Maybe I adore the novel so much because I discovered Catcher when I was a senior in high school and I was starting to see society as a bunch of hypocrites and jerks, just like Salinger’s main character Holden Caulfield. Maybe this is one of my favorite novels of all time because when I first read it, I was in love with a boy that shared Holden’s disillusionment with the world and reacted in many of the same ways. According to Wikipedia, Catcher has “become popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage confusion, angst, alienation, language, and rebellion… [and] the novel's protagonist and antihero, Holden Caulfield, has become an icon for teenage rebellion.”
But forgive me if I disagree with such a venerable source as Wikipedia; I don’t think Catcher is about rebellion at all. Holden isn’t trying to rebel. He’s just so disillusioned with the world around him that he can’t seem to get himself to tow the party line any more. Everyone wants him to fit in – go to school, get good grades, decide “where he wants to go” and get to work on getting himself there. But Holden sees all the people around him for what they really are – a bunch of “phonies” – and can’t bring himself to care about school, jobs and Cadillacs. This doesn’t make him a rebel, though – since when are depression and apathy the same as rebellion? In the midst of his depression, Holden is too passive to be a rebel.
But while he remains passive, Holden is also the ultimate good guy stuck in a nightmare reality, the Humphrey Bogart of adolescent literature, the idealist-turned-cynic in a rotten world. He doesn’t believe that there’s much worth saving in adult society, but he desperately still wants to believe that children are good and innocent. That’s why he treasures the memory of his younger brother Allie and respects his little sister Phoebe more than just about anyone else. That’s why he wants to become the “Catcher in the Rye.” He explains to Phoebe:
“I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobyd’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.”
In other words, Holden wants to be a hero – but his depression has immobilized him to the point that all he can do is fantasize; he can only think about saving people in an imaginary context. He remains passive, more or less absorbing other people’s speeches and insults; he has flunked out of yet another prep school and just sort of drifts back to New York City before his family is expecting him home – and that, in fact, is the entire plot of the book in a nutshell. He drifts around the city, trying to find a place to stay and things to do for a few days until his parents expect him home for Christmas vacation – but everything that happens to him just depresses him further. And so as his nightmare continues to deepen, he becomes more and more cynical, more and more frozen.
Ultimately, I think if Holden Caulfield is an “icon of rebellion,” it’s not because he’s a rebel – it’s because teenagers can read this book and see what will happen to them if they don’t take some kind of action. Depression can just eat away at you until you become a hollow shell, a helpless pawn – and while some teenagers will shut down like Holden, others will be inspired by his misery to actively choose things that they know will upset their parents and teachers. Either way, this novel could be seen as dangerous because the main character is so vehemently opposed to the capitalistic, “phony” nature of American society. But what is far more dangerous is misunderstanding or flat out ignoring the kind of frustration and depression experienced by Holden and so many teenagers in real life. This is an amazing, powerful novel because even though it doesn’t provide any answers, it demands that as a society, we start looking for some.