Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Review: Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye wasn’t the first young adult novel ever written, but to me, it feels like the original, the model for all YA Lit that followed. First published in the 1950s, Salinger’s novel dared to be honest about so many of the emotions that people didn’t want to talk about back then – and still aren’t quite sure how to talk about now. It’s all about teenage angst, and it communicates the pain of adolescence in such understated language that the novel is far more effective than some of the drivel that it has spawned. Of course, there are many contemporary novels that deal with the subjects of depression and anxiety in very sophisticated, impressive ways; I really appreciate the novel It’s Kind of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, for example, and I think that the two books share certain qualities and themes. But for me, even the best, most well-written contemporary novels can’t hold a candle to Salinger’s classic novel.

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.


  1. +JMJ+

    I love your analysis of Holden's character! He might have all the makings of a hero--the right sentiments and sympathies--but he doesn't actually do anything, and that's the hitch.

    You're making me want to rewrite The Catcher in the Rye as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel! =P

  2. Hah! I love that idea... I'd actually like to read Catcher in the Rye as a Choose Your Own Adventure! Although it would be a totally different animal -- I'm not sure that it would communicate the same kind of message, ultimately :-)


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