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In Chapter 24, Holden is explaining why he flunked Oral Expression. One of the things Holden says is:
“The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
Then Holden tells Mr. Antolini about Richard Kinsella.
“He didn’t stick to the point too much, and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him. It was terrible, because in the first place, he was a very nervous guy…and his lips were always shaking whenever it was his time to make a speech, and you could hardly hear him if you were sitting way in the back of the room….I liked his speeches better than anybody else’s. He practically flunked the course, though, too.
J. D. Salinger decided, for his own reasons, that he wanted to use an adolescent as narrator. Salinger had to persuade us that a sixteen-year-old boy, who had been kicked out of several schools and had just flunked four out of five courses, could write a novel like The Catcher in the Rye.
Salinger takes pains to establish that Holden is capable--when he feels like it--of writing excellent English compositions. Both Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini praise him. For example, Mr. Antolini says:
“How’d you do in English? I’ll show you the door in short order if you flunked English, you little ace composition writer.”
Salinger also establishes that Holden is a voracious reader—even though he rarely reads books that are assigned. In Chapter 3, Holden describes his literary tastes. He is currently reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and he has read such novels as Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Yet Holden says:
I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.
He has a poor opinion of himself because of his academic record, but he is a brilliant boy who would like to be reading even more of the authors he knows only by hearsay.
The Richard Kinsella story in Chapter 24 is put there to justify Holden’s rambling way of telling his own story. Salinger is writing the novel, but Holden is not writing a novel; he is simply telling what happened to him when he got kicked out of Pencey and went to New York. Holden is using his own adolescent vernacular and saying whatever comes into his head--just as Richard Kinsella was doing in Oral Expression when the other boys kept yelling “Digression!”
Salinger knew his novel was discursive and episodic. He wanted it that way. He justifies it by having it narrated by a rebellious young loner with a flair for writing compositions. Salinger characterizes Holden as a good writer, a sharp observer, an autodidact, a youth who has acquired good taste in literature from reading some of the best books, and as a budding author, not unlike Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne who digressed in Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, respectively, whenever they felt like it. Holden is a lost boy—which is why he rambles and why it is hard to say exactly what his story “means.”
In the book’s opening paragraph, Holden warns:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and 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.
He has read Dickens, too.
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