One of the strengths of J. D. Salinger's novel is that the author does a thoroughly convincing job of making the reader believe the story is actually being told by a sixteen-year-old boy in contemporary teenage vernacular. Salinger achieves this effect partly by emphasizing that, although Holden has flunked out of three schools, he is recognized by his English teachers as an exceptionally good essay writer. The reader is caught in Holden's spell from the beginning, which opens as follows:
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.
Another strength of Salinger's novel is in the characterization. Holden meets one character after another and sizes them up pretty accurately. This is really because many of them are types rather than individuals. However, Holden, being only sixteen, sees them as individuals and not as types. This is an advantage Salinger has in using a boy as his narrator rather than writing the story from his own mature point of view. There are many memorable characters in the book. They include Mr. Spencer, who is like many other old men in his irritating habits. Holden is funny too. We have all seen old men like Mr. Spencer who sleep on a rock-hard bed and smell of Vicks Nose Drops. The novel is full of comical observations like this about Mr. Spencer:
All he did was lift the Atlantic Monthly off his lap and try to chuck it on the bed, next to me. He missed. It was only about two inches away, but he missed anyway.
So a third notable strength of Salinger's novel is its humor. The character of Sally Hayes is so perfectly drawn that we feel we have known her all our lives. She is the typical cheerleader, prom queen, class president. Her dialogue characterizes her perfectly. (George Orwell somewhere uses the term "shrieking poseurs" to describe such people.)
"Holden!" she said. "It's marvelous to see you! It's been ages." She had one of these very loud, embarrassing voices when you met her somewhere. She got away with it because she was so damn good-looking, but it always gave me a pain in the ass.
Sally Hayes is an excellent example of a "type" who is represented as an individual because the narrator is so young and inexperienced. There are many other incisive and humorous characterizations, including Ackley the nerd and Stradlater the jock at Pencey, Sunny the prostitute and Maurice the pimp--and who could forget Mr. Antolini?
If only there were more novels like The Catcher in the Rye! But there is only one.
J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye has been a perennial favorite for teachers to assign students in high school literature classes almost since its publication in 1951. It is especially popular for its portrayal of adolescent angst and the struggles of a young man to find a place for himself in an adult world he finds imperfect. The reasoning behind many teachers assigning it so often is that they hope that their students, involved in similar struggles, will find the novel engaging enough so that they will actually read it.
A striking virtue of The Catcher in the Rye is the depth and accuracy of its psychological portrayal of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, especially his stream of consciousness. Although some people have objected to its use of vulgar language and sexual imagery, most critics argue that these are not gratuitous, but rather essential to a realistic portrait of the protagonist. The sort of anxieties about his own nascent sexuality we find in Holden are legitimately a part of the maturation process of many adolescent males.
The most important strength of the book is the moral ambiguity of the protagonist. He is not a particularly likable or admirable person in general, but despite that, we approve of his quest for authenticity, and the realism of the portrait makes readers empathize with his struggles.