The original idea of this blog was to provide somewhere for me to record the books and articles I read. I forget things so easily: I know I’ve read “Catcher in the Rye”, for instance. I see it on my bookshelf sometimes, and the spine has creases. It’s definitely been read. But I can’t remember a single thing about it. Not one event, character, idea, sentence. Nothing. So my idea with this blog was to write things down.
Well, now I’ve re-read Catcher in the Rye, so I guess I’ll have to update my examples. It’s sad that it took me so long to come back to the book, and that it took the death of its author to prompt me. There really is a lot of good stuff in here.
What I found most amazing was that, although it was narrated by a self-pitying teenager with a lot of repeated verbal ticks, it never irritated me. It was just Holden Caulfield’s voice, and it felt authentic from the very first paragraph.
The other great achievement was to communicate a lot of ideas through the mind of a narrator who doesn’t have access to a lot of wisdom or perspective. He’s a teenager, and he’s grappling with feelings of alienation and revulsion, but doesn’t really understand why. Yet Salinger lets us understand more, partly by filling in back-story like the death of his little brother Allie, and partly by having adults speak to and about Holden, suggesting possible reasons for his position.
Holden is presented in some reviews as just an annoying, privileged kid who hates the world for no reason and should grow up and get over it. It’s easy to see why people would think that, but for me the story of Allie and his relationship with his little sister Phoebe give a much more interesting perspective on his character. Losing a brother is a horrible thing for any child to experience, and it seems to be the root of Holden’s hatred for the world. Allie died of leukemia at a young age and so is always preserved in Holden’s mind as a perfect, innocent child who went for walks with him in the park and wrote poetry on his baseball glove. Holden compares everyone else to this idealised picture of Allie, and it’s not surprising that he finds them all to be phony or dishonest. It’s also not surprising that he hates them, because they lived and Allie didn’t. He’s a child trying and failing to understand death and injustice. He holds the world up to impossible standards because in a way the people he meets have to prove why they deserve to live when Allie died. They, of course, fail to live up to his standards in various ways, and so he hates them.
Holden also fails, and he’s aware of it – he’s a coward himself, and phony sometimes, and he hates himself for it. He invites pain – the bloody nose from his school roommate, the roughing up from the elevator boy/pimp in the hotel, the cold in Central Park. He invites it perhaps because he feels he deserves it. Again, he’s comparing himself to Allie and finding himself wanting. Phoebe is the only person in the book he likes, because she’s still a child and so still innocent. He wants to protect her, to keep her frozen in childhood, a cute kid on a carousel. He hates the idea of her growing up and getting corrupted – when he goes to her school and sees someone has written “Fuck you” on the wall, he is furious and scrapes it off. Whenever he sees a child, it makes him happy – for him they are the symbol of purity in a dishonest world.
The title of the book ties all this together. When it’s first mentioned, on page 115, Holden is walking along Broadway feeling depressed as usual when he sees a young boy walking along the curb singing a song, “If a body catch a body coming through the rye”. The effect on him is instant: “It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.” Then near the end of the book Holden is talking to Phoebe and she asks him what he wants to do in his life, and he can only think of one thing, based on the same song the boy was singing:
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 is characteristic of the whole book – Holden doesn’t really understand, but expresses something in a confused way, and Salinger gives the reader enough information to understand and piece it all together. When you know about Allie, and see how Holden behaves around other children, this passage makes perfect sense. He wants to protect the children, and also to go back himself into a purer, happier time, before Allie’s death, before he started moving towards adulthood. He wants to catch them and preserve them as they are, happy and innocent, to save them from becoming adults or, worse, from becoming Holden Caulfield.