In my junior year of high school, I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time. After completing the novel, I informed my teacher that I wanted to marry Holden Caulfield. In a voice that said “you should seek help,” she politely encouraged me to reevaluate my statement. (I threw the word ‘marry’ around quite liberally back in the day. Mostly to describe individuals whose personalities I found highly attractive. Oy.)
Throughout college, and in recent conversations (arguments really), I’ve listened to my peers berate The Catcher in the Rye. The central argument essentially is that Holden is, well, a bitch. He whines the entire time. He’s a teenager who complains about a situation of which he is the cause, and phonies or not, he is his main problem. When I’ve attempted to defend one of my favorite protagonists, I’ve been told that I would see him differently now, as a young adult. Differently than my angsty teenager self saw him.
So, I’m rereading the book for the first time.
I have to admit that initially, I was starting to see how Holden’s voice can annoy. It took me 20 pages or so to adjust to his speech, the tone, the language, whereas the first time, I was immediately hooked.
Though I may not necessarily be 100 percent sympathetic with his character, Holden has, once again, won me over.
And I’ll tell you why.
Holden is a liar. He says so numerous times: “Once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it. No kidding. Hours” (Salinger 58). So what is the novel? Possibly just 200 pages of fabrication, half-truths, straight bullshit? Maybe. Lies or not, Salinger’s writing style is pathological. But also witty, endearing, simple, hilarious, heartbreaking…Needless to say, I worship it ever so slightly. Without consenting, the reader enters a one-sided conversation with a feverish narrator that can’t be believed. But despite the odds, I do. Despite every indication that he can’t be trusted, I still think he’s a genuine character in the sense that he believes everything he babbles.
Logically, an untrustworthy character is hard to like, which is perhaps why so many dismiss Holden and the novel. Yet, Holden speaks some incredible truths, no kidding. The world is full of “phonies.” People, a lot of them anyway, are difficult to like. People present a number of faces publicly and often harbor an entirely different one in private. It’s fun to wonder what Holden would think about people in the electronic age. He’d go even more crazy, I swear.
I think it’s hard for readers older than, say, 19, to wholly relate to Holden. One reason, I think, is because he represents a voice that they once embraced more than they are willing to admit. He is immature. He hates everything. Everyone is phony, and he is remarkably the only person that sees the whole picture, or so he will have you believe. He is wrapped up in lamenting the self-absorption of others, yet, because the reader only receives his perspective, he seems the most self-involved of all.
If you want to know, I think it’s important to think like Holden. Without allowing it to cripple you, that is. Holden doesn’t change. The ending is left ambiguous, with indications that he will only continue to stagnate. It isn’t Holden’s attitude entirely that prevents him from moving on, it’s his ability to see past all the “phoniness” and instead, work to be the opposite of what he claims to hate. He complains and wallows, and exerts all his energy into identifying the problem without actually doing anything to counter it. As the paper Mr. Antolini gives Holden says, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one” (188). He allows himself to fail in face of the ills of human nature, rather than actively fighting it.
This second read definitely forced me to look at the novel differently but has only reaffirmed my love of it.
It killed me. It really did.