Not the dark, brooding tale that you might expect, but actually a rather familiar story of growing up. Or am I just a psycho?
Notoriously at the centre of much controversy The Catcher in the Rye has been frequently challenged for its use of vulgar language, which extends as far as ‘Damn’ for the most part, sexual references and its questioning of traditional family values, moral codes, and religious ideology. As well as all that this classic novel has been more generally accused of promoting adolescent rebellion. Infamous shootings have been linked to the novel, including the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life by John Hinckley Jr. and the killing of John Lennon by Mark Chapman. With such disturbing acts being associated with the book, and with Chapman supposedly identifying with the text’s protagonist, it is no wonder that The Catcher in the Rye has been so debated.
However, 64 years since its publication, it’s quite hard to see what all the fuss was about. Ever a reputable source of literary criticism I turn to South Park for support on this. In the episode ‘The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs’ the boys are excited to be assigned the book for homework once they hear of how adult and inappropriate it has been deemed. But after plowing through the book in one sitting, Kyle remarks how all it really amounts to is “just some whinny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is!” While there is some truth to that, what’s important here is that for a modern audience looking for controversy, that is indeed all they will find.
The narrative concerns Holden Caulfield, a 17 year old boy at Pencey Preparatory, a private school from which he has just been expelled. Disillusioned with the school system and filled with contempt for his classmates Holden catches a train to New York. He plans to stay in a hotel until Wednesday, so that he can come home to his parents as if he is just returning home for school vacation, thus concealing his expulsion. Lacking a clear narrative direction from there, the book instead hones in on Holden’s insecurities and existential angst as he encounters the various people whom he finds to be “Phony.”
Everything that was once so shocking about the book is now commonplace and kind of tame, but what endures are the universal and timeless sentiments about growing up, about how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s easy to see how remarkably ahead of its time it is in that regard. Until then, most works centred on young boys where all is viewed through a nostalgic haze. None of them ever stopped to consider that being a 13 year old boy isn’t always that great. That’s not to say the book is in any way a downer, there’s nothing particularly dark or unsettling. However The Catcher in the Rye does dare to voice the other side of adolescence. It speaks to everyone who ever felt out of place and frustrated when they were young. It takes a look at the hardships of youth.
Despite the seeming cynicism and focus on discontent though there’s a strangely optimistic undertone to the novel. Yes, growing up can be tough, yes teenage alienation can be painful but it’s just a phase, a necessary hurdle that can be overcome in time. By the end of the story it seems that even Holden himself has realised this. He may still have some way to go before he properly matures but the reader can be assured that he’s on the right path after all.
Don’t read The Catcher in the Rye looking for dangerous messages or a fierce dark heart. That isn’t what you’ll find. What you’ll find instead is a chronicle of youth that is in many ways one of the most honest that has been committed to the page.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was published in 1951.