How is the setting of The Catcher in the Rye important to the story?  Would it be different if it were set in another place?

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gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Catcher In the Rye is set around the late 1940s at Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania and also takes place in New York City. The setting is significant to the novel because Holden Caulfield resents the American ideals of postwar America, rejects the standard education system, and dislikes the superficial consumer culture of New York City. In post-World War II America, citizens were enjoying the thriving economy and the culture of consumerism, entertainment, and conformity. Holden is a disillusioned, angry teenager whose unenthusiastic approach towards education contrasts greatly with the purpose of Pencey Prep. At Pencey Prep, a place dedicated to molding adolescent boys into studious, morally-upright citizens, Holden finds himself isolated and depressed with the superficiality of the pupils, teachers, and administration. He believes that Pencey Prep is simply a place where wealthy families send their children as a symbol of their social status. Holden's disgruntled personality is illuminated against the setting of the austere, prestigious school.

After leaving Pencey Prep, Holden wanders throughout New York City, frequenting nightclubs, movies, and hotels. This setting provides the perfect opportunity for Holden to commentate on the culture of the 1940s. New York City is a thriving metropolis, where people visit to shop, watch movies, go to clubs, and be entertained. Holden cannot stand the bustling city full of superficial, greedy individuals. He is an outspoken critic of America's obsession with material wealth, social status, and entertainment.

If the novel were set during a different time period and in a different location, Holden's voice would not be as prominent or powerful. At Pencey Prep and in New York City, Holden is given the opportunity to vent about his feelings towards the education system and the cultural ideals of America. These two location during the late 1940s provide Holden with extensive material to comment on so he can express his displeasure.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although the setting of The Catcher in the Rye has an inherently New England feel to it, the book would be virtually the same if it were set in another place due to the time aspect of setting.  Holden is in his final days at Pency Prep School in Agerstown, Pennsylvania.  Although there are a few things that pinpoint this prep school to be specific of New England (such as the fact that Pency is specifically for boys), upon taking a closer look, one will discover that this would be the case absolutely anywhere in the late 1940s.  This is because the general goal of all prep schools in the United States at the time was inherently the same:  to groom boys and girls into sophisticated young men and women ready to live in the post-war prosperity of America. 

The reason for this is found in the time aspect of setting.  Set in 1946, The Catcher in the Rye features multiple adults that have braved both the Great Depression as well as World War II.  The country was enjoying the prosperity of the post-war period when everyone generally wanted to forget the horrors of the past which, unfortunately, fostered a brand new aspect of materialism.  Holden's attitudes proved to be in stark contrast to the denial of the era, highlighting the hypocrisy and shallowness found within it.  The Catcher in the Rye also showed that unpleasantness could abound even in a state of prosperity, highlighting the possibility of a looming cold war (yet another thing Americans didn't want to think about at the time).  These attitudes were the same all over the United States and were not specific to New England.

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The Catcher in the Rye

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