J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has become, since its publication, an enduring classic of American literature. The novel is a favorite because of its humor, its mordant criticism of American middle-class society and its values, and the skill with which Salinger captures colloquial speech and vocabulary. The Catcher in the Rye, ironically enough, has received some criticism over the years because of its rough language, which Holden Caulfield cites to denounce. The novel’s story is told in retrospect by the main character, Holden, apparently while staying in a psychiatric hospital in California.
What Holden tells is the story of his disenchantment with his life and the direction it is taking him. Throughout the novel, Holden speaks of his loneliness and depression; the story of a few days in his life indicates how sad and lonely his search for moral values is in a society in which he finds them sorely lacking. As the novel begins, Holden has been expelled, immediately before Christmas, from an exclusive preparatory school in Pennsylvania. He knows his parents will be angry with him, so he decides to spend a few days in New York City before going home. In New York, Holden endures several adventures before explaining to his only real friend, his sister, Phoebe, just what it is he believes in. This discovery of some moral identity does not, however, save Holden from hospitalization.
From the beginning of the novel, readers see Holden as the champion of the downtrodden: children, for example (whom he sees as essentially innocent, fragile, and uncomplicated), and those who have been persecuted by others. At the same time, Holden shows no patience for hypocrisy and self-delusion (except his own; readers need to keep in mind that the narrator is institutionalized), as seen in any number of his acquaintances. Holden’s idealism does not spare even his own older brother, D. B., whom Holden accuses of prostituting his writing talent as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Holden admires courage, simplicity, and authenticity. He is preoccupied with the lack of justice in life, a point that leads him to defend a girl’s honor in a fight with his Pencey roommate, Ward Stradlater, and results in another beating in New York, when Holden refuses to be cheated by a pandering hotel elevator operator. Moreover, Holden is devastated by the death of his younger brother, Allie, and it turns out that one of Holden’s heroes is a former schoolmate named James Castle, who commits suicide rather than contradict his beliefs. In a well-known passage late in the novel, Holden sees obscene graffiti on the walls of Phoebe’s school. He is enraged that someone would affront children in this way, and he manages to efface one set of obscenities. Later, however, he finds more such graffiti and depressedly comes to the conclusion that one can never erase all obscene scribblings from the walls of the world.
Salinger’s novel takes its title from two key episodes that involve children. The first of these is Holden’s chance observation of a little boy, who, with his parents, is strolling along a city street. Evidently, the happy boy is singing to himself, humming a song Holden calls “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” Holden is impressed with the fact that the boy is simply enjoying his own music, pleasing only himself in naïve artistic integrity.
Much later, when Holden spends an evening with Phoebe, he defends himself against his sister’s charge of moral bankruptcy by indirectly alluding to the little boy. Holden tells Phoebe that he would like to be a “catcher in the rye,” a man who watches over children, protecting them from falling from a cliff while they play. Holden’s fantasy elaborates his obsession with innocence and his perhaps surprisingly traditional moral code.
It is important to realize that Holden’s intention of making a new life for himself in the West places Holden Caulfield in a tradition of American literature in which young people seek out a better life away from the corruptions of civilization. Such characters seek to realize the American Dream and the ideals of justice, purity, and self-definition on the country’s frontiers, away from cities. Unfortunately, Holden’s move westward takes him only to a mental hospital; one wonders if this development is cruel irony or, perhaps, a real start on a new life for Holden.