Through the Example of Salinger’s Novel The Catcher in the Rye
Literary theory and criticism have frequently attempted to separate literature from reality: literary works have been understood as self-sufficient organisms with their own structure and logic, independent from reality. Although such tendencies have existed before, they are established as principles especially in the beginning of the twentieth century among the modernists, and later in the context of structuralism. Thus, in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, T. S. Eliot claims that the existing artistic monuments “form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them” (Eliot, 2006: 2171). Similarly, according to Gérard Genette, the narrative text “is governed not by its relation to reality, but by its internal laws and logic (quot. in Jefferson, 1992: 103).
What are these laws and logic which govern the narrative text – whether it be a novel or a story? It is true that many literary texts have their logic: if Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s realistic novel Pride and Prejudice, for example, suddenly decides to eat a dog, it would be against the logic of Austen’s novel, while if Saleem Sinai from Midnight’s Children suddenly begins to fly, this would not violate the logic of Rushdie’s novel, having in mind that it belongs to the genre of magic realism. If, however, it is always so, then how was it possible for Midnight’s Children to be written at all? Elizabeth Bennet could have eaten a dog if Austen had decided to introduce such an element it her novel. In other words, the logic and the internal laws that Genette talks about are not laws at all, but arbitrary rules produced not by the text, which Genette tries to convince us to see as a living organism that itself produces meanings, but by the author of the text, who can establish rules, and then violate them, and then establish other rules. When these, allegedly internal, rules would not be violated as often as it happens in practice, all novels would resemble Pride and Prejudice. The logic of the text is the logic that the author imposes – by his/her own will – and it may occasionally be illogical and inconsistent.
There is a similar view of literature as an independent phenomenon in the Macedonian literary theory and criticism, although here it does not come from structuralism. According to Georgi Stardelov, “a literature gap would remain open” without Stale Popov in the evolution of Macedonian literature (quot. in Drugovac, 1986: 40); similarly, according to Dimitar Mitrev, the novel Krpen život1F by Stale Popov comes to fill a gap in our literature (Drugovac: 40) based on elements from national folk stories. It appears that literature is considered as a living creature, a cherry tree, for example, which has to be one meter high before it can reach two meters, which has to produce a flower before it produces a fruit, or has to go through the phase of realistically presenting the difficult life in the villages before it can reach its maturity in employment of more contemporary narrative techniques. If history of literature follows a certain regular pattern of development, then how can one explain the fact that the realistic novel narrated in chronological order Pride and Prejudice is published after the deliberately chaotic Tristram Shandy which violates numerous narrative rules, or that realistic stories are written in Macedonia even after the publication of Vlada Urosevic’s stories, filled with fantastic elements?
This text attempts to point to the fact that sometimes, some elements from a narrative text cannot be explained with the “logic” of the text itself, that the motivation for the acts of a certain character cannot always be located in the personality traits of that character since, no matter how hard authors try to distance themselves from their characters and create convincing “people made of flesh and blood”, there will always be traces from the author in them, regardless of the fact that Roland Barthes tries to prove the opposite. The novel Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger will serve as an example to try and prove this thesis.
Catcher in the Rye is one of the most popular works in American literature, and at the same time one of the most translated works in world literature. This is mainly due to the character of young Holden Caulfield, who, since 1951, when this novel was published for the first time, has grown into a world icon of youthful rebellion. Yet, this critical essay will attempt to explain why Holden, an icon of youthful rebellion, can also be interpreted as a product of tragic experience, and not only as a rebel.
The journey of Holden Caulfield
Catcher in the Rye belongs among the novels that follow a period in the life of a young man facing various challenges, starting from his family, through the educational environment in which he grows up and the broader environment that he comes into contact with. Holden Caulfield, who is about sixteen and is himself the narrator of the novel, deals with these challenges in his own way, which is specific for his detestation of people in general, present even before he comes into touch with characters who represent his antagonists. This hatred towards people makes him constantly have monologues in which he criticizes the acts of those around him through the use of offensive words and, which is even more recognizable for Holden, slang. This hatred, established before he even encounters anyone in the novel, and his slang are the differentia specifica that differentiates this character from the characters of other young rebels who tend to hate the world only after the experience they gain of it.
Ever since the first sentence, Holden Caulfield raises before us as a rebel: he confronts the traditional way in beginning novels, in which it is stated when and where the protagonist was born, and something about his/her childhood and his/her family background is told. Holden immediately “betrays” his mood, refusing to reveal something about, as he says, his “miserable childhood”. It becomes clear that at the very beginning Holden is already angry, disappointed and filled with abomination towards the world around him. This situation leads him to a psychiatric institution by the end of the novel.
Holden hates everything that is connected to school: it is horrible, the pupils there are “stupid and phony”, the principal is “a hypocritical idiot” and the rugby games are “idiotic”. In fact, it could implicitly be understood from the text that the preparatory school Pencey (Prep) is quite a normal school, where teachers may be strict, but it also offers good education and pupils are able to get engaged in various types of sport. Therefore, Holden’s hatred of this place may be based on the idea of separating the pupils from their parents while parental care is still crucial for their psychological development. In this context, the critic Harrison Smith explains that Holden reacts in a rebellious way because he is “unusually sensitive” (Smith 11). This is especially confirmed later in the novel, when Holden goes to New York, where he has the opportunity (which he misses) to see his parents.
Lack of love from the family is not only a logical assumption for the reasons of Holden’s psychological disturbance, springing from experience or psychological research. There are clear allusions to it in the passages that are reiterated throughout the whole work describing his relationship with his two brothers and his sister Phoebe. He misses his elder brother D. B. after the latter had gone to Hollywood and whose story Holden thinks of with such gentleness as we rarely see in the novel. The other brother, Allie, and his sister are the only persons that Holden truly loves. The tragedy is that Allie died of leukemia which has left a visible trace and emptiness in Holden. It is a tragic event that Holden finds very difficult to accept, because his brother was the most wonderful, the smartest boy that ever existed, as Holden claims. His only comfort is his sister Phoebe with whom he enjoys every moment. The lack of such love in Pencey is obvious and painful. This reveals another characteristic of Holden: he is not only a rebel who fights against the system; he is also a boy who misses the love of his parents, whose rebelliousness and hatred towards Pencey and all that is related to Pencey, expressed through his escape from there are, eventually, in fact a search for the path towards his family home in New York. This becomes complicated because, as the critic Jones claims, Holden “passes the bridge from childhood into adolescence and he attempts to deal with adolescence” (Jones 9).
During his journey, we follow Holden from his meeting with Professor Spencer whom he mocks and towards whose concern he shows great impatience, to being taken to the psychiatric institution. During his meeting with Professor Spencer, we discover another characteristic of the psychological state of Holden: he has lost his ability to focus on studying – which is, again, a result of his distress and the constant transferring to different preparatory schools without parents and without more permanent friends. He has failed in all exams, except English. Symbolically, his excellence in English, which is also seen in the fact that other pupils ask him to write their essays because he is best at it, signifies his search for creativity, but also his sensitivity. Holden loves reading and identifies himself with the characters from the works that he reads, but his empathy, in the context of Pencey Prep, is a weakness, not an advantage. It leads him to gradually fail because he misses closeness and love, to lose his interest in social activities and studying. His failure is the strongest outcome from, but also an expression of, the alienation that dominates in the preparatory schools. Holden can’t stand the boys that he lives with on the same floor of the dormitory, Ackley and Stradlater, although for different reasons. He can’t establish communication with them either, and they can’t establish communication among each other. Their whole conversation comes down to repeating the same phrases, asking questions that the other person does not offer answers for, asking for favors and yawning while the other person is speaking more in the form of a monologue than addressing those around him.
Holden’s adventure, after he decides to leave Pencey, from which he is expelled, earlier than he has to, continues in New York. New York from Catcher in the Rye is a dark place in which people are just as boring, stupid and phony as they are in Pencey. New York does not offer him any pleasure or comfort and he feels even more alienated from people here than he did at Pencey. The large number of citizens does not mean better chances of establishing contact – on the contrary, with all those people around him, who are within reach but with whom he can’t communicate, the protagonist becomes even more depressed. This alienation is very effectively and successfully presented through the discussions with the cab driver and with the girls in a night pub, with whom he has long discussions, but he does not actually establish any essential contact, since they either ignore everything that Holden tells them or are not interested in hearing it to the end, or do not understand it, so their conversations here also sound as if they are in fact monologues that will never reach the ears of anyone else. Thus, he wanders through the streets of New York without any desire whatsoever to go in his parents’ home next to which he passes with the cab several times.
In fact, the saddest scene is the one in which it seems that Holden can eventually be saved after he makes a decision to go into his parents’ house. His sister Phoebe is alone because the parents had gone out for the night. The scene in which Holden talks to and dances with Phoebe is the only one in which we cannot find a trace of the words that are so frequent elsewhere in the novel: phony, damned, stupid, boring, idiotic. For Holden’s internal goodness comes to the surface in his contact with Phoebe who, like himself, is good and smart. He is happy, and his psychological disturbance withdraws. And it is exactly at the moment when a spark of hope appears, thanks to this scene which indicates that he has at last come to the right place, among his family that may cure him of the depression, his parents come back. As soon as he hears the opening of the door, Holden hides. While he listens to the voices of his mother and father, whom he hasn’t seen for several months, instead of running to hug them, as most children would do after a long separation, he silently and covertly leaves the house, lest he be heard. What can the psychological state of a young boy be like if he runs away from his long-unseen parents? The answer to this question is a testimony for his complete alienation from his family, causing his profound and insurmountable loneliness and sadness. He experiences his parents, who normally offer protection, as distant human being that are trying to get rid of him.
This ultimate alienation even from those who potentially should be the closest to him makes him escape far away from his home. And it makes him think of a poem by Robert Burns which inspires him to think he wants to be a catcher in the rye, guardian of children, and he would watch over them to make sure they never go into the world of the adults: “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” (Salinger 164) he says to Phoebe. Yet, as it is clear to him that there is no possibility of remaining eternally in the children’s world, Holden breaks apart and ends up in psychiatric hospital, where he writes the novel.
The problem of the motivation behind Holden’s rebellion
However, along with the beginning and the end of Holden’s journey runs the contradiction regarding Holden as a narrator. The young narrator Holden uses a language which is adequate to his age and environment. The competition between him and Stradlater or between him and Ackley also reflect a typical youthful state of antagonism. The fact that girls interest him more than studying, as well as the fact that he goes through a phase when everything seems boring and phony, are also convincing.
On the other hand, how can we explain his initial sarcastic comment on David Copperfield, his hatred of films, his exceptionally insightful assessment of the intentions of all people he meets during his journey, even when their behavior does not reveal their true intentions? The mind of the experienced older author Salinger interferes with the attitudes of the young boy Holden. At the age of sixteen, boys normally do not have such critical capacity to claim that “the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth” (Salinger 5). Usually, a young person at the age of sixteen uncritically accepts as truthful books which are presented as authoritative, or simply differentiates between “I like” and “I do not like”, so it is rather incredible that Holden has such a developed critical position towards Charles Dickens, the author of the character of David Copperfield. At the age of sixteen, young people usually (although there are exceptions) love films, which makes Holden’s claim “if there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies” sound very strange.2F
Further on: the thorough and precise description of Ackley and Stradlater; the ironic representation of the three girls in the night bar in New York; sensing the implicit homosexual intention (if there was any) of his favorite professor from a school he previously went to, Mr. Antolini, where he stays the night in New York – do not seem adequate to the way a sixteen-year-old boy thinks. This characteristic partly puts Salinger’s novel in the context of a number of novels in world literature, in which the child’s voice is deliberately and functionally interwoven with the voice of the experienced narrator, whose attitudes gained later in life are occasionally present in the thoughts of the younger narrator as an announcement of what is to come.
Nevertheless, in spite of these interesting and well structured narrative techniques, what remains problematic is the discrepancy between the psychological disturbance of Holden, who profoundly hates everything around him, and the experience of a young boy, who does not seem to have experience from life which would justify such hatred and intolerance. In order to shed light on this situation, it would be very helpful here to turn to the experience of his creator Jerome Salinger. Immediately after the Second World War, in April 1945, as part of a counter-intelligence division stationed in Europe, Salinger entered a liberated concentration camp, which is considered to have been one of Dachau’s sub-camps. His war experience, especially what he saw in the camp, affected him so much that he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.
Therefore, contrary to many critical works, I would dare claim that Holden Caulfield is not only a rebel, but is also a product of the nervous breakdown caused by the fact that Salinger was a witness of an enormous tragedy. The irony is so much the stronger once we realize that the novel – and through the novel, the acts of the protagonist Holden – are mainly interpreted as criticism directed towards the American educational and social system, whereas the true cause for the internal conflict (from which the rebellion springs) of the main character are the crimes committed by the fascists (witnessed by the author) against whom the US was in war and whose atrocities it condemned. It is therefore very difficult to claim with such certainty that the rebellion is directed towards the American way of life.
Therefore, the peak of the irony is the world phenomenon of millions of readers identifying themselves with the character of Holden as an icon of rebellion, when, in fact, they had not had the experience that led to Salinger’s nervous breakdown, which has brought about the character of Holden Caulfield. This explains the contradiction between the youthful speech of the narrator, on the one hand, and his experience, adequate for an adult, on the other hand, in understanding the concealed intentions of the other characters’ acts, which a sixteen-year-old boy would not normally understand. I consider this to be an indication that the theses of a large number of theoreticians from various periods, according to which, the literary work has its own logic independent from reality, theses that are still promoted today, are not entirely convincing. No matter how well structured The Catcher in the Rye is, some elements in it, such as Holden’s disturbance and hatred, do not follow from the novel’s own logic, but from the experience that J. D. Salinger had in his life and reality. Holden, represented in many aspects as a young boy, visibly contains in himself what a sixteen-year-old boy who has grown up in America cannot contain – disturbance of the mind caused by his creator being a witness to the Nazi death camps. Therefore, his difficult battle to keep forever the children in their childhood is an expression not so much of the fear that they may become adult representatives of American conformism, but is more an expression of a desperate attempt to prevent children from facing the horrible experience Salinger had as a representative of the adult world.
Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Stephen Greenblatt et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2006. Pp. 2319-25
Harold Bloom (Ed.). Bloom’s Guides: The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. P. 45
Jefferson, Ann, and David Robey. Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Batsford, 1992.
Jones, E. In: If You Really Want to Know: A Catcher Casebook. M. M. Marsden and E. College (Eds.). Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1951. (8-9).
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Signet, 1951.
Smith, Harrison. Manhattan Ulysses, Junior. Во: If You Really Want to Know: A Catcher Casebook. M. M. Marsden and E. College (Eds.). Chicago: Scott, Foresman, 1951. (9-11).
1. Krpen život literally means “sewn life”, referring to life in utter poverty. The reference in why this is an important novel for the history of Macedonian literature is because it is realistic, with motives of the difficult life in the villages in Macedonia in the first half of the twentieth century.
2. Regarding this assumption that sixteen-year-old young people (boys and girls alike) usually love movies, I received a remark that: “At the age of seventeen, Rimbaud will become one of the most significant poets in the world, and Holden is also a gifted child, who writes good essays!” I do not know what this remark proves: That children talented for writing do not like movies? That Holden’s talent for writing essays can be compared to the exceptional poetic talent of Rimbaud? That if Rimbaud would be alive today, he would not like movies whereas in his own time he did not like theatrical plays? I consider this remark to be ungrounded because the fact that Holden is talented for writing does not at all exclude the possibility of him liking movies. In fact, experience has taught me that a lot of young people talented for writing love movies and it is therefore unusual (though not impossible) that Holden does not like them – accordingly, I understand this remark as a request to eliminate reality in the interpretation of a literary work – something that this essay wants to prove as unproductive.