J.D. Salinger is the author of this wonderful and special book. He was the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, born in the city of all cities – New York City, in 1919.
He quickly understood that writing was the thing for him, and by 1940 he had published several stories, though short, in different periodicals. His writing career had a brief pause when he got enrolled during World War II, and after that he resumed a writing career primarily for The New Yorker magazine.
He received popular recognition when he published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, his story of the rebellious boarding school student who wanted to run away from the world he finds “phony”. Holden Caulfield being his name.
Holden Caulfield is the protagonist of this novel, and the narrator. He’s a sixteen-year-old junior who’s been expelled from Pencey Prep. He’s failed they say. It’s easy to understand that he’s both intelligent and sensitive – but the book is narrated in a quite cynical voice. Some people say he sounds dangerously cynical, but I don’t think he does. I think he has a good reason to be in the special world we live in. Research done shows that the number of readers who have made Holden his hero is staggering, something about how he is able to express his feelings and opinions of the world captures the reader in a very new and special way. We don’t get to know too much about his past, no details – but he’s failed four schools, he’s been visited by a psychoanalyst, his brother died of leukaemia three years before we enter the story of Holden Caulfield.
His name means something too, and I don’t believe J.D. Salinger gave his protagonist the name Holden Caulfield unintentionally. A “caul” is a membrane that covers the head of a fetus during birth, so perhaps the caul in his name symbolizes that he is a child not able to see the complexity of the adult world. If we want to further analyse his name, Holden Caulfield might mean “Hold-on Caul-field” – so perhaps he wants to hold on to what he understand as his innocence, but what really is his blindness.
The story itself is set to the years around 1905, and the protagonist – who serves as the narrator of this book, is not specific about his location while he’s telling the story, but it’s clear that’s he’s under treatment for mental problems at an institution or sanatorium. The events narrated in the book, take place in a few carefully and detailed described days. He has just been expelled as we enter this chain of events, because he failed four out of five subjects. It’s easy to understand that he’s annoyed at the world, at the teachers, the headmaster, the students – just about everyone around him.
““Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.” “Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.” Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots 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 hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.”
This quote is from Holden’s conversation with his history teacher, Spencer, and is part of a lecturing Holden gets about playing by the rules of life’s game. Holden’s reaction to this gives a clear insight into Holden’s view of adults. He feels out-of-place, and almost sickened by the way adults behave.
Holden runs away to New York City, wanting to spend some time alone before he has to go home and face the disappointment of his parents again. The only true light in his life seems to be his sister Phoebe, she is the only person Holden doesn’t “kill” with his views and opinions of people we meet in this book. But in Phoebe, Holden meets opposition. All he wants is to live in a normal and uncomplicated children’s life. Phoebe understands that growing up is necessary, and become angry with Holden when he refuses to mature. Up this point, Holden has seemed like the charming, well-thinking yet cynical person of this book – but when we meet Phoebe he sounds like a stubborn and childish brat. Even though she never states it, Phoebe seems to realize that Holden’s bitterness towards the rest of the world is really directed at himself.
We first meet the title of the book after 15 chapters, when Holden (while in New York City) admires a kid who is walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. The kid is singing the song “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”, a song by Robert Burns. This song’s lyric asks if it’s wrong for two people to meet each other romantically in the fields, even if they don’t plan to commit to each other. (For me, since I’ve read 1984, I remember that the two protagonists of that book also met in a field to keep away from “Big Brother”. 1984 was published for the first time in 1949, perhaps J.D. Salinger had read it before he finished The Catcher in the Rye?) The most important part of the book must be when the narrator reveals the source of the book’s title – and this is perhaps the most famous passage of the book.
“. . . 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.”
It occurs right after his argument/conversation with Pheobe, his catcher in the rye fantasy reflects his innocence, his belief in pure, unspoiled youth, and his want to preserve that spirit; although on the other hand, it also shows his extreme disconnection from reality and his childlike view of the world we live in. Without giving away too much of the story, I would like to say that the museum represents the world Holden wishes he could live in. It’s clear throughout the story that above all he fears interaction with other people – and what better is the place where nothing ever changes?
I liked this book a lot; it was an unending interesting journey to read it. I think it’s hard to write in first-person, but J.D. Salinger has managed this task with flying colors! A lot of my native English-speaking friends recommended this book to me, because it really is quite different from all other books. J.D. Salinger manages to capture each event and put you right on Holden Caulfield’s shoulder, with a leg in his thoughts. You also think a lot during, and after reading The Catcher in the Rye, about a lot of things concerning life. He raises a lot of questions I believe we don’t ask ourselves enough, and criticizes the society and world we live in.