic and unreliable, as he has many of the middle-class values that he claims to reject. Later on critics began to have praised the twisted humor of the main character. These critics have commented that the structure of the novel helps you understand Holden’s unstable state of mind. Alastair best remarked: “There is a hard, almost classical structure underneath Holden’s rambling narrativ. The style, too, appears effortless; yet one wonders how much labor went into those artfully rough-hewn sentences” (qtd. in Davis 318)

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A large field of critics took a positive view of the novel. Paul Engle commented that the story was “emotional without being sentimental, dramatic without being melodramatic, and honest without simply being obscene”(3). Engle also wrote the authenticity of Holden’s character, the idea that his voice was typical of a teenager, never childish or written down at that age level. Engle wrote “The effort has been made to make the text, told by the boy himself , as accurate and yet as imaginative as possible. In this, it largely succeeds”(3). Many people repeat Engles viewpoint, the Catcher in the Rye is not just about age it is a unique story of a unique child. Engle writes, “The story is engaging and believable…Full of right observations and sharp insight, and wonderful sort of grasp of how a boy can create his own world of fantasy and live forms”(3)

Holdens continuous thoughts on the death are not typical of most teenagers. His near obsession with death might come from having experienced two deaths in his early life. He constantly dwells on Allie, his brother’s death. From Holden’s thoughts, it is obvious that he loves and misses Allie. In order to hold on to his brother and minimize the pain of his loss, Holden brings Allie’s baseball mitt along with him where ever he goes. The mitt has additional meaning and significance for Holden because Allie had written poetry, which Holden reads, on the baseball mitt. Holden’s fixation with death can be seen in his viewing of a dead classmate, James Castle. It tells the reader something about Holden that he lends his turtleneck sweater to his classmate, with whom he is not at all close.

The book The Catcher in the Rye is thought by many people to be a tragedy, but by some critics it is to be considered humorous, keen, and intelligent. Whenever a character is nearing the point of no return in a Salinger piece, it is usually done by route of comic (Stevenson 216). Many other critics have made a point that much of the humor in The Catcher in the Rye comes from Holden’s misunderstanding about adulthood. An example of this is shown in Holden’s relationship with an old schoolmate, Carl Luce. Although he is older and more experienced than Holden, he is not as mature as Holden believes him to be. After a try at communication with Luce fails, Holden flees to Phoebe, the only person he completely trusts (Davis 318). The humor in Holden’s character comes from his communication with the outside world. In some ways his need for love and stability in life is very sad but Holden’s character makes it funny by almost not caring.

However, during his psychological battle, life continues around Holden as it always had, with the majority of people ignoring the “madman stuff” that is happening to him, until it begins to affect their well defined social codes. Progressively throughout the novel we are challenged to think about society’s attitude to the human condition. Does society have an “ostrich in the sand” mentality, a deliberate ignorance of the emptiness that can characterize human existence? And if so, when Caulfield begins to probe his own sense of emptiness and isolation, before finally declaring that the world is full of “phonies”, each one out for their own phony gain. Is Holden actually the one who is going insane, or is it society which has lost its mind for failing to see the hopelessness of their own lives.

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Holden has strong feelings of love towards children as evidenced through his caring for Phoebe, his little sister. He is protective of her, erasing bad words from the walls in her school and in a museum, in order that she not learn from the graffiti. His fondness for children can be understood when he tells her that, at some time in the future, he wants to be the only grown-up with “all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.” He’ll stand on the edge of a cliff and catch anybody who starts to fall off the edge of the cliff. He got this image from his misinterpretation of a line from Robert Burns’s poem, “if a body catches a body comin’ through the rye.” It is obvious by studying the reviews of The Catcher in the Rye that most critics enjoy picking apart the character of Holden Caulfield, studying his every action and the basis for that action. Reviewers of the novel have gone to great lengths to express their opinions on Salinger’s main character. Some consider Holden to be considerate, others consider him arrogant, but a large majority of them find him completely entertaining.

One character that Holden is compared to in some ways is Hamlet. Like Hamlet, as Charles Kegel wrote, Holden is a “sad, screwed-up guy”(54), bothered by words that only seem true, but really quite phony. The integrity and truthfulness that Holden cannot seem to find in others he tries to maintain within himself. Holden often makes a point of using the word “really” to state the fact that something is really so, to prove to the reader that had not become a phony himself.

Holden is frightened often by the occasional realization that he too, must be phony to exist in the adult world. Catcher in the Rye will continue to be apart of public and critical debate. When we are honest we can see within ourselves unrevealed elements of the forces operating within Holden Caulfied, and because of that, I would recommend this thought-inspiring novel as a delightful and enlightening description of our human condition.

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Controversy in Catcher in the Rye. (2021, Feb 27). Retrieved December 8, 2022, from