Essays and Criticism
The Literary Significance of The Catcher in the Rye
Even though The Catcher in the Rye is usually considered only a "minor" classic of American fiction, it is a very popular novel that frequently provokes strong reactions—both positive and negative—from its readers. In fact, The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most widely read and discussed works in the American literary canon. Despite its widespread popularity and significant reputation, however, some critics argue that it is too vulgar, immoral, and immature to be considered serious literature. Moreover, a few teachers and parents have censored the novel because they feel that it will corrupt children who read it. While there are undoubtedly subversive, or corrupt elements in the novel, arguments for censoring it generally misrepresent its more nobler intentions and greatly exaggerate its subversive designs. Putting aside the overinflated claims of the novel's most extreme critics and supporters, the diversity and intensity of readers' reactions to The Catcher in the Rye suggest that the issues it raises are significant ones. Consequently, it seems likely that readers will continue to have heated discussions about this "minor" classic for a long time to come.
One of the issues that has been debated ever since the novel's initial publication is whether or not it qualifies as a significant work of literature. Does it offer significant insights into the complexities of human existence and the development of American culture, or does it simply appeal to vulgar adolescent minds with its obscene language, complaining about everything without developing any positive insights of its own? While some of the initial reviews of The Catcher in the Rye were negative, critics later acknowledged it as a significant literary work and demonstrated how the novel's narrative structure, themes, and character development resemble other great works of literature. For example, Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller's essay, "J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff," helped establish the literary significance of The Catcher in the Rye by showing how it belonged to the long tradition of epic quest narratives in western literature. Similarly, Charles Kaplan's essay, "Holden and Huck: The Odysseys of Youth," points out similarities between The Catcher in the Rye and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Both novels are about a young man who tells the story of his own personal odyssey using his own comical wisdom and colloquial everyday language. Critic Lilian Furst compares The Catcher in the Rye to Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels in the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. Helen Weinberg compares it to Franz Kafka's novels in The New Novel in America while John M. Howell in his essay "Salinger in the Waste Land," compares it to T. S. Eliot's poetry.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about The Catcher in the Rye, however, is that it redefines the focus of the literary text. Instead of focusing primarily on plot development like most traditional novels, The Catcher in the Rye focuses more on character development. In fact, most of the plot is mundane and uneventful; it only becomes interesting because Salinger makes the character of Holden and the perspective through which Holden narrates the story interesting. Consequently, when reading The Catcher in the Rye it is important to pay attention to how Salinger represents Holden's character, language, and world view. While some critics simply dismiss Holden's character as purely negative, vulgar, whining, and cynical, a more balanced reading of the novel could indicate that there is something more to Holden than his academic failures and adolescent cynicism: He is perceptive, sensitive, creative, and even intelligent in his own way.
There are several ways that critics have attempted to describe Holden's positive characteristics, including rather obvious childlike innocence. This quality is evident in a number of passages, including when Holden expresses his desire to be a catcher in the rye who protects little children from falling over the edge of a cliff, his fight with Stradlater for making sexual advances to Jane Gallagher, his inability to have sex with a prostitute, and his tender dance with his sister. In his essay "The Saint as a Young Man," Jonathan Baumbach, as other critics have, notes that Holden acts like a saint or savior of the innocent. It is this sensitive, innocent, and childlike side of Holden that makes him a complex and endearing...
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To Tell You the Truth . . .
In the work, Holden has analyzed his family as a representative slice of society and has concluded that adult society is phony and corrupt. But can we really trust his observations of his family after he has told us that he lies? Is he not, like the Cretan who declared that all Cretans were liars, a person declaring that all people are phony? If everyone is phony, then he is phony, too! Although Holden has claimed that he is a liar, he does not always realize whether he is lying or telling the truth. The distinctions between truth and falsehood become blurred as he often adds the phrase "to tell you the truth" onto whatever he is saying. But does this catch phrase ensure that his words are any more truthful? This unambiguous rhetorical statement is restated in an even more paradoxical way when Holden tells Sally that he loves her and then comments to the reader, "It was a lie, of course, but the thing is, I meant it when I said it." Again we are forced to read the work, as de Man suggests [in his essay "Semiology and Rhetoric," appearing in Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Robert C. Davis, 1986], in "two entirely coherent but entirely incompatible" ways. Is he lying, or does he "mean" it? First we may claim that Holden is telling the truth: he is a liar, people are phony, society is corrupt. Or we may claim that Holden is lying: he is truthful, people are genuine, and society is untainted.
There are obvious problems with both sides of this paradox. Can Holden, people, and society be entirely unchanging—always lying, always corrupt, always phony? Or are there internal forces within each that cause them to change (un)willingly? Holden would argue that each is unchanging, labeled forever. In fact, this is how he presents his information to us. He may go out with Sally, but he does not harbor any hope that she will cast off her phoniness. He may loan Stradlater his coat, but he still believes Stradlater is a phony.
Because we view all of the events in the book through the eyes of one narrator, our observations are necessarily biased. Holden is an unreliable narrator not only because he is a self-proclaimed liar but also because he perceives reality in a simplistic way. In his work S/Z, Roland Barthes outlines two ways of perceiving reality: readerly and writerly. Barthes explains these ideas in terms of reading books. He claims that the only way to read a different story is to reread the same book. By rereading, a person can learn how this book differs from itself rather than how it differs from other books. When a reader rereads a work, he is perceiving writerly. When a reader refuses to reread, Barthes maintains that he is condemned to "read the same story everywhere." Holden refuses to reread as he perceives reality readerly, seeing only the surface differences between people, not the underlying differences within each person. To perceive a person readerly would be to perceive in terms of overt, easily distinguishable differences.
Because Holden avoids investigating deeply, he sees the same story everywhere. Everyone is phony, he insists. But can we honestly believe him? Is he telling the truth? Even so, he is not passing on false or limited information since he has not gone to the trouble to read one story well. To approach accuracy, Holden would have to perceive a person writerly, to judge the fragmentation, the differences within the person, the covert, often contradictory intentions that war within and cause overt actions. We can draw conclusions only from the data which Holden perceives and selects to reveal to us (and he does select carefully as when he refuses to discuss his childhood or his parents); hence, we must be astute readers indeed lest we miss the multidimensionality of the characters that he develops. His readerly perception creates blinkers for the reader.
Throughout the novel, Holden tries to lull us into accepting his view of surrounding life as he makes statements that seem to make sense, but which, upon closer inspection, do not bear up to a writerly view. This simplistic mode of perception is revealed particularly through his description of his family. First of all, the Caulfield parents are described in such a way as to cause the blinkered reader to view them uncompromisingly as irresponsible, alienated, skittish parents. For example, the parents are off at work away from their children, who are scattered throughout the country. D. B. in Hollywood, Allie dead, Phoebe at home, and Holden at Pencey Prep. Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield seem to be isolated characters. The reader never meets Mr. Caulfield and only hears Mrs. Caulfield. Holden is hiding in Phoebe's room. Holden will not tell much about his parents beyond his veiled opinion that they both are phony hypocrites. The reader is not even told their first names. From the beginning we are led to believe that they are hypersensitive about Holden's revealing their personal life because they want to protect their created image of conformed perfection. Because Mrs. Caulfield is a nervous woman who has smoked compulsively ever since Allie's death, Holden avoids confrontation about his being kicked out of Pencey Prep. He therefore hides from her as he stays in a hotel or in Mr. Antolini's apartment. Each of these examples appears to show that Mrs. Caulfield does not really communicate with her children. On the other hand, Mr. Caulfield is a lawyer. Holden makes no bones about his opinion of lawyers: they "make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot" and are phony but can't know it.
Holden's warped view of his parents denigrates them without even considering that the Caulfields may be blameless. Can we really trust Holden's view of his parents? Isn't he unethically stacking the deck so that we are prohibited from obtaining an objective view of them? We are given so few facts and scenes to describe them that we have trouble refuting Holden, except that we know he is holding something back from us. No couple could merit such a denunciation from a son. If what he has revealed about the Caulfields is true, carefully selected though the information may be, can we blame them for their anger, hysteria, and desire for privacy? These would be logical reactions if an offspring were so apathetic as to be kicked out of several reputable schools and then became anxious to write a book about his family while recovering from insanity. And what is wrong about working hard to support children, to enable them to have the best education possible? What exactly is phony about being a lawyer? Even though Holden's vagueness works well for him, making his parents appear base, mercenary, isolated, distant, and careless, it denies any redeeming qualities that would upset Holden's persuasive thesis that adult society is corrupt.
According to Holden, D. B. represents wholehearted acceptance of society's norms. In Holden's caustic terms, D. B. is a "prostitute" who lives in Hollywood, where he makes buckets of money producing popular movies, such as the Annapolis love story which might prevent him from joining the family at Christmas. D. B. appears to symbolize the successful all-American man...
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The Saint as a Young Man: A Reappraisal of The Catcher in the Rye
J D Salinger's first and only novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951), has undergone in recent years a steady if overinsistent devaluation. The more it becomes academically respectable, the more it becomes fair game for those critics who are self-sworn to expose every manifestation of what seems to them a chronic disparity between appearance and reality. It is critical child's play to find fault with Salinger's novel. Anyone can see that the prose is mannered (the pejorative word for stylized); no one actually talks like its first-person hero Holden Caulfield. Moreover, we are told that Holden, as poor little rich boy, is too precocious and specialized an adolescent for his plight to have larger-than-prepschool significance....
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