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Holden Caulfield differs from all the other characters in the novel because he is putatively the narrator. Actually it is J. D. Salinger who is writing the novel but using the fictitious persona of a precocious adolescent the way Mark Twain used Huckleberry Finn. It would seem that Salinger’s main reason for telling his story through a fictitious narrator was not to analyze the narrator’s character but to offer a fresh view of the people Holden was encountering.
Humorist Andy Rooney once said that his main satisfaction in writing was to tell people what they already knew but didn’t know they knew. Salinger’s characters are almost all familiar “types,” but by presenting them through Holden’s naïve point of view, Salinger makes them seem like unique individuals. To Salinger they are types; to Holden they are individuals. If they were not familiar types, the reader would not be able to visualize them so clearly and sharply. We all know Sally Hayeses. We all know Stradlaters. We certainly all know Mr. Spencers, a nice old guy who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow. Most of us know closet queens like Mr. Antolini, who has a “show marriage” with an older woman.
Most of the questions asked about The Catcher in the Rye have to do with Holden Caulfield, but he is only a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy for the real narrator, who is J. D. Salinger, a notorious introvert, a much older man with a genius I.Q. For the sake of verisimilitude and other purposes, Salinger made Holden a rebel and a dropout, probably modeling him after himself as an adolescent; but Holden’s descriptions of the other characters are what make the novel so brilliant.
Holden is an enigma because he doesn’t have any sense of direction. Readers will never be able to figure him out. Salinger admitted that The Catcher in the Rye is rambling and episodic. Unlike Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s Odyssey, Salinger’s book doesn’t have much of a plot because Holden doesn’t know what he is looking for. Salinger justifies this discursiveness late in the book by having Holden, the narrator, tell Mr. Antolini why he flunked Oral Expression at Pencey.
“The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time—I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much, and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him….he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital….It didn’t have much to do with the farm—I admit it—but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle.”
By using a gifted but unprofessional and antisocial misfit like Holden as his faux naïf narrator, Salinger is able to create a modernistic, multi-dimensional mosaic of Manhattan which is as hallucinatory as the city itself and the “types” who inhabit it.
J. D. Salinger is implicitly describing himself through the character he created to narrate his novel in the adolescent vernacular of the day. Holden Caulfield is a very “round” character. He is a dual personality. He has a past, present, and a future. He is wise beyond his years, and he is still just a kid.
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