The Catcher in the Rye: An International Perspective on a Tired Old Book

Reham Alawadhi
BY Reham Alawadhi

A classic in post-WW2 American literature. The author a household name. But to me, a Kuwaiti student studying in the United States, it was a daunting book assignment that I had to read — and review — for the first time in my life.

I was nervous about the assignment and a little intimidated. Growing up I attended a British school, which meant I was never assigned any American literature to read. I had heard about “The Catcher in the Rye” but I had no idea what it was about. The book was received very well when it was published. A New York Times review from 1951 by Nash K. Burger called it “an unusually brilliant novel,” that was written in, “Holden’s own strange, wonderful language.” Today, the book is still widely regarded as one of the an influential, even great, novels of its time.

Following his novel’s success upon publication in 1951, J.D. Salinger became more secluded and published his work sporadically. It seems the alienation and loneliness that Holden Caulfield was presumably on he way to being cured of at the end of the book actually still plagued Salinger afterward.

catcherI have to say, I am very surprised by how well received the book was. I found it very difficult to remain interested in Caulfield’s story about what happened in the days leading up to his illness. Caulfield is a troubled boy who has had a lot of problems focusing in school, and as a result has been kicked out the schools he has attended. Like every teenager in the world, he is rebellious and feels alienated and lonely.

Salinger tells the story through Caulfield’s voice,  and the language he uses is unique to say the least. Caulfield constantly uses the phrase “old Phoebe/Ackley/etc.” His sister Phoebe is a 10-year-old, therefore she is not “old,” and neither is Ackley. I’m not sure if it’s a cultural difference, but I and every other 16-year-old in Kuwait didn’t talk like that. The language difference seems to be more to do with the time period than geographical location of culture.

Caulfield’s language, which the New York Times reviewer said was strange and wonderful, was extremely annoying and hard to follow. The repetitive use of “. . . and all” and “That killed me” seemed unnecessary. I just felt like he could have used other phrases, instead of repeating the same annoying ones.

Caulfield’s thoughts are scattered and are all over the place, and even though this is part of his persona, it made the book difficult to read. He drifts from topic to topic and rambles on about the same thing for several pages.

Salinger definitely did a good job creating a character and sticking to the character’s voice and persona consistently — but it took a lot away from the book. Caulfield was always complaining and whining, which made him exceedingly irritating.  Maybe Salinger intended that, but for me it just made the book unpleasant.

I did start to notice the language a little less as I progressed through the book, which allowed me to focus more on the content. However, once I started focusing on the content, I got the feeling that nothing was really happening. My motivation to read on was in the hopes of something monumental happening and really turning the story around, but that never happened. I hoped the story would end in a twist, which it kind of did, but it still fell short of my expectations. After hearing all the hype about this book, I was expecting a thought provoking page-turner.

The book did make me laugh at times, so it seems the humorous parts were not lost in time (or lost in translation), and also made it through cultural barriers. I couldn’t resist a chuckle when Caulfield said, “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.”

I liked the different characters in the book because they were all interesting and unique but relatable. I could think about each person in the book, and match him or her to someone that I know in my life. My favorite character was Phoebe, Caulfield’s sister, who reminded me of my six-year-old niece. She is brilliant and smart at such a young age, but also still endearingly childish, just like Phoebe.

I can understand why high school English teachers loved to assign this book to high school students, as it is something the students can probably relate to, and I guess it shows that there’s still hope even if they are unfocused and lazy. I’m not sure if I would have felt differently had I read this book when I was in high school because maybe at that age I would have related to Caulfield more.

But today, more than 60 years after its initial success, this novel is not relevant, at least not to me. The main character is insufferable and tells us a useless story that goes nowhere. He drags on and on, shooting from one topic to the next, using that annoying language. Maybe at the time it was a great example of classic American literature.

But not now.  

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