Note: This review was originally written back in 2016 as part of a personal "1001+ Book Challenge." I follow a Peter Boxall's 1001 Books: You Must Read Before You Die list and write about books I found particularly noteworthy. This post was edited recently to improve grammar and overall readability, but still reflects the views of a 23-year old me. My writing has improved since then, I promise! :apologetic:
As a non-native English speaker, I didn’t read much during my adolescent years. However, since 2011, I’ve been hard at work catching up on this whole reading business. This leads me to a book that I probably should have read as a teen, but instead read when I was 23, The Catcher in the Rye.
A modernist tale of adolescent angst and one notorious for inspiring 3 assassination attempts and driving its author into exile, The Catcher in the Rye has been categorized as a MUST READ for years. Some people find it amazing, others… not so much.
The story begins with our young narrator, Holden Caulfield reluctantly presenting his tale since the reader, in his mind, seems so keen on being in-the-know. Caulfield, a flunky and somewhat troubled child, has just gotten himself kicked out of Pencey Prep and decided to head to New York to kill some time. This is all done in the hope of delaying his return home and being criticized yet again by his parents. Throughout the story, Caulfield spends a lot of time walking, taking cabs, going to clubs, and talking to people. During all of these activities, he tells the reader about his life as well as making general observations. The reader soon learns about Caulfield’s family and his relationship with each member. All in all, the story is character driven, its plot being fairly uneventful.
If you feel disappointed by the lack of action or plot in the book, I don’t blame you. However, The Catcher in the Rye –like Salinger’s other work— favors meaningful dialogue and narrative style to action. To fully appreciate it one must keep the historical background of the text in mind. Having served in WWII, Salinger was deeply affected by combat, and his writing thereafter focused on internal struggle and anxiety. Taking a page from his hero, Hemingway, Salinger wanted to show his readers as much as possible, while writing as little as possible. In contrast to Hemingway, however, Salinger’s characters are much more dynamic in my opinion. Much of his work features children, who often seem either above adult affairs such as in “Teddy” or completely oblivious to them, such as in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”
Regarding Holden Caulfield, he is at an age between childhood and adulthood as reflected by the juxtaposition of childish naiveté and a cynical, antisocial attitude. Holden has a lot to say and has many desires, but he can’t seem to enjoy anything for a reason he isn’t entirely aware of. The tone of the story is relentlessly fast with Caulfield talking a mile a minute about one topic, and changing topics abruptly after reaching some kind of sad conclusion. The tone and topic changes led me to believe that Holden is in emotional pain, both from the absence of his family (in terms of physical and emotional distance) and because of general loneliness. Caulfield doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere, has trouble relating to other people, and thus has a difficult time narrating the story. Based on what Holden says and how he says it, it is safe to say that he is an unreliable narrator.
Regarding the meaning of the story, it has been argued that the book is a kind of bildungsroman –a “rite of passage” tale that adolescents can identify with. However, this is somewhat problematic since by the end of the story, it is questionable whether Holden grows up or even learns anything. Others have argued that the story is an allegory for war. Many modernist stories featured war veterans who returned to find their home lives altered. There is a consistent theme of alienation in Modernist literature and The Catcher in the Rye is no exception. However, that is in large part speculative as well since the war isn't really mentioned very often in the text. I would argue for the former, I found the story to be more of a presentation of adolescent psychology. The anxiety within the story is an anxiety that people often feel and overcome with age. Unfortunately for Holden, he seems to understand that he needs to grow up, but the epilogue (or rather the last chapter) indicates that he was ultimately unable to do so.
All in all, I appreciated the book, but didn’t like it very much. While I felt that I understood the text, the end of the story left me asking “so what?” What did this mean to me? Why did I bother reading this? I don’t know, maybe I read it too late in life. I recall having a conversation with a friend of mine shortly after, being sure that he would agree with my negative review. He however, loved the book and thought that Holden was the funniest character ever (as opposed to finding him annoying like I did). I suppose this book is a matter of personal taste, which is something I know I shouldn’t write in a book review, but it is what it is.
I give Catcher in the Rye an 6/10. Well written, great/annoying narration, rich history and analytical possibilities, questionable appeal.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Bantam, 1981. Print.