A tale of alienation in conformist post–World War II America, The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of a few days in the life of Holden Caulfield, an emotionally unstable, highly intelligent, old-for-his-years but lonely sixteen-year-old boy who belongs to the Manhattan elite. Post-war America was a period of great prosperity. The GI Bill sent millions of veterans to college, the country was suddenly awash in money, and many more people suddenly had access to the American dream of home ownership. Politically, it was a conservative period. People were recovering from the trials of war, concerned about Communism and weary of the Atomic Bomb. It was a time of great wealth, but one when any deviation from traditional societal norms was considered suspect.
In this context, Holden Caulfield became a controversial literary icon: the troubled anti-hero struggling to maintain his individuality in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform from all the adults around him. The emotionally volatile young Holden wants only to escape the repressive expectations that his parents have set out for him—something that many adolescents are likely to relate to. In fact, many of the elements of his story are universal: the pain and confusion of growing up, loss of innocence, the inevitability of change, the swings between bravado and insecurity, sexual questioning, recognizing issues of class and privilege, questions of identity, the shifting sands of adolescence, the contradictory, emotional complexity of becoming an adult. However, other elements are specific to Holden and his time and place: He has endured a great deal of turmoil as a child despite the superficial trappings of privilege, and he is fighting against the societal norms of a specific era. The reader observes his gradual emotional breakdown over the course of the novel, which begins and ends with Holden in a mental institution of some kind.
Salinger’s unflinchingly frank portrait of Holden generated both controversy and great acclaim. Some communities banned the book for its sexual content, its abundant use of obscenities, and its rebellious tone, going so far as to dub it anti-American in sentiment. However, many others embraced it for its raw honesty. Only three weeks after its publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye topped The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for the next thirty weeks. This journey into the brain of a troubled boy has since become one of the classics of American literature. Holden is perhaps the defining symbol of adolescent disaffection, alienation, and defiance. The Catcher in the Rye was the first book to address teen angst, and its influence on generations of youth cannot be overstated.
The novel is also an excellent example of first-person narration. From the opening sentence, Holden Caulfield’s caustic, cynical voice is one of the most distinctive features of the story. For all that Holden draws us in, he is also an unstable and evasive storyteller, and it is up to us, as readers, to piece together his story and make sense of his past. Holden’s unreliability as a narrator is one of the most revealing and memorable elements of this novel.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Salinger’s own upbringing was similar to Holden’s: he enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Manhattan and attended several boarding schools. Although he wrote several other books of short stories, The Catcher in the Rye is his only full-length novel. As the book’s popularity increased, Salinger became increasingly reclusive. Although Salinger himself made every effort to remain out of the public eye, his work continues to appeal to new generations of adolescents even decades after publication.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how the narrator changes throughout the course of the novel.
2. Compare and contrast the characters Holden labels as phony with those he considers to be authentic.
3. Explain the significance of the phrase “the catcher in the rye” as it relates to Holden.
4. Identify examples of what Holden considers “mature” behavior and describe his impression of adults.
5. Explain why this novel is considered a classic and cite what aspects of this story are still relevant today?
6. Describe why Holden feels so lonely and depressed.
7. Explain the benefits and limitations of having Holden as a first-person narrator.
8. Compare and contrast Holden’s views of adulthood with his/her own.