I first read The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, in Grade 12 English. [In fact, we had two Grade 12 English courses: Literature and Canadian Literature. Most of the works we studied that year and in previous years were plays, poems, and novels that were not as widely studied in other schools. I can only think of a few novels that I did over the course of high school, and most of them are not the ones that most people expect. This one and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier are the only two that come to mind.] I found this book to be annoying eight years ago and I still found it so today, although I love the first-person narration. While the stream-of-consciousness narration is hard to follow at times, I still find it understandable and entertaining.
The book is annoying because its main character is annoying and I feel as though I’m forced to listen to a whiny tirade without being able to get a word in edgewise. On the other hand, I find Holden Caulfield sympathetic in some regards — hence why it is so frustrating for me not to be able to respond to him. My feelings have changed little since high school regarding this book. Part of me just wanted to say: “Holden, it gets better when you grow up! But clearly you do need to talk to someone.” While the book supposedly represents teenagers in general, or maybe teenagers around the year 1950, I feel that the book works well as a character study of Holden himself. Clearly, he needs the help that his psychologist is supposed to be giving him. The psychologist’s analysis would be most helpful if it were included as part of the book.
My modern analysis, though I have no background in psychology beyond a couple of introductory undergraduate courses, would be that Holden needs to have a frank discussion with this parents and figure out what he wants out of life. Clearly he feels that the expectations foisted on him are too great because he believes that his parents want him to be both his brother and himself. There also seem to be class issues at work. Holden does not seem to be one to succeed at a prep school, but I doubt that his parents would want him to go elsewhere. He needs to learn to trust adults, but also I think that as the psychologist, I would want to interview his parents as well. Holden doesn’t seem to understand how to be a man beyond the superficial aspects and is stuck in boyhood. Then again, I’m an adult in 2011. In some ways, it is just too hard for me to sympathise with Holden Caulfield!
Why would teenagers like this book? Do they? I have to admit it’s not very popular at the moment. However, as it is not a traditional teen book, it has elements that teens might find intriguing, such as the bar scenes. Its setting of late 1940s New York could also be appealing, but that could also be unappealing due to its unfamiliarity. The only theme that I could see as still being relevant is the question of the transition from child to adult and how that is handled. Young people might find it refreshing to discuss this theme frankly, as this novel does, rather than in patronising terms that are often used for younger teens. By sixteen or seventeen, we are ready for these discussions.
Incidentally, the song Coming Through the Rye can be interpreted in many ways, but one of them is about romantic trysts in a field and the version that I know is extremely upbeat and bouncy. I couldn’t help but giggle as I read the book this time every time the song was mentioned.