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The first readers of J. D. Salinger’s novel would have been (and in fact were) immediately struck by the unusual style of the novel’s phrasing. The opening paragraph, for instance, is very typical of the style of the work as a whole:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, an what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all--I'm not saying that--but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
This is one of the most distinctive openings of any major American novel, but the phrasing here is also characteristic of much of the rest of the book. Some traits of this phrasing include the following:
- Direct address to someone (perhaps a psychologist, but also the reader), thus giving the book a kind of dramatic immediacy.
- Innovation upon the kinds of openings with which readers would have been familiar from other autobiographical novels, such as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
- Heavy use of informal, colloquial phrasing and even slang, as in the reference here to “my lousy childhood” (emphasis added).
- A tone of voice that seems associated with a prickly teenager – the kind of voice that had not often been heard before in American fiction.
- A style that seems simultaneously unprofessional (as in the reference to “stuff”) and very carefully composed (since it is difficult to capture so well such a distinctive voice).
- A style that would have struck many of the book’s first readers as surprisingly provocative, as in the use of “crap” and “goddam” (words which will eventually seem mild compared to some of the narrator’s later word choices).
- A style that somehow seems full of clichés (such as “if you want to know the truth”) but also highly distinctive.
- Phrasing that raises curiosity and creates suspense (whom is the narrator addressing? Why is he telling us his life story? What does he mean when he mentions “this madman stuff”?).
- Sentence structures that can seem on the surface to be rambling but that are obviously carefully designed (as in the opening and closing of the first sentence, with their symmetry and balance).
- Phrasing that seems exaggerated but that also seems perfectly in character (such as the reference to “two hemorrhages”).
In short, Salinger creates a style that doesn’t just tell us about Holden Caulfield but that actually presents him to us, so that we can hear his own voice and imagine his personality very precisely. In this book more than in many others, style very often is meaning.
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