Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

20 Jan 2012

(Novel) Catcher in the Rye by: J.D. Salinger

(Reaction) A Tragic Catch by: Jose Angelo Singson

To describe the novel Catcher in the Rye as controversial is an understatement. For years it was banned in America after it was first published but that only helped to propel its popularity. Generations of teenagers would buy the book on the sly and then passed it around like a Tijuana bible and enjoyed it like a Tijuana bible; under the radar of authorities, read under the covers, late at night, illuminated by a shaky flashlight.

The book gained even more notoriety when John Lennon's assassin, Mark Chapman, asked the former Beatle's frontman to sign a copy of the book earlier in the morning of the day that he shot Lennon. They found the book with Chapman upon his arrest but found nothing significant that would link the book to committing the crime. Media though would later speculate though that the book, which describes a nervous breakdown, may have had a remote connection to the matter. The book's fate was sealed forever though as one of the most disreputable books ever written. So what is Catcher in the Rye actually about and was there a grain of truth to all the hooplah surrounding it?

On the surface it seems to be little more than a recounting of a young man's academic failures, sexual trysts and general ne'r-do-well-ness. Once you get past the crassness, drug use and the sex though, you realize that the novel is in fact a insightful study of an individual's understanding of his condition as a person and his struggles with morality. The novel is centered on Holden Caulfield, a teenager growing up in New York during the 1950's. He has been expelled from school, yet again, for performing badly in academics. He then decides to take a vacation to sort things out and by this he means ditching school a few days before the term ends.

The novel presents many deep existensial questions to the reader and does it cleverly using the most unconventional of vectors: a teenage slacker having perhaps one of the roughest, most difficult phase of his growing years. It is written as a monologue, and carefully chronicles Holden's thoughts and activities. More than that though it also provides us with a front row seat into the mind of a genuinely sensitive person literally coming apart at the seams.

The novel describes a burgeoning nervous breakdown in phases. Initially, he goes through moments of unexplained depression, impulsive shopping sprees, paranoia and generally odd, erratic behaviour. While all of this psychological turmoil is happening within Holden, externally life goes on as normal, which means that majority of the people he interacts with generally ignore his oddball antics. Until that is the antics begin to infringe upon their carefully orchestrated social codes and discourses.

I find that despite the overall coarseness of the novel's language that it is a very deeply sympathetic and almost personal telling of many quintessentially human struggles that all people have gone through at one point or another. The struggles described within the book are timeless and culture-less in that all people, regardless of race, gender or social standing would readily understand the recurring themes discussed in the book.

Perhaps the most frequently tackled and most fascinating theme of the novel involves the relationship/dynamics between the pain of actual experience and personal knowledge of one's feelings, and the equally devastating numbness that comes from consciously deciding to become emotionally callous as a coping mechanism. Holden lives in an existential limbo: he has willfully and meticulously numbed himself to human experiences such as pain and joy but cannot stand the banality of mere living. He lives out a pained, sad existence, fearful of getting hurt but constantly hungry for genuine human contact. Sadly though, he ends up being disappointed when he does manage to get human contact, although in my opinion this disappointment is usually the product of his own unrealistic or unmet expectations.

The loss of innocence that often accompanies maturity is also a frequently featured theme. In the novel Holden is badly stricken by Allie's death. To him, Allie's death is tantamount to witnessing the end of innocence as he views Allie as pure, un-jaded by the world. In Holden's eyes, Allie istruth, the illusive ideal he keeps seeking in a world full of phonies which is 1950's teen-slang for fake. Holden's concept of innocence is tightly wound with a heavy dose of idealism and this prevents him from fully accepting the harshness of reality.

I remember one of the most touching scenes in the book where Holden talks to Phoebe, his younger but much wiser (and more grounded) sister and he recounts a strange dream he had to her:

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. I know it's crazy...

This portion reveals 2 very crucial insights in Holden's life: 1. The realization that he is in fact, openly admitting that he is no longer a child (ergo an adult) as he willingly takes responsibility for the safety of the children in his dream as he assumes the role of the catcher in the rye. 2. Being an adult he has now fully lost his innocence, a matter or rather a condition that he regards so highly, and perhaps as a result of that loss of innocence he is now irreversibly phony to a certain extent. This is another of the novel's anti-hero moral-philosophical quandaries: does he cling to his childhood innocence, free of pretenses and double talk? Or will he conform and assume all the trappings of adulthood fully succumbing to the phony-ness that he has come to despise so much?

This dream sequence is a symbolic representation of Holden's current state of being and a summation of his goals and desires. The cliff in his dream represents the cusp of adulthood in which all children eventually get to. By his reckoning, falling off the cliff means to fall out of childhood and all the noble characteristics he has tied up with it: the innocence, the lack of one-upsmanship, honesty for its own sake, that he so admires.

For Holden the transition from childhood innocence to adulthood is a tragic one, lamentable loss. He views it as a form of suicide---a great fall is a perfect metaphor for it. He fancies himself a guardian of sorts against that loss of innocence, saving the kids from the fall, catching them like a safety net of sorts. Superficially, the desire is noble, but decidedly shallow and unrealistic; more the result of his fears and inability to come to terms with the unwritten, harsh rules that the society he lives in lives by.

The most prevalent theme in the novel after all the existential fluff is isolation. Holden is very lonely and as one goes deeper into the novel one cannot help but be amazed at the depth of his loneliness as the degree and intensity of it is hardly common of people his age. He candidly admits to his loneliness and readily it admits that perhaps its presence might prove he still has some emotions/humanity left.

Sex is found a lot in the book and serves more as a metaphor for the dynamics of human relationships. Ironically much of it doesn't actually happen to the main character. Most of Holden's attempts at initiating sex are, in fact, clumsy and awkward at best. Deep down Holden is actually a deep, sensitive, caring soul. Sex of course involves involving himself with a person and developing personal ties, something that he fears greatly. The novel mentions his envy of Stradlater, who treats sex as a casual pleasure no different from scratching an itch.

Sex is deeply discomforting for Holden: he cannot bring himself to initiate it with girls he likes and yet he cannot manage to numb himself enough to treat girls as mere sex partners. It would seem that numbing himself to love is Holden's greatest challenge. As a person, has the wonderful capacity to feel very deeply about the world, about people, and this prevents him from truly shutting down/going fully numb.

Holden does make attempts to ease his loneliness, whenever he does so however he ends up, whether consciously or unconsciously, sabotaging it before he can get hurt or disappointed. He, in effect, isolates himself so completely that he effectively aborts any possibility of alleviating his own loneliness. He'll initiate sex with a prostitute to feel human contact, but cannot bear to objectify a person. He might genuinely want to socialize with his peers at a bar but he ends up saying hurtful things so that they ditch him. His entire existence is a tiring game of push and pull: when confronted with the choice of human contact he would always choose to push people away. Holden is so pathologically frightened of losing people as he had lost Allie that he is willing to endure isolation.

The novel challenges us to think or rather to re-evaluate society's attitude to/about the human condition. As Holden Caulfield struggles with his own sense of isolation, lack of fulfillment and purpose, he finally defeatedly and dejectedly states that the world is full of phonies with everyone pretty much out to for his/her own phony gain, we are forced to consider the following pointed questions: 1. Is Holden the one going insane or is it society that has lost it's mind for failing to see the meaninglessness of people's lives? 2. Does society live in a general if it ain't broke, don't fix it attitude or is more like an ostrich with it's head in the sand attitude, a deliberate ignorance of the emptiness that can characterise human existence?

Review:

When we are honest we can see within ourselves suppressed elements of the forces operating within Holden Caulfield, and because of that I would recommend this thought provoking novel as a fascinating and enlightening description of our human condition. However, beware... for that very reason it is not comfortable reading.

Personally though, I truly, strongly dislike the character Holden Caulfield. Yes he is sensitive and yes, deeply caring but I cannot help but feel a strong sense of disgust at his inability to make a decision and accept the consequences and responsibilities that come with that decision. Perhaps this is really and truly what separates the men from the boys, the ability to make a decision and live with the consequences that result from it. It is unfortunate though that he will never come to that realization and I guess that is in actuality what I find most discomforting in reading this novel: seeing a young man, in search for some deep truths about the human condition and crashing to the ground even before his journey of discovery had begun.

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