Some question the modern relevance of The Catcher in the Rye, alleging its language and characters are dated. Some people say they can’t relate because the story lacks a linear plot or a main character that undergoes a transformation.
Classic literature is always relevant but may exercise the mind a bit. We don’t have to look too far to find modern examples of Catcher’s themes: Columbine High and other school shootings. Catcher is as directly relevant to these very real events as it is to modern films such as Good Will Hunting, Breakfast Club, Ordinary People and Empire Falls, which deal with a teenaged male in emotional crisis.
Homer’s The Odyssey is a classic and it lacks a linear plot; Odysseus merely wandered home. What did Holden do if not this? Are our minds so benumbed by Hollywoodish formulaic plot linearity that we’re unable to grasp something with a bit more depth? Have we devolved literarily since Homer?
The Odyssey’s appeal lies in the engaging people, places and creatures who provided the challenges for Odysseus to overcome. Holden's struggle was internal, against an enemy that he had no skills to identify. Like a baby writhing in pain from colic, all he knew was that he felt rotten and he kept going from place to place trying to feel better. Salinger even provides a metaphoric clue in Holden’s drunken imaginings of being gut-shot.
Holden visited a teacher, Spencer, and was emotionally bullied. He visited his dorm mates and was beaten up and ostracized. Weren’t bullying and ostracizing complaints of the teen outcasts of Columbine? Andrew in Breakfast Club? John Voss in Empire Falls?
From the people and places in Odysseus’ travels we learn about diverse cultures and social customs. Is this not true of Holden? Through him, Salinger provides delightful vignettes of social interaction. Holden shares intimacies and frustrations of prep school dorm life, including a vivid scene of Stradlater’s preparations for a date. He details his jealousy over Stradlater’s date with Jane Gallagher. On the train to New York, he concocts a shameless elaborate lie to a fellow student’s mother. He engages with everyone with whom he comes in contact. If nothing else, Catcher is a travelogue of conversation.
He has engaging conversations with taxi drivers. He ruminates for the reader about his relationship with Jane Gallagher, describing their hand holding experience in detail. Holden talks at length about “kidding,” apparently a social custom in New York of telling elaborate but harmless lies to test people’s gullibility. “I think I really like it when you can kid the pants off a girl…” Eventually he admits, “Some people you shouldn’t kid even if they deserve it.” Holden details his sexual feelings and has a platonic encounter with a young prostitute.
So, the only complaint about Catcher being dated that I can wrap my mind around is the fact that teenagers today are having sex like rabbits and discussing it like it was candy. That’s pretty lame “if you really wanna know.”
Unlike Odysseus, Holden’s heroism lies not in overt physical prowess, but in his courage to hang in there. He’s spiraling down and doesn’t get help from anyone but a former teacher, Mr. Antolini, who lets him down, and his little sister whose comes through with loads of unconditonal love.
Nowhere in literature have I encountered such a rich and compelling case made for bearing down and getting a good education as the one made by Mr. Antolini. But Antolini's goodness is almost negated with what is interpreted by Holden as a pedophilic advance. Except for getting punched by Sunny the prostitute's pimp, this is the most heart pumping scene in the book as Holden rushes to escape. Evading a pedophile is one of those coming of age experiences that seems to appear on everyone's list, another life lesson in Holden's journey
And who but an ambulatory cadaver would not be moved by the sibling devotion between Phoebe and Holden and Holden's worshipful longing for his lost brother, Aliee? If Phoebe hadn’t been there that night might Holden have pulled a Gillettte Super Blue ritual like Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People? But Holden held on until he collapsed, just as Salinger, himself, did due to “combat fatigue” after Utah Beach, The Battle of the Bulge and visiting a concentration camp.
After Holden’s collapse he is well enough to tell us his story. That’s a pretty major transformation to me.
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