Book Review: Catcher in the Rye
“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.” – Holden Caulfield
The 1950s was a unique point in America’s history. It is characterized by an economic boom unseen before in the country’s history, and it was a period of compliance and conformity to social norms. It was in this societal background that a new wave of attitude began to emerge in the country’s youth who have never seen the horrors of war and has no regard for the shadow of Communism that is looming around the world.
It was during the 1950s that the youth of the country began to rebel against the social norms and the established order. Rock and roll music, which was frowned upon by the adults of the time, became famous through musicians such as Elvis Presley whose gyrating hips were the delight of young girls and the bane of mothers everywhere; the Beat generation, a ragtag group of young people whose culture and attitudes are based upon the complete denial of accepted social norms, emerged and was criticized by the older generation for their attitudes; James Dean also became famous during this time with his movie, Rebel Without a Cause, and he epitomized the teenage rebellion of the times; and, let us not forget, the publishing of Catcher in the Rye, the tale of the rebellious Holden Caulfield who is as much as revered as a symbol of teenage rebellion as James Dean was.
The first impression that you get when you read Catcher in the Rye is that Holden Caulfield is an annoying kid with no direction in life. He is irresponsible, quick to judgement, and nonchalant about his expulsion from school. While reading the book, I felt that there is a certain pessimism in his character and that he just decided to abandon all hope even if he could probably do something to better his situation. Instead, he is acting with a calm resignation just to avoid being a “phony” which is a term for something or someone that is pretentious and hypocritical in the 1950s.
The character of Holden Caulfield is certainly the main point of the novel. His rants and his complaints about a world where the societal norms seem wrong are a wonderful example of first-person narration. Yes, I despised the character of Holden but I think that’s the point that Salinger is trying to make. The rebellious youth is full of angst and is difficult to understand so there is a certain hardship when you try to empathize with teens like Holden.
Teenage rebellion, during Salinger’s time, was irritating for the conformists and was a thing to be revered among the nonconforming youth. That is why Holden was an icon of the teenagers during the book’s publication but such idolatry has disappeared over time. Today, Holden has lost his magnetic charm in an age where the youth’s struggle for conformity and pretentiousness is now a culture in itself. But Holden still holds a certain timelessness when describing the angst and dilemmas that the youth are facing. The only difference is the method in solving such dilemmas. For us, optimism and the desire to never back down is key while for Holden the key is to just let it go and lie in pessimistic reverie.
For all the coldness and pessimism of Holden, he is still a touchy kid. I felt bouts of pity for him when I learned of his younger brother’s death; when he was beaten first by his roommate and then by the pimp of a prostitute that he did not even defile; when he cried in Phoebe’s bedroom; and when he again cried as he was watching Phoebe in the carousel.
In the end, the only hope that Holden holds for himself is his dream of becoming a catcher in the rye. Someone who will catch children when they fall in the fields of rye. This represents his desire to protect the children from the phoniness of adulthood. Throughout the novel, children are the only people that Holden seem to hold in high regard in which he values their innocence and he does not want their innocence to be marred by the pretentiousness of adult life.
Catcher in the Rye is a good book. Yes, the antihero is annoying but that does not merit hate for the book. I don’t think it is justifiable to hate a book for a fleshed-out character who is only a symbol of a teenager’s angst and rebellion in the past. Salinger made a believable character and a commendable narrative that reflects the spirit of his times.