THE CATCHER IN THE RYE
J. D. Salinger shares at least one important trait with his character Holden Caulfield–a powerful urge to separate himself from society.
Holden, the chief character of The Catcher in the Rye, tells us that he wants to live on the edge of the woods; Salinger realized this dream by retreating to a small farm town in New Hampshire, where the townspeople seem as devoted to his privacy as he is himself. There, in Cornish, Salinger has been able to escape the distractions of the literary world and to avoid people who have sought to capitalize on his instant fame following the publication of The Catcher in the Rye in 1951.
Little is known about Salinger’s life since he moved to Cornish. Local residents enjoy protecting Salinger’s anonymity, and interviews with them typically have produced bland, noncommittal responses that make Salinger sound about as interesting as last month’s newspaper. Salinger himself refuses to be interviewed.
The facts of Salinger’s earlier life, however, are on the record. Jerome David Salinger was born in New York City in 1919, the son of a prosperous importer of meat and cheese. He was a mediocre student in the public school he attended, and after he flunked out of the private McBurney School, his parents sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania.
He later spent less than a month at New York University and then took a short-story course at Columbia University. His first story was published in 1940. From 1942 to 1946 he was in the Army, continuing to write “whenever I can find time and an unoccupied foxhole.” He returned to New York in 1946, and in the next few years had stories published in various periodicals, notably The New Yorker.
In 1953 Salinger met Claire Douglas, a British-born Radcliffe student. She apparently became the model for more than one of his characters. They were married two years later, and they have two children, Margaret Ann, born in 1955, and Matthew, born in 1960. They were divorced in 1967.
Salinger’s later published works have all been stories. Most of them deal with the children of the Glass family, who, like Salinger, have a Jewish father and a Christian mother. These stories have been collected in Nine Stories (1953); Franny and Zooey (1961); and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). All three books received considerable critical praise and were very popular.
Salinger’s published literary output declined over the years. By the early 1980s, he had not published a work in some twenty years. Still, he is considered one of the most vital writers of the century. His reputation rests largely on The Catcher in the Rye.
In Chapter 12 of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield is at a bar listening to a jazz piano player whose work he enjoys. The applause from the audience, and the musician’s acceptance of it, lead Holden to say: “I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me…. I’d play it in the goddam closet.”
When you think of the life that Salinger chose while he was still a young man with a promising literary future, you realize that these sentences express his worldview as much as Holden’s. Careful readers of Salinger’s fiction have found many other statements that might also be the sentiments of a man who deserted fame in order to be able to work on his own.
It’s not only the feelings about fame that the author and his character have in common. Salinger has often said that children are the best people he knows, a statement that Holden would happily echo. Salinger left New York City primarily because he found its literary circles at best unsatisfying; Holden can’t stand being surrounded by phonies everywhere he goes.
Salinger grew up in New York City, and so did Holden. Salinger went to a prep school, and so does Holden. Like Holden, Salinger was a bright child whose grades in school were not an accurate reflection of his intelligence. It’s clear from The Catcher in the Rye and his other works that Salinger is one of those writers whose works seem to flow directly from experience. He tends to write about familiar territory. But this is far from saying that his characters are strictly autobiographical.
In addition, this kind of information is of less importance to a reader of the novel than it is to a biographer. If you were doing research for a biography of Salinger, it could be vital for you to learn that one of his characters was based on a real person. But it’s almost irrelevant to an enjoyment of the novel.
To many contemporary readers encountering it for the first time, The Catcher in the Rye fits neatly into a classification called Young Adult Fiction. This is a category that includes serious novels dealing with teenage characters, and written with a teenage reading audience in mind.
Lumping Salinger’s book together with thousands of others in this category, however, doesn’t do justice to The Catcher in the Rye. When the book was published in 1951, there was no such category as Young Adult Fiction. Salinger attracted the attention of the reading audience because he was breaking new ground.
Not only did The Catcher in the Rye have a teenager for a central character; he spoke in a manner that was easily recognizable as genuine, and he talked about matters that were serious enough to make even the most complacent reader a bit uncomfortable. One of those matters was his inability to fit into the world of adults.
Such books may be very common today, but in 1951 a teenager talking about his innermost concerns was considered a somewhat eccentric literary device–a reviewer for The New York Times didn’t even take the book seriously.
Salinger’s novel was definitely a groundbreaker in its field. As you read it, try to envision the impact this novel had on its first readers back in 1951. If you’re like most readers then, you’ll learn much about yourself as well as about Holden Caulfield as you explore the world of The Catcher in the Rye.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: THE PLOT
If you think of a plot as a series of events that build one on another toward a climax, then the plot of The Catcher in the Rye is one of its least significant aspects. It can be summarized in a few paragraphs, but the summary will give only an indication of what the novel is about.
Holden Caulfield is a sixteen-year-old prep school student who has flunked out of school the week before Christmas. Several days before he’s expected home for Christmas vacation, he leaves school, planning to spend some time on his own in New York City, where he lives.
Though Holden is friendly with many people at school, and though he has several friends in New York, he’s constantly lonesome and in need of someone who will sympathize with his feelings of alienation.
The person Holden feels closest to is his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe, but he can’t call her for fear of letting his parents know he has left school. He spends his time with a variety of people, but he can’t make meaningful contact with any of them.
After a day of this futility, he sneaks into his home to see Phoebe, but she disappoints him by being annoyed at his being expelled from still another school. Holden decides that the only solution to his overwhelming problem is to run away and establish a new identity as a deaf mute who will not need to communicate with anyone.
On the verge of a nervous collapse, Holden changes his mind and decides to rejoin his family. He then enters a hospital or rest home not far from Hollywood, California, and he is telling us his story while in this institution. At the novel’s close, Holden isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to handle things better when he leaves the institution, and he’s sorry he told his story at all.
Those are the bare bones of the story, but there’s much more to The Catcher in the Rye than its story. It’s a rich psychological portrait of a boy who’s frightened at the prospect of growing up, a boy who has few of the tools necessary to face the world on his own. Although the book takes place during only three days, it is as much an autobiography as anything else, because Holden constantly digresses to tell us about things that happened long before this period in his life. Because of Salinger’s skill in describing someone in just a few sentences, we also meet several characters who are instantly recognizable.
The Catcher in the Rye has an intriguing story. And it also contains marvelous character portraits; a statement on the relationship of outsiders to society; a psychological analysis of the process of growing up; and many more things, which you’ll discover as you read it.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: HOLDEN CAULFIELD
Holden is the sixteen-year-old son of wealthy parents who live near Central Park in New York City. He is telling the story from a rest home or hospital near Hollywood. Holden has just flunked out of his third prep school, an event he tries without success to feel badly about. Because of his age, school should be the most important institution in his life, but Holden has no use for it. Although he’s intelligent and fairly well read, school represents repression to him; it stands for the “phony” standards and values he hates.
Holden is sensitive, probably too sensitive for his own good, and he suffers from an almost uncontrollable urge to protect people he sees as vulnerable. He is attracted to the weak and the frail, and he “feels sorry for” losers of all kinds, even those who cause him pain, discomfort, or trouble. But the main focus of Holden’s protective instinct is children, whom he sees as symbols of goodness and innocence, and whom he would like to shield against corruption.
One sign of corruption in Holden’s worldview is the process of growing up, since it removes us from the perfect innocence of childhood. He has a daydream about children who never grow up, who remain in that perfect world forever, and his own problems of facing the real world are linked to that daydream.
Holden is essentially a loner, but not because he dislikes people. His loneliness arises from the fact that no one seems to share his view of the world, no one understands what’s going on in his head. His poor academic record is one indication of his failure to deal with this problem, a problem that builds to a climax in the course of the novel.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: PHOEBE CAULFIELD
Phoebe is Holden’s ten-year-old sister, a bright and articulate girl who sometimes talks to Holden as though she were older than he. She’s one of the few people he feels great affection for, and he talks about her with obvious delight. She’s the personification of Holden’s idealized view of childhood, and she seems actually to possess all the wonderful qualities Holden ascribes to her. The problem for Holden is that she’s a real person, not an idealization, and she’s already showing signs of the process of growing up. Phoebe appears in person very late in the book, but she plays a central role in Holden’s thoughts, and has much influence on what happens to him at the end of the novel.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: ALLIE CAULFIELD
Allie was Holden’s younger brother. He died in 1946, three years before the events in the novel. As with Phoebe, Holden has idealized the brother he loved very much; unlike Phoebe, Allie’s personality is frozen in memory, and he’ll never face the corruption of growing up. Holden talks about Allie in the same loving terms he uses for Phoebe, and he even talks to his dead brother in moments of stress.
D. B. CAULFIELD
D. B. is Holden’s older brother, another family character we never see, although Holden mentions him often. In the book’s opening paragraph Holden tells us that D. B. is a writer of short stories who’s now “out in Hollywood… being a prostitute”–that is, not being an honest writer.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: MRS. CAULFIELD
Holden’s mother makes a brief appearance late in the book, but we never see her together with her son. She appears to be a high-strung woman, a condition Holden relates to Allie’s death. She seems not to be very interested in Phoebe’s activities, and the same is probably true of Holden’s.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: MR. CAULFIELD
We never see Mr. Caulfield, and we know very little about him. He’s a successful corporation lawyer. His interest in Holden’s welfare extends at least far enough for him to have discussed the matter recently with one of Holden’s former teachers.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: JANE GALLAGHER
Jane is a girl Holden spent the summer with eighteen months before the start of the story. Though she’s about two years older than he is, her shyness and insecurity awakened Holden’s protective instincts. She symbolizes innocence in Holden’s mind, as Phoebe and Allie do. Holden hasn’t seen Jane since that summer, but he remembers her fondly as the shy girl who kept all her kings in the back row when they played checkers. Although she never appears in the book, she helps precipitate the book’s first crisis, when Holden’s womanizing roommate has a date with her. Holden talks about contacting her throughout the book, but he never does.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: WARD STRADLATER
Stradlater, Holden’s roommate at school, is likable and outgoing, handsome, athletic, and very attractive to girls. He’s not sensitive to people’s feelings, and in Holden’s mind he represents a class of successful people who live by false values and take advantage of others. Holden becomes very upset when he learns that Stradlater has a date with Jane Gallagher, and the situation ends in a fist fight.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: ROBERT ACKLEY
Ackley lives in the room next to Holden’s at school. He’s consistently nasty. Holden understands that Ackley’s offensiveness stems from insecurity, but that doesn’t make him any easier to get along with.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: SALLY HAYES
Sally is a good-looking but shallow girl Holden has dated in the past, and one of several people to whom he reaches out for help. Like Stradlater, Sally represents the phony values Holden hates, but her physical attractiveness leads Holden to put his principles aside. He tries to explain to her what’s happening in his life, but she’s incapable of relating to his problems. Even though he hates everything she stands for, Holden proposes marriage to her in a moment of extreme weakness.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: CARL LUCE
Luce is a college student who used to be a senior adviser to Holden when they both attended the same prep school. Luce was notorious for holding discussions on sex with younger students; Holden suspects he might be a homosexual. Though Holden hasn’t seen him in a long time, he calls Luce in his desperate need to talk to someone.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: MR. SPENCER
Mr. Spencer, an older history teacher at Pencey prep, is concerned about Holden’s academic failure. He invites Holden to his home to talk things over, but the conversation is a disaster. Though Spencer’s concern is genuine, he doesn’t have an inkling of what Holden is like, and all he can offer are cliches and slogans as advice.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: MR. ANTOLINI
Mr. Antolini is a former English teacher of Holden’s. Like Spencer, he’s concerned about Holden’s welfare, but his interest is more personal than Spencer’s. (At one point Holden thinks it’s too personal.) Antolini is young and understanding, and he seems to have an idea of what’s bothering Holden.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: SETTING
The physical action of the book takes place in 1949 at two locations. The first seven chapters–about one quarter of the book–are set at Pencey Prep, a private school for boys in eastern Pennsylvania. Then Holden takes a train ride, and the rest of the book takes place in New York City.
New York City, though, isn’t a very accurate description of the major setting. It’s actually Manhattan, but even that doesn’t narrow it down enough, because Holden’s adventures take him through only a fraction of Manhattan, a section less than four miles long and probably half as wide.
Add to this the fact that Holden gives very little description of most of the places where he goes, and you have a novel that seems to have no real setting. But that isn’t the case at all.
In the first place, Holden gives some description of each place he’s in, but he does it in the casual, throwaway manner that characterizes most of his speech. It’s so casual, in fact, that you may not even be aware of reading a descriptive passage.
Second, Holden describes his surroundings when they’re important to him. You may find yourself looking forward to visiting the American Museum of Natural History after he’s told you about it. He paints a memorable picture of the carousel in Central Park when Phoebe decides to take a ride. He does the same for Fifth Avenue on a shopping day before Christmas.
These descriptions are less important than in most novels. The Catcher in the Rye could take place almost anywhere in the United States (and in many places throughout the world). That’s because the true setting of the book is Holden’s mind. Critics say such a book is an interior monologue or that it employs the stream-of-consciousness technique.
So many incidents in The Catcher in the Rye took place before the weekend we’re spending with Holden, so much of what has deeply affected him happened years earlier, and such an important part of his life goes on inside his head, that the present physical setting becomes almost incidental to the story being told.
As for the time the story takes place, don’t even think about it during your first reading. (There’s a good chance that you’ll want to read it again.) Except for a few minor references, which are pointed out as they appear in the story (see The Story section of this guide), the book reads as though it were written very recently. That’s one of the reasons why people are still reading it after all these years.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: THEMES
When you’re talking about a novel that says something significant about how people live, it’s a mistake to use a sentence that begins, “The theme of this novel is…” A good novel doesn’t have only one theme. Good novels are about many things and have several themes.
The Catcher in the Rye is no exception. It can be read in several different ways, and every reading can be rewarding. You might get one message from your first reading and an entirely different message from a second reading five or ten years from now.
Here are some statements that have been made about the novel. Think about them as you read. After you’ve finished, decide how accurate you think each of them is in capturing the essence of the book.
1. It is a novel about a disturbed teenager. Holden can’t cope with people, with school, or with everyday problems that people his age must face. He avoids reality by living a fantasy life, and every forced contact with reality drives him deeper into himself. According to this analysis, he is anything but a typical teenager, and he certainly isn’t a good role model for young people.
2. It is about a teenager who refuses to grow up. He has a fixation on childhood, which shows itself in his glorifying of children, his inordinate admiration of his younger sister, his idealization of his dead younger brother, and the joy he gets from reminiscing about his own childhood. He brings on his illness so he won’t have to face his approaching adulthood.
3. It is a comment on the insensitivity of modern society. Holden is a hero who stands against the false standards and hypocrisy that almost all others accept. As much as he would like to accept the world and be comfortable like almost everyone else, he can’t pretend that his society is worthwhile.
4. It is a comic novel about the way the adult world appears to an intelligent literate teenager. Holden subjects everyone he meets to a probing examination; and almost everyone fails. His comments are more about human nature in general than about individual people, which helps explain why the book remains popular.
5. It is about a boy who struggles to remain faithful to what he sees as the truth. His version of truth, however, is very subjective, and not necessarily correct. In his mind even good or beautiful things can be tainted because of the true motives of their creators.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: STYLE
In one sense, Salinger was trying to capture the speech patterns of a typical teenager of the 1950s. But language reveals character, and the manner in which Holden expresses himself also gives us many important insights into his personality. His loose, rambling expressions reflect his own inner confusion. He often seems unwilling or afraid to say exactly what he feels, first, because he doesn’t know what he feels, and, second, because he’s afraid of revealing himself to a world that is either indifferent to him or ready to tear him apart. His language is trite, imprecise, and imitative because of his own lack of self-determination, and because of his inability or unwillingness to communicate with others. His use of the word “really” (as in “It really is”) and his repetition of the expression, “if you want to know the truth,” reflect his commitment to sincerity, and his drive to dissociate himself from the so-called phonies, who use language to hide from their feelings.
As you read, you’ll notice that Salinger frequently italicizes words. This is part of his attempt to accurately duplicate speech patterns–an italicized word is one that is emphasized or stressed when spoken. (Remember that the whole book is really a monologue–an interior monologue–spoken by Holden.) Salinger was one of the first writers in English to frequently use italics to indicate regular spoken emphasis–not just a loud voice or a scream. Many writers have since used the technique.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: POINT OF VIEW
As is generally true of a work of fiction told in the first person, we learn about all the events and characters through the eyes of the narrator. This subjective point of view has added significance in The Catcher in the Rye. “The setting of the book,” we suggested earlier in this guide, “is Holden’s mind” The point of view is an integral part of Salinger’s exploration of that mind. The first-person narration invites a reader to share Holden’s feeling that he’s an outsider observing a world he can’t accept–or completely reject. The reader should be aware, however, that the narration is slanted and may not report matters accurately.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: FORM AND STRUCTURE
Holden tells his story in a series of flashbacks, or digressions. There is nothing logical or orderly about the way a person’s memory works, and so Holden’s mind drifts in and out of the past, dwelling on moments that often seem to bear little relationship to each other. Like a patient on a psychiatrist’s couch, he lets his mind take him where it will. One memory–one emotion–triggers another, and it’s up to us as readers to try to discover the relationship between them.
Some readers have suggested that these flashbacks signify Holden’s inability to deal with the world he lives in. Others say they reflect his introspective personality; still others say they are a sign that Holden’s grip on reality is loosening, and that he can no longer distinguish between past and present.
While you’re reading The Catcher in the Rye it’s easy to forget that Holden is telling the story from a hospital bed, and that he’s there because of the events he tells us about in the book. In the first paragraph of the novel he says that these events “happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty rundown and had to come out here and take it easy.” It isn’t until the last chapter of the book that we see another reference to the place where he’s recuperating.
This hospital (or rest home) setting is the overall structure on which the story is built. Some people have said that Salinger used this structure to identify Holden as a misfit, a person who can’t cope, someone who needs professional help to deal with life’s problems.
Others have said that this structure simply sets Holden apart from everything he’s experienced, that it distances him from the people and events he tells us about.
Within that structure the story itself divides neatly into three parts. The first part has Holden at Pencey, preparing to leave on his own before he’s formally expelled.
In this first section Holden tells us about two of the three important people in his life–his dead brother Allie and Jane Gallagher. Although she never appears, Jane plays an important role in this section because she’s on a date with Holden’s roommate. In fact, you could argue that the fight he has over her with his roommate is the real reason he decides to leave school on Saturday night.
Chapter 8 serves as a transition from Pencey to New York City. The second part of the book, which begins with Chapter 9, has Holden trying to find someone he can talk honestly with, someone he can make contact with, someone who will understand what’s bothering him.
This is also the section in which we learn about Phoebe, the other important person in Holden’s life. By the end of this section, in Chapter 20, Holden is more alone than ever before, he’s close to hysteria, and he’s thinking about what a relief death would be.
When Holden decides to go home and visit Phoebe, the novel enters the third and final section. In this section Holden has to face some ugly truths that he’s been trying hard to avoid–truths about his sister, about childhood innocence, and about himself.
When the third section reaches a climax in Chapter 25 we’re abruptly brought back to the outside structure of the novel, the bed from which Holden is speaking. It’s in this outside structure, from a vantage point several months and several thousand miles away, that Holden makes his final comments on the whole matter.
^^^^^^^^^^THE CATCHER IN THE RYE: CHAPTER 1
Who is this person talking to us so casually in the opening sentences of the novel? We don’t know his name, how old he is, where he’s from. In fact, he dismisses such information as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” and begins talking about himself reluctantly, as though our need to hear his story is much stronger than his need to tell it.
We don’t even know it’s a boy talking until he mentions an ad his school runs in “about a thousand magazines” claiming that they turn boys into young men. We won’t know his first name until his visit to a teacher at the end of the chapter, and we’ll have to wait even longer to find out his last name.
No, he isn’t going to give us anything as formal as an autobiography. All he wants to do is tell about “this madman stuff” that resulted in some kind of illness, from which he’s now recuperating in a place not far from Hollywood, California.
NOTE: As you read on and get to know Holden, you’ll begin to see that he tends to dismiss many important things with throwaway phrases like “this madman stuff.” It’s a way of downplaying things that bother him; it makes him seem untroubled by things; it’s a way of sounding tough, something that’s important to many teenage boys.
Holden talks briefly about his brother, D. B., whom he obviously admires. He’s pleased that his brother visits him often. He likes D. B.’s sports car and the fact that he’s rich, and Holden’s really proud of a published collection of D. B.’s short stories. But a tough guy can’t say things like that about someone without backing off a little, so Holden ends by saying that his brother is in Hollywood, being a prostitute–using his talent to make money, instead of creating beautiful stories.
We get all this information–directly or by implication–in a single paragraph. As is often true with people we’ve just met, the way Holden talks tells us at least as much about him as what he says. His language tells us that he doesn’t want to be mistaken for someone soft, even when he’s expressing affection for his brother.
His language also tells us that he doesn’t want to be thought of as one of those “splendid, clear-thinking young men” his school claims to mold. Sure, he’s read Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, and you’ll soon find that he’s read–and appreciated–much more than that. But he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s a “brain,” so he’ll remind you from time to time what a terrible student he is.
As he begins his story about the “madman stuff,” Holden is standing alone on a hill, looking down at a football game attended by almost everyone from his school. He’s wearing a red hunting hat that further sets him apart from everyone else at school. Hold onto this image of him as a loner, apart from the group he’s supposed to belong to. It will help you understand much of what is to come.
One of the reasons Holden is alone during the football game is that he’s preparing himself for an unpleasant chore. He’s going to visit his history teacher before leaving for Christmas vacation, because he isn’t coming back to school.
“I forgot to tell you about that,” he adds casually. “They kicked me out.”
This is another example of the way Holden tries to distract attention (his as well as yours) from large issues. Being expelled from school would be an important event in anyone’s life, and you’ll see that it’s one of the causes of “this madman stuff” Holden says he’s going to tell us about. Yet he tells us he “forgot” to mention it.
Holden fires a couple of generalizations at us