Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

I think everybody knows a Holden Caulfield. He seems confident. He has plenty of charms. He likes to pull your leg all the time. The more you get to know him the more you realize he doesn't have his stuff together and probably never will. Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is only 16, but you can imagine in a few years he'll be jumping from job to job because he just couldn't grow up. This novel is required reading in most high school curricula, and I think the reason for that is to serve as a warning to teenagers preparing to move into the next phase of their life: know the difference between healthy and unhealthy values.

At the start of the story, we learn that Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of Pencey Prep because he failed most of his classes. Holden makes all kinds of excuses. The one that seems to stick is that the whole place is full of phonies. In Holden Caulfield's world there are phonies everywhere. And the mere existence of these so-called phonies is enough to drive Holden to indifference. He grows annoyed when his history teacher, who seems to care about Holden, begins lecturing him about making an effort in life. Holden makes an excuse and gets out of there. In fact, to avoid further humiliation he leaves Pencey that very night, though he still has four days left before the end of the term.

The novel seems made up of random occurrences, what with a run-in with a prostitute and her pimp, visits to bars and clubs, meetings with various friends, but these things happen at the whim of Holden Caulfield. He makes a decision, often unwisely, and then these things happen. Holden does things without purpose. Even the decision to invite the prostitute to his hotel room was not well thought out since he had no intention of sleeping with her. Much of the novel finds him wandering around aimlessly, as though he can't decide what to do, where to go.

His paralysis in making a healthy decision for himself seems to lie in a hypersensitive sense of injustice. Even the tiniest injustice is enough to paralyze him with indecision and inaction. The fact that the world is full of phonies is enough to convince him not to pursue any meaningful activity. He has an ideal of himself as a savior of sorts, but the way he envisions this is as a fantasy rather than a realistic goal. He describes his ideal future as a person who catches lost children as they wander towards the edge of a cliff. Humanity needs him, he seems to believe, to protect them from the error of their ways. But this vision only serves to highlight his inability to make a concrete decision about the direction he wants to take his life. Holden doesn't even realize he's one of those children veering towards the edge of the cliff. If the ending is any indication, he never will.

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