author: J.D. Salinger
published: 1 July 1951
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Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with "cynical adolescent." Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he's been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. It begins,
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and 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. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."
His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
I picked up this book for the Eclectic Reader Challenge and it ended up doing double duty as a read for a module on censorship and banning in a lit class I am taking this semester. It is one of those “Life List” books that I never read in high school but felt like I should.
The novel is a Holden Caulfield’s narrative of two days that he spends on his own in New York City. He has been expelled from yet another prep school, failing every subject but one. After a fight with his roommate, he leaves school a few days early and goes back to New York City. However, he knows that his parents will be furious about what happened and he chooses to spend a few days alone in a hotel before presenting himself at home for the holidays. His two-day rebellion is spent going to nightclubs and getting drunk or wandering the city, continually bemoaning the lack of intellectual companionship. He has a date with Sally, a girl from his past, and alternately falls in love with her and hates her… all on the same date. He is a boy who is clearly never satisfied with anyone or anything, continually in a state of discontent. His short time of rebellion has brought him no answers and no relief.
I really wanted to love this book, or at least appreciate it, but I just couldn’t. It wasn’t the dated language or ideas, but the complete lack of a character arc for Holden. With most protagonists, there is a certain arc of growth that takes place as the character goes through different experiences and situations and becomes changed as a person by the story’s end. This really didn’t happen with Holden and that lack of character growth is something that I came to realize I really appreciate in a novel and really missed in this one. Holden is intelligent, but comes across as a bit arrogant, perhaps a little too obsessed with himself as a barometer of intellect. For most of the book, Holden dismisses others as “phony” and casts aspersions on their worth if they don’t live up to the personal standards he expects, standards that generally seem not to apply to himself. Instead of relating to Holden’s character, I found myself continually annoyed by him and his seemingly complete lack of self-awareness. There was just no growth for Holden over the course of the novel, no change in behavior or thinking, no development. Other than his little sister, Holden seems to struggle to truly connect with anyone on any level. He spends most of the book whining about the fact that pretty much every person he meets is unintelligent and/or phony. He sees himself as intellectually superior to most people, judging others as phony for their interest in things he sees as inconsequential.
There is also much about his burgeoning sexuality and how that manifests itself, but there is never any development or resolution to that theme either. It seems as if he is not entirely comfortable with his own sexual awakening, often commenting about his myriad of chances to lose his virginity that are foiled by himself. He often objectifies women, but it is also clear that there is little behind it, more of an effort to fit in with the other guys in his school, rather than an accurate representation of his true feelings. This is seen in his almost obsessive anger towards his roommate when he finds out that Stradlater’s date is Jane, a girl from Holden’s past. He cannot stand the idea that Stradlater, a guy with a somewhat sketchy sexual history with women, would be with Jane, whom Holden seems to see as some sort of “above it all” standard of perfection. His thoughts on sexuality seem to be rather disjointed, one moment bemoaning his lack of experience and the next almost frightened by it. He does not push the issue with his dates and even during an encounter with a prostitute, he rebuffs the idea of intimacy, instead wanting simply to talk. In keeping with his rather disjointed ideas are his judgments on others’ sexuality, often seeing others “perverted.” There are also many moments when he questions the sexual orientation of those around him, showing a certain discomfort with the entire topic of sexuality.
In some ways, though, iit was an interesting read. The story is told as it flows from Holden’s mind, at times very much of a stream of consciousness feel to it. The flow was often a bit disjointed and almost reminded me of the flow of Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead book. But it is through this perspective and style of writing that we become privvy to the inner workings of Holden’s mind. Yet, as the story unfolded, I still liked it less and less.
Classic literature or not, it just didn’t appeal to me. But I also think that is a matter of “to each his own.” From a analytical standpoint, it was an interesting read, but it just didnt touch me in any way.
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