Many readers of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, have expressed frustration with the book, complaining that it has no plot or they have trouble relating to the spoiled, whiny rich kid main character, Holden Caulfield. Or the book was forced on them as an English assignment. If you are among this crowd, read on. I had the same response at age ninteen when I first read it in 1964.
Does it make sense to you that Holden was so traumatized by the deaths of his brother, Allie, and his dorm-mate, James Castle, that he couldn't function? Today's diagnosis would be PTSD. Do you know anyone with that condition? If you did, you would recognize the symptoms in Holden.
Has anyone close to you died? Do you get it that people can be so torn up over the loss of a loved one that it takes them years to get over it unless they get professional help, if even then?
Does the book make sense to you knowing that JD Salinger himself spent time in a mental ward for "battle fatigue" during World War II after participating in the Normandy landing at Utah Beach, the heart of the action, where he could see hundreds of men, some of them perhaps close friends, cut to pieces by German machine guns and blown apart by mortars. He was also at the horrific Battle of Bulge and other major battles where American troops were decimated.
He was also among the first Allied soldiers to visit a concentration camp where bodies were piled up to be burned and the air stank of burning flesh and the prisoners he helped liberate were walking skeletons? "You could live a lifetime, Salinger told his daughter, "and never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose."
Does it make sense to you that someone who had experienced what Salinger had could acquire a heightened sense of compassion for his fellow man and want to protect the innocence of children? Doesn't it make sense that he could create a character like Holden to express those feelings?
(And doesn't this make the "teenaged angst" explanation of the book seem a bit superficial, even dismissive?)
Holden was almost 17 and confronting the complications of life without much input from his parents, who themselves were probably still consumed by grief over Allie's death. Holden makes it clear on multiple occasions how alone he feels. PTSD could have made him edgy, jaded and negative.
All of life can be viewed from opposite poles of positive or negative. "Phony" is a negative label connoting judgment on the part of Holden's juvenile mind that is too inexperienced in life to have the capacity to understand why people put up a social front.
Every human being has a public persona they polish to show the world, when deep inside they are scared little children or have some other fear or hangup.
The irony is that Holden thinks he's being cool by calling out the phoniness he sees, when he's only skimmed the surface of human understanding. Until the very end of the book, when he lets down his own defenses, "practically bawling" as he sits on the bench in the rain watching Phoebe on the carousel.
"She just looks so nice," he says, "in her blue coat, going around and around."
Here is the song, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" that was playing as the carousel turned: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2di83WAOhU (As sung by The Platters a few years later.) The opening lines: "They, asked me how I knew, our true love was true. I of course replied, Something here inside, Can not be denied."
The book is rich with deep insight into the humanity of an adolescent male striving to understand the world he is growing into while weighed down by unresolved grief over the deaths of a brother and a friend. And he is pulled back from the brink of doing something stupid, running away, by the innocence and unconditional love of Phoebe.
My spirit soared after finishing the book in 2011, nearly fifty years after my first reading. Holden's tears were happy tears because he could not deny the love of his devoted little sister, who had just fought furiously for his safety. Because of her he got the mental health care he so desperately needed, in a cushy "rest home" in California, where his beloved big brother could see him every weekend.
What can be greater than discovering you are loved and not alone?
The Catcher in the Rye is not so much a book for young adults or teenagers, although it is promoted that way because of the age of the protagonist. The themes of compassion and mental illness and redemption are adult themes. The popular academic focus on teenage angst is overblown, in my humble opinion. It raises unrealistic expectations in younger readers and leaves them disappointed and confused.
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