By Torsten Ward
In the wake of being expelled from the fancy Pencey Prep boys’ school in Pennsylvania, a 16-year-old Holden Caulfield goes on a short journey of accidental self-destruction and unintentional self-discovery. Life is not exactly pleasant from Holden’s perspective as he speaks frequently about the contradictory nature of the world and the quality of fakeness within those around him. This, in addition to Holden’s mention of being in a care center following a mental breakdown, is enough to convince readers of his not-so-well-being.
Adolescence is a rough time for everyone. Holden centers his worldview on the death of a brother, an event which still affects his character pretty drastically despite having occurred years prior. This is the only argument made by author J.D. Salinger that suggests Holden’s situation is different from the average, angst-ridden adolescent. However, everyone experiences death at some point in their lives and Holden’s self-absorbed belief that others only concern themselves with their own lives is a naïve understanding of the world. Some would argue that this belief is contradictory, yet the novelty of such a circumstance is the point of Salinger’s writing. The journey to individuality is filled with instances of judgment and denial in order to place oneself on a pedestal above the rest. Salinger captures this nonchalant arrogance firsthand as a disguised way to differentiate oneself from the masses rather than to claim superiority over others. How better to explain the reasoning behind a misunderstood teenage delinquent than through the eyes of one?
This caricature of youth doesn’t stop at ideology – Salinger writes with the diction of an adolescent. Despite not always being grammatically or structurally loftier than the average novel (something characteristic of other so-called literary classics), this way of writing envelops the reader in Holden’s personal thoughts and does justice to the loneliness felt by him in this outlandish time of his life. The themes of Salinger’s novel are undeniably universal. The plight of a lost soul and a coming of age story, both widespread and timeless experiences, are eloquently woven into Holden’s story. Language that was meant to relate to readers 63 years ago, however, isn’t as enduring. At the time of its conception “The Catcher in the Rye’s” language was probably as profound and imperative to the book’s message as Jim’s lingo was in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Unfortunately, Holden’s schoolboy slang isn’t as pervasive and universal as the book’s theme – language has changed and much of what Salinger writes in an attempt to appeal to youth is no longer effectively relatable.
Salinger’s correlation to the character of Holden is almost palpable. Great writers have the ability to delve into the characters they create and tell a story from their perspective – this is true. Yet the feeling that Holden is just a vessel for Salinger’s own nihilistic thoughts is inescapable. The novel so repetitiously conveys the idea of teenage angst that it becomes mildly preachy. Meanwhile, Holden’s decidedly introverted character (the same one who has been relentlessly patronizing everyone throughout the entire novel) has a rather social lifestyle. Not only does he happen to run into all sorts of people during his journey, he engages with nearly all of them. It wouldn’t have been much of a story if Holden simply trudged around Central Park by himself all week looking for ducks and sharing his cynical views of society with readers, but his actions ironically contradict his supposed beliefs.
All in all, “The Catcher in the Rye” is a pretty unique, quick read. The subtle nuances of youth and naivety scattered throughout the book are at the very least entertaining and the emotional undercurrent provided by the narrative is unquestionably reminiscent of a young, troubled misanthropist. However, the amount of detail provided about Holden’s life is awkward in size; too much to justify a simple coming of age story and too little to support a more fleshed-out, ample analysis of character. The ending in particular shares this quality of incompleteness by never really following through with Holden. Basics of storytelling suggest the only good narratives are the ones during which the protagonist changes in some regard. Holden is certainly presented with the opportunity to change, but the satisfaction of knowing whether or not he learned anything is absent from Salinger’s eccentric exploration of youth. There is merit to the feelings of contentment met when finishing stories that don’t have happy endings, for at least they finish. “The Catcher in the Rye,” on the other hand, is an open-ended and largely unfulfilling attempt at addressing teen angst that, despite its brilliant structure and potential, is found wanting. ♦