The Catcher in the Ryeby J.D. Salinger Date of Publication: 1951
Characteristics of the Genre:
A bildungsroman is a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist changes from a childhood mentality to a mature mentality. Much of the conflicts in these novels include the need to be accepted and the conflict between the individual and society's rules and views.
Biographical Information about the Author:
Salinger was born on January 1, 1919. In 1932, he enrolled in McBurney School of Manhattan, but felt that he didn't fit in and flunked out of school due to his failing grades. In 1934, his family transferred him to Valley Forge Military (a possible inspiration for Pencey Prep). He also attended NYU (1936), Ursinus College (1938) and Columbia (1939). However, he dropped out of all three by choice. Salinger served in the U.S. Army in 1942-1945.
Prior to the publication of "The Catcher in the Rye", Salinger wrote several short stories as experiments for his only novel. Afterwards he continued to publish famous short stories. Unlike many, Salinger began to shy away from unwanted attention due to his publications. He withdrew from society and backed away from any attention that was given to him. He passed away in 2010.
Historical Information about the period of publication:
Prior to the publication of this book, from 1939-1945, World War II was ongoing. This allowed for emotions such as fear and seclusion to empower people and literature.
Post-World War II, countries became prosperous and the economic times improved. Emotions such as hope and optimism began to take shape. However, there was also a fear of communism taking over governments.
The emotions of fear, seclusion and hope are all present in the novel "The Catcher in the Rye".
In this novel, Holden speaks about the journey he's had over a three-day period just before Christmas. At the start of the novel, Holden is 16 years old and has just left Pencey Prep after having a fight with his roommate, Stradlater. He goes back home to New York City and meets several people including nuns, old friends and a taxi driver. He tries to make a connection with all of them, but each time he fails. Holden, more than anything at this point, wishes to be accepted by society and the people he encounters. After several failed attempts at acceptance, Holden sneaks into his parents' home where he meets his sister, Phoebe and talks to her. Phoebe, although glad to see her brother, is upset that he has dropped out of another school and doesn't seem concerned about his future. At that moment, Holden says he wants to be a 'catcher in the rye' and rescue children before they fall off the edge of a cliff. Holden leaves and decides to visit one of his old teachers, Mr. Antolini. After admitting that he has flunked out of another school, Mr. Antolini tells Holden that he has to be serious about his future and decide what he wants to do. Extremely tired, Holden sleeps on the couch in Mr. Antolini's apartment. Holden wakes up to find Mr. Antolini patting Holden on the head and staring at him sleeping. Holden is slightly frightened because he thinks that those pats were sexual advances toward him and he leaves immediately. The next day, Holden decides to tell Phoebe that he will run away. Meeting him at the museum, Phoebe sees the bags Holden has and asks him if she can run away with him. Holden refuses and Phoebe walks away in anger. Holden takes his sister to the zoo and buys her a ticket for the carousel wheel. Sitting down on a bench, Holden watches his sister as she spins around in a circle on the carousel wheel. Eventually, Holden goes to a psychiatric center in California where he is writing this novel and in the end, he expresses optimistic views about his future.
Describe the author’s style
Salinger enjoys writing in the first-person, which makes this novel more realistic. It expresses the views of the characters in a way that its readers can easily relate to. He writes in slang and curses, and also writes the thoughts of a typical teenager, as they would go through his head.
Additionally, Salinger admitted in an interview that this novel was essentially his autobiography.
"My boyhood was very much the same as that of the boy in the book..." (Salinger in a 1953 interview)
An example that demonstrates the style:
“Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything”
“It was a helluva…”
“That killed me.”
"Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway" This shows how Holden wants to preserve things the way they are, and how he is unable to cope with change.
“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 epitomizes Holden’s wish in life –to save all the children of the world from the corrupt adult world. Preventing their loss of innocence preoccupies him, and being “the catcher in the rye” is the only thing he wants to do in life.
Mr. Antolini to Holden: "I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. . . . This fall I think you're riding for-it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with.” Mr. Antolini’s words signify Holden losing his mind, in trying to hold on hopelessly to innocence and preserve it in other children.
"Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody" This shows how Holden is connected with everyone he ever encountered. When remembering them, he feels connected with them and society and thus, Holden can look toward the future with a more positive attitude.
Holden is annoyed by Stradlater for being so proud of himself, and appearing to be well-groomed when he’s really not. Stradlater is a womanizer, causing Holden to get into a fight with him over Jane.
Popular, handsome, self-satisfied
Holden’s former English teacher at Elkton Hills
Holden goes to him for guidance, although he drinks, and Holden leaves his home because of Mr. Antolini’s sexual advances towards him.
Young, clever, wise
Holden’s history teacher at Pencey.
Mr. Spencer at the opening of the novel tried to get Holden to care about his academics and find his direction in life.
Old, stern, wants to be helpful
The prostitute Holden hires
Holden hired her out for a night but only ends up talking to her.
Holden’s former student advisor
Carl, being older and more experienced than Holden and his peers, is a source of sexual knowledge to Holden and his roommates, although Carl tells Holden that he’s immature.
The novel is set in the post-World War II era, from about the late 1940s to early 1950s. The overall novel mainly takes place in New York City, except for Holden’s boarding school, Pencey Prep, which is in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. Holden captures the lively and fast-paced mood of life in New York City while narrating the story.
Significance of opening scene: In the opening scene of the novel, Holden Caulfield is speaking from a psychiatric facility, where he is undergoing treatment. He subtly lets the reader know this and says “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.” (1) After speaking about his brother D.B., Holden mentions his time at Pencey Prep and his teacher, Mr. Spencer, who lectures him to improve his academic standing. The opening scene is significant in that it sets the tone and point of view of the novel. Holden speaks in a first person point of view with a cynical tone, using words such as “goddam” and “crumby” which show his bitterness towards life. His speaking style is colloquial and makes the reader feel as though he or she is having a conversation with him.
Significance of the ending/closing scene: In one of the most touching scenes of the novel, the closing scene can also be viewed as one of the most optimistic. While watching Phoebe ride the carousel in a zoo, Holden is filled with a sense of euphoria and satisfaction. He enjoys watching Phoebe’s innocence and the joy of all the children as they ride the carousel. This moment essentially alters Holden’s previous decision to run away. He decides that he will go back home and Phoebe evens returns his red hunting hat to him, as a sign of forgiveness. This closing scene is significant because for the first time, the reader is able to view Holden in a different and more affectionate light. When interacting with Phoebe, Holden is no longer the isolated and melancholic individual that he is. Instead, he is loving and accepting of people around him, and seems to forget the anger he feels with the growing “phoniness” of the human race. The scene also creates the human connection that Holden longs to make throughout the entire novel, which suggests that he may successfully be on his way to recovery, psychologically.
Holden’s Red Hunting Hat Holden’s red hunting hat represents his attachment to childhood. Holden admits at one point that the hat is a bit “corny” and that he only wears the hat when he is alone. Wearing the hat may perhaps allow him to escape the bitterness he feels towards the “phoniness” of adults. Also, because Holden is getting older, it is strange that he would want to wear such a “corny” accessory that perhaps, a younger child would wear. This shows that he is reluctant to growing up and wants to cling to the memories of his childhood days.
The Ducks in Central Park Holden constantly wonders what happens to the ducks during winter and where they go. Holden’s preoccupation with the disappearance of these ducks can be equated with his fear of dying. He thinks dying means disappearance, which is true in one way, but he fails to see that the ducks again return in the spring. He is worried about what will happen to himself when he dies, and whether anyone will acknowledge his disappearance.
The Museum of Natural History The museum is a place of solace and peace for Holden. Holden mentions that whenever he goes there, he feels better and appreciates the fact that the museum never changes. He knows that the displays will remain where they are and that he can expect everything to be in its previous place before his arrival. On the other hand, Holden also reluctantly mentions that every time he comes back to the museum, he, personally, has changed in some way or another. Thus, the museum symbolizes Holden’s dislike of change and his desire to live in a world that is unchanging and stable, much like the museum.
The “Catcher in the Rye”
The title of the novel is a symbol in itself as it represents Holden and his desired role in the world. Holden would literally love to catch children before they fall off a cliff. Metaphorically, he wants to save them from “falling” into a world where adults are “phony” and where children are forced to grow up. He also doesn’t want children to be exposed to sex or anything vulgar. The fact that he feels that he must fiercely protect these children stems from his own insecurities and his reluctance to becoming an adult.
Possible Themes--- Topics of Discussion The Superficiality of Adults Holden constantly says that the adult world is plagued by a “phoniness” that he will never understand. He fears growing up because he feels that once a person becomes an adult, they will forever become corrupt, dishonest, and lose their innocence. For this reason, he equates the adult world with superficiality and a loss of innocence.
Innocence and Youth Holden has a strong belief that children are the epitome of innocence. He wishes for them to remain in their child-like world forever and to never experience the difficulties of adult life. This explains his desire to become a “catcher in the rye,” a person who will rescue children before they themselves become “phony” and lose their innocence.
Isolation At various points in the novel, readers experience Holden’s self-imposed isolation. Holden’s isolation stems from his fear of human interaction which is why he distances himself from others. As the novel goes on, readers can begin to see that his isolation is his technique for shielding himself from the influences of the outside world. Holden stays in his own protective shell and struggles to show any emotion, despite the fact that he desperately seeks human connection. However, he does not realize the paralyzing effects his isolation has on himself and his development.
Death Holden has a strong fear of death as a result of his inability to cope with the death of his younger brother, Allie. This traumatic event negatively impacts Holden, as it causes him to develop an acrimonious attitude towards life. He also has never truly expressed his emotions or his grief about this topic, which causes pent-up frustrations inside of him. As a result, he ponders the idea of death on various occasions, one being the ducks in Central Park. Holden also focuses on death as a way to avoid living in his present world.