Using Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, explain how Holden's relationship to the past contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The past plays a vital role in both the exploration of Holden's relationship to the past and the meaning of the work as a whole.  Consider the opening lines as representative of the importance of the past on both Holden and in the work as a whole:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Holden's relationship to his past is a conflicted one.  Like everything else in Holden's life, his relationship to his past is not lucid.  There is an acknowledgement of the past's importance, but there is an equal repudiation of it  Such a dynamic is evident in the "lousy" nature of his past colliding with the feeling of "I don't feel like going into it."  This relationship with the past impacts both the work and Holden because it makes clear how tension is intrinsic to consciousness.

Holden's retelling of the book through the prism of the past adds to this tension- ladened understanding of being in the world.  Holden refuses to appropriate a standard "David Copperfield" construction of the past.  At the same time, the book is narrated with the past already having happened. Holden is narrating his "two-day sojourn in New York City shortly before his breakdown."  Just as he rejects any notion of totality about his past, the ending of the book refuses to capitulate to any transcendental notion of the good. There is no redemption or sense of unity that can serve to unify the past:

D.B. asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn't know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it.  

The lack of understanding and coherency about what can be understood and constructed is of vital importance to both the work's meaning and the past, in general.  Holden offers an initial and concluding notion of the past where there is little in way of transcendental and unifying meaning present. This reflects the divided state of being in which Holden regards the past.  At the same time, it clearly explains how the book acknowledges that tension and disunity are aspects of modern consciousness. In this manner, the way in which the character's relationship with the past is constructed helps to enhance the meaning of the work as a whole.

The lack of restorative totality with which Holden regards the past helps to underscore how Holden views most relationships.  There is a condition of fragmentation intrinsic to how Holden views his past and the people in it. People like Mr. Antolini, Jane,  and D.B. are representative of the confusion towards which the past is viewed.  In these conditions of the past, emotional investment collides with emotional detachment.  Nothing clear and unanimous emerges.  There is only a sense of disunity and fragmentation.  This emotional dynamic that governs Holden's view towards the past is reflective of how the book constructs meaning in the world.  The disdain towards authority figures and the lack of faith in any external reality are the book's critical thematic elements.  It is in this light that the view of the past helps to illuminate both Holden's characterization and the book's thematic meaning.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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