The Catcher in the Rye was not a book I enjoyed. In general, I don’t like spineless characters, and I don’t like unreliable narrators, and Holden Caufield is both!
If your idea of great fiction is a story that successfully produces a powerful emotional reaction, then okay, I agree that Salinger’s book is great. It made me feel absolutely awful. After reading it, I felt I needed to go look at pictures of kittens or something to wash it out of my head. Blech.
More details about the book with SPOILERS below.
Summary of The Catcher in the Rye
At the start—that is, the end—of the story, Holden is in a hospital. He is being treated for tuberculosis and/or a nervous breakdown (interpretations vary). A psychologist encourages him to write all about what happened to him from the time he left his last school until he was hospitalized. Hence the novel.
The story is this: Holden is a smart teenager, but doesn’t apply himself because he’s still mourning the death of his younger brother who died of cancer. He’s disgusted with everyone, apart from this one girl he used to know. After getting kicked out of yet another expensive boarding school, he travels to and wanders around New York City by himself in the cold, spending money, smoking, drinking, and not sleeping, which is what destroys his health. His saving grace is his love for his kid sister. He tells her he plans to run away, but when she insists on going with him, he decides that they’ll both just go home instead.
The title refers to this bizarre fantasy Holden has: to be a guy who stands in a field of rye near a cliff and catch innocent little kids before they can run off the edge by accident. He imagines this career when he mis-remembers the poem “Comin Thro the Rye” by Robert Burns. The relevant lines are “Gin [if] a body meet a body / Comin thro the rye”. Or he mishears a boy singing a song based on the poem. Holden substitutes “catch” for “meet” and then thinks of a person actually catching someone’s body as it’s falling. In the rye. Voila.
Why does he care about the lives of children running around in hypothetical fields of rye inexplicably planted near dangerous cliffs? SparkNotes has the answer. The fall from the cliff is a metaphor for the fall from innocence into adulthood, and Holden doesn’t want to grow up.
Why I didn’t like The Catcher in the Rye
Holden is spineless!
Some people see him as some kind of rebel non-conformist who fights the system, or at any rate wants to escape it. I just see him as a spoiled, hypocritical kid without an ounce of common sense who can’t decide what to do with himself and wastes the time, money, and goodwill of all the people who care about him, and gets used as a doormat by all the people who don’t.
Now, that’s not totally fair, because if someone in your immediate family dies, grief could make you feel totally alienated, could make you not care about spending money wisely or taking care of your health. But since my only sibling is alive and well, I find Holden and his problems hard to identify with.
We only get Holden’s point of view!
Holden is writing the events of the novel in his own unique voice. (Salinger’s genius was creating that voice.) We only see events as Holden does, are only explicitly made aware of things that Holden himself is explicitly aware of. Since he’s a messed-up teenager, he’s not fully aware of himself or what’s going on around him. In other words, Holden is an unreliable narrator.
I don’t like unreliable narrators. They make me feel as if the author, just to make me feel stupid, is gleefully holding back information that I as a reader then have to guess. Am I meant to think that the teacher whose sofa Holden slept on was really gay, or that Holden was just paranoid?
Usually we know more than the protagonist knows because the author gives us additional details that the protagonist can’t: even if the author doesn’t let us see what other characters are doing or thinking, at the very least he or she usually describes the setting or context within which the characters are acting.
We do get clues that Holden doesn’t see himself accurately: he says Sally says he was shouting but claims he wasn’t; clearly he was shouting. That just makes me frustrated with Holden for being oblivious and for the author’s having put me in the shoes of someone who is embarrassing himself.
We also get that Holden is a hypocrite. He constantly says others are phony, but he invents elaborate lies in several conversations. He knows he’s doing it but can’t seem to stop himself. Spineless!
Thus: Being Holden is both unpleasant and inescapable.
We experience stories vicariously by implanting ourselves in the point of view of the protagonist. When the detective finds clues to the murder, we also find clues to the murder. When the explorer encounters a fathomless gorge or a tribe of cannibals, we feel his fear, and when he overcomes these obstacles, we feel his relief.
Salinger traps readers in the point of view of an immature, unhappy character who, like I said, I failed to identify with. I like becoming the clever sleuth or the intrepid explorer. I did not like becoming Holden Caufield.
I mean, fair enough, right? Holden Caufield wasn’t exactly enjoying being Holden Caufield either!
Does The Catcher in the Rye have a happy ending?
You could say Holden turns the corner. He is saved, like I said, by love for his sister, or possibly hers for him. At any rate, he lives to tell his tale.
Now, another reading seems to be (thank you SparkNotes) that this is a coming-of-age novel where the protagonist refuses to come of age. Throughout the novel, he’s miserable about becoming an adult himself, and wants to save children from the fall from innocence, and at the end of the book what finally makes him happy is the infantile pleasure of seeing his sister riding a merry-go-round (you know, a ride that starts and ends in the same place).
It’s not much of a happy ending if he has been left unchanged by his experiences, but there’s evidence both ways.
But to me, any positive, um, spin you put on his survival and possible maturation doesn’t really matter. The rest of the book is so depressing that Holden may as well have frozen to death in Central Park. That’s how happy the book felt to me when I put it down.
I guess if Holden had frozen to death, I’d have felt even worse. Or maybe I’d have felt better, because dying would have been a fitting end for a character who dragged me all over New York for no particular reason and made me feel as lousy as Holden did.
Do I hate Holden that much? Not really. It’s tough to actually hate a guy who loves to read.
When and Why I Read The Catcher in the Rye
Chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club for March. I read it in high school.
I have a vaguely negative impression of it. I now have a specifically negative impression of it.
Genre: fiction (classics)
Date started / date finished: 19-Mar-17 to 20-March-17
Length: 214 pages
ISBN: 9780316769488 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1945
Amazon link: The Catcher in the Rye