“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all… And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be”
The Catcher in the Rye is no ordinary coming of age novel. It boldly ventures into themes such as mortality, religious beliefs, sex, prostitution, innocence and teenage angst. It is certainly suitable to say that J.D. Salinger created adolescence, as we know it now, a phenomenon that was rarely defined till the booming success of the novel.
The novel is in the style of a first person narrative by the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, who recounts the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep. Right from the first page, readers will witness the surreal feeling of words on the page coming alive in the form of Holden’s unedited and often, poorly articulated thoughts. Holden is at a crossroads in his life, he is not quite a man yet no longer a boy. He associated childhood with purity and innocence (shown through his younger siblings, Phoebe and Allie) and adulthood with ‘phoniness’ (as seen with Mr. Antolini), and thus resists maturation as he considers it more of a loss than a gain.
Over half a century since its release, the book still taps into the raw emotions of teenagers worldwide. Holden’s cynicism, wry humour, profane and melancholic nature can get a bit monotonous and dreary as the novel progresses, but critics still applaud Salinger for his ‘skilled mockery of verbal speech’. The plot strikes a balance between dark comedy and tragedy, which is best exemplified through Holden’s innocent misconceptions about adulthood. He is often referred to as the ‘Urban Huckleberry Finn’ as both are adolescents, runaways and observers, seeking permanence and independence in their lives.
The book is deeply manipulative; tugging at the heartstrings till a tear escapes your eye. However, calling the book pretentious would be incorrect, as the sincerity and artifice with which it is written comes straight from the author’s heart. Though the book continues to be an object of public debate, it is praised for the author’s nerve to release such a radical novel in the conservative ‘50s. It is maintained that Holden was used to represent an entire generation of disillusioned American youth, frustrated by the phoniness of the world, just as Salinger was. In 1980, 25-year-old Mark David Chapman shot Beatles legend John Lennon in front of his Manhattan home and later gave the book to the police as an explanation for why he did it.
The Catcher in the Rye is not a story for the easily offended but whether you hate it or love it; you will never be able to forget it. The rush of emotions one feels after putting the book down can only be best described in Holden’s own words, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
By Sanjana Ahuja