Expelled from the latest in a long line of preparatory schools, Holden journeys home to Manhattan wishing he were safe in the uncomplex world of childhood, but a series of mishaps begins his initiation into adulthood.
Holden is uncomfortable around his conceited, sex-obsessed classmates and even more ill at ease around adults; they are condescending and incapable of understanding him, so he always tells them what they want to hear. He has never been able to communicate with anyone but his late, saintly brother, Allie, and his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe. He can be himself only in the world of precocious innocence.
After disastrous encounters with three spinster tourists, a young prostitute and her pimp, a girl he thinks he likes, a former classmate, and a former teacher, Holden visits Phoebe, avoiding their parents. He says he is heading west to live alone, and Phoebe, realizing he can never look after himself, insists upon going too. These adventures force Holden to recognize, but not completely understand, certain truths about himself and his world.
Holden longs to protect children, including himself, from the fall away from the innocence of childhood into the decadence of adulthood. He is a romantic, unrealistic idealist on a quest for his identity.
Salinger’s world is divided into those who compromise their ideals to fulfill what they consider their objectives and those who refuse to compromise. Yet Holden must compromise to survive.
Salinger asks if it is possible to separate the authentic from the phony, if it is possible to create value and meaning, and what beliefs are essential for survival. That he poses these questions with originality, insight, humor, and pathos has made his book one of the most popular American novels.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Holden Caulfield. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
Grunwald, Henry Anatole, ed. Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait. New York: Har-per & Row, 1962. Contains two important articles on The Catcher in the Rye. One deals with Holden Caulfield as an heir of Huck Finn; the other is a study of the novel’s language.
Laser, Marvin, and Norman Fruman, eds. Studies in J. D. Salinger: Reviews, Essays, and Critiques of “The Catcher in the Rye” and Other Fiction. New York: Odyssey Press, 1963. Includes an intriguing essay by a German, Hans Bungert, another by a Russian writer, and one of the best structural interpretations of the novel, by Carl F. Strauch.
Marsden, Malcolm M., ed. If You Really Want to Know: A “Catcher” Casebook. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1963. Contains reviews of the original publication of the novel. Examines Holden from opposing points of view, as “saint or psychotic.”
Pinsker, Sanford. “The Catcher in the Rye”: Innocence Under Pressure. Boston: Twayne, 1993. A sustained study of the novel. Contains a helpful section on the body of critical literature on the novel.
Salzberg, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Salzman, Jack, ed. New Essays on “The Catcher in the Rye.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Provides an unusual sociological reading of the novel as well as an essay that firmly places the novel in American literary history.
Steinle, Pamela Hunt. “The Catcher in the Rye” Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character. A study of the impact of the novel on its release during a nervous period in American social history.