After having just christened my blog with my impassioned championing of English, I’ll let you know that I’m kind of a bad English major. Before this week, I had never read The Catcher in the Rye (also before this spring I had never read The Great Gatsby, and the list of books I haven’t read yet and feel endless guilt over is longer than I would ever have the nerve to tell you). But now it is finished. I won’t ever again have to sheepishly admit that I haven’t read Salinger whenever I’m talking with other bookish types, and I’ll finally be able to talk about this horribly irritating but beautifully soul-crushing book.
Yes, it is horribly irritating. Holden Caulfield, whose first person narrative makes up the entire story, is whiny, self-centered, maddeningly subject to his fickle emotions, and incapable of any eloquence or even articulation beyond lazily swearing in every other sentence. And he’s a teenager, if you couldn’t tell. That being the case, I should have gotten exhausted trying to deal with his crap and chucked the book after the first couple pages, but I didn’t. It took me a little bit to get used to his insecure swearing, repetition, and equivocating phrases like “and all” tacked on to his statements, but once I settled into it, I think I got it. It definitely got me, at the least. And his annoying, surly teenager personality brings me to the issue of narrative self awareness.
I don’t mean a self aware narrator, in this case. It’s clear from the start that Holden is aware he’s telling a story to an audience, but that doesn’t do anything for how irritating a person he is. In fact, it’s obvious that he doesn’t realize how immature he is much of the time. But the narrative as a whole, The Catcher in the Rye itself, knows he’s a tool, and that makes 100 percent of the difference for the whole thing.
I’m going to get right back to Professor Chapman here by paraphrasing something he told us in our literary theory class. “A story that’s sexist is sexist, but a story that’s sexist but knows it’s being sexist and points the fact out to you is probably being critical of sexism.”
The Catcher in the Rye, in this case, has an irritating tool for a narrator and protagonist, but it knows that Holden is an irritating tool, as we see through the brief moments in which Holden recognizes how much of a tool he is, or at least can be, and when his little sister Phoebe has the innocent, childlike intuition necessary to call him out on his exhaustingly pessimistic disposition. He certainly needs and deserves a number more kicks in the pants before he can finally get over himself and be a decently responsible person, but he’s just 16. Plenty of time left for pants kicking. The purpose of The Catcher in the Rye’s self-awareness about its narrator isn’t to be critical of Holden’s personality—I don’t think, at least. It would truly be the worst downer kind of book if all it was was a mean-spirited showcasing of a self-centered, whiny teenager and how much his life sucks on account of his irresponsibility, and that kind of cynicism would never make a book as revered as this.
The book cares about Holden, and this awareness of Holden’s flawed personality is to hopefully make the reader care about him too in a way I didn’t see coming. The book is as sad as it is because of a bittersweetness manifested in the very real and confusing angst that Holden is going through, even if he’s going through much of it for stupid reasons. Don’t we all—and that’s the point.
While talking to another English major grad friend about the book, I came up with a theory, though I have to warn you that the data supporting it comes from a survey size of two plus a couple anecdotes. Apparently, if you read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, you love it. You totes know all his feels and ❤ Holden <3. If you read it after having recently gotten over the unfortunate insanity of being a teenager, you can’t stand it. Holden’s whiny toolishness is the kind that can only be fixed by swift and firm kicks to the pants, and you aren’t about to sit through two hundred pages of his crap. But when you read it with a little extra perspective—maybe a few years or more after you got over being a teenager and no longer feel vicarious embarrassment over someone acting as dumb as you were—something about it resonates again.
Holden is an irritating tool, but he’s an irritating tool in the exact same way you were. I’ve read plenty of authors trying to write teenagers in the most real way they can, but no one has done it like Salinger, and I think this might be how he did it. It’s like talking with a close friend you’ve known since high school about everything you both went through back then—some of it was stupid, some of it was crazy, some of it was serious, and, at the time, neither of you could figure out what was supposed to be what. But it all felt real, whether any of it was all that real or not. And you carried it with you, in one way or another, all the way to today, even if it was totally stupid.
That’s what gets me about Holden’s obsession with phonies. He wants everything and everyone to be so real, and not just real but simple and genuine and straightforward. Of course, when can you ever have it both ways, both real and simple? And when did the limited experience of a 16 year old ever grant him any insight into what’s real and what’s phony (though Holden seems pretty good at calling out the phony)? Thus: Holden’s entire life crisis, and thus, Holden—the most heartbreakingly realistic teenager I’ve ever read.
There was another reason beyond guilt that I decided to read The Catcher in the Rye. A while ago, John Green of Youtube’s “Vlogbrothers” read an excerpt in recognition of Salinger’s death in 2010. It was the bit near the end…
“You know what I’d like to be?” I said. “You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddamn choice?”
“What? Stop swearing.”
“You know that song, ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye?”… “Anyway, 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.”
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to figure out exactly how and how much that passage gets to me, but I think it captures everything there is to love about Holden and this book.
Holden, you might be an annoying, whiny, irresponsible teenager with only occasional glimmers of maturity, but I do totes know your feels.