Holden CaulfieldApril 30, 2008
J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye is a difficult piece to write about well, and even harder to write something original about. The story is set as a flashback and takes place over three days in which the protagonist Holden Caulfield is expelled from boarding school, decides to leave early and returns to New York to stay in a hotel, while becoming progressively disillusioned about societal roles and expectations. Through this he becomes increasingly unhinged by the events around him and suffers from a mental breakdown. The plot takes on a tangential feel as one event triggers another digression on Caulfield’s path from prep school to emotional collapse, but the structure is deceptively concise and directed while appearing lateral.
Most people take an essentialist approach when discussing the work. It’s hard to break it down in a satisfying way. While exploring what others had said about the novel online I came across a study guide that claimed the major theme of the novel is how, “The ways of society are set and no single man can alter them.” Is that really what people want students to walk away from this novel with? Is it more about the breakdown of societal expectations and the conflict between internal and external? The book is a character study in the layers of perceived falseness and “phoniness” that separate Caulfied from his sense of place in the world, and his inability to reconcile this interior experience with exterior reality.
This type of writing is hard to nail down and is successful here because of its willingness to contradict and create a cumulative reading that resists an authoritative voice. There’s a disconnect between what the characters say and feel. When Caulfield goes to visit his history teacher Mr. Spenser before leaving Pencey Prep, he tells the elderly man what he wants to hear, but this conflicts with his internal process. Spenser offers him platitudes of, ” Life is a game, boy. Life is a game one plays according to the rules”, and Caulfield chimes in with “Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it” (8). Holden Caulfied is playing the game, telling the teacher what he expects, while secretly thinking otherwise.
Game my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right-I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.
This highlights a dissidence between the internal and societal self and also a narrative distance. There’s more going on than what’s being said or done, so an essentialist reading of the text misses the point. In one of the pivotal scenes of the novel Holden Caulfield speaks to Mr. Antolini about his expulsion from Pencey near the end of the book and speaks against this desire to simplify. He tells Antolini about a student in his Oral Expression class that was always harassed by the teacher and other students.
What he did was, Richard Kinsella, he’d start telling you all about that stuff-then all of a sudden he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital because he didn’t want anyone to see him with his brace on. It didn’t have much to do with the farm-I admit it-but it was nice… I mean it’s a dirty to keep yelling ‘Digression!’ at him when he’s all nice and excited (184)
The story of Caulfield’s journey from prep school to emotional breakdown as a whole is about this confusion and emotional adolescent messiness that can’t be simplified without losing its meaning. Caulfield continued about the teacher with:
I mean he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to. I mean you can’t hardly ever simplify and unify something just because somebody wants you to. (185)
The novel is all about digression. It’s the digression of Caulfield as he falls away from the society “swell” life and expectations laid out before him. It is the digression from the prep school pathway leading from affluent youth to successful lawyer like his father. Caulfield is unable or unwilling to simplify the contradictions he sees and experiences, and it’s this inability to unify that causes the idea of the expected life to unravel.