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Write a critical note on the theme of pastorality in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the...

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sayantanis | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 2) Honors

Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:17 AM via web

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Write a critical note on the theme of pastorality in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted January 27, 2012 at 11:40 AM (Answer #1)

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To address "pastorality" in Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, defining the term would be helpful. "Pastoral" is defined as...

...portraying or expressive of the life of shepherds or country people especially in an idealized and conventionalized manner...

In terms of poetry, it denotes something...

...pleasingly peaceful and innocent...

Another definition is...

...of or relating to spiritual care or guidance especially of a congregation...

In The Catcher in the Rye, I see the first definition used with regard to Holden's mistaken perception of the Robert Burns poem, where he wants to be in the fields of rye, catching the innocent—children—and keeping them from the danger of a cliff ahead. This lends itself to the image of the shepherd, protecting his sheep. The situation is idealized in that he believes he could do this job, even if the Robert Burns poem had referred to this action in his poem (which it does not). Holden describes his "vision:"

I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. 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 catchthem. That's all I'd 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. I know it's crazy.

Holden idealizes the situation in that he is the only one there to save these thousands of threatened "little kids."

This aspect of the book is also pastoral in that Holden's dream partially portrays the innocence of children running in a field, chasing each other, laughing and carefree. This only continues until Holden's thoughts turn to the danger of the cliffs.

While the third definition refers to "spiritual care or guidance," we could infer that somehow Holden wishes to be the guide of the innocent. He wishes to save the innocents from being harmed, perhaps from the danger life holds, as it waits for an opportunity to steal one's innocence away. Spiritual here does not necessarily refer to theology, but to one's spiritual self, and Holden's desire is to protect this...to guide the children out of danger's way.

In terms of literature, "pastoral" is a term that conveys...

...simplicity, charm, and serenity attributed to country life...

So from a literary standpoint, Salinger uses pastorality not only in having Holden Caulfield perceive a place where he could help children to be safe, but portrays Holden himself as a young man searching for such a place. He is immature and childish in many ways—out of step with others around him. Perhaps it is in response to the loss of his brother Allie who died of luekemia. Holden might aspire to protect young children as he would have wanted his brother protected, or wish that he could have protected Allie himself, which was impossible—much the same way as protecting thousands of kids running through the rye would be.

Whereas a "pastoral" quality might be seen in Holden as a "shepherding" or nurturing young man, sadly he is himself damaged, hardly able to see to his own needs, let alone those of others. This may make his character seem somewhat tragic as well.


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