The Literary Significance of The Catcher in the Rye
Even though The Catcher in the Rye is usually considered only a "minor" classic of American fiction, it is a very popular novel that frequently provokes strong reactions—both positive and negative—from its readers. In fact, The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most widely read and discussed works in the American literary canon. Despite its widespread popularity and significant reputation, however, some critics argue that it is too vulgar, immoral, and immature to be considered serious literature. Moreover, a few teachers and parents have censored the novel because they feel that it will corrupt children who read it. While there are undoubtedly subversive, or corrupt elements in the novel, arguments for censoring it generally misrepresent its more nobler intentions and greatly exaggerate its subversive designs. Putting aside the overinflated claims of the novel's most extreme critics and supporters, the diversity and intensity of readers' reactions to The Catcher in the Rye suggest that the issues it raises are significant ones. Consequently, it seems likely that readers will continue to have heated discussions about this "minor" classic for a long time to come.
One of the issues that has been debated ever since the novel's initial publication is whether or not it qualifies as a significant work of literature. Does it offer significant insights into the complexities of human existence and the development of American culture, or does it simply appeal to vulgar adolescent minds with its obscene language, complaining about everything without developing any positive insights of its own? While some of the initial reviews of The Catcher in the Rye were negative, critics later acknowledged it as a significant literary work and demonstrated how the novel's narrative structure, themes, and character development resemble other great works of literature. For example, Arthur Heiserman and James E. Miller's essay, "J. D. Salinger: Some Crazy Cliff," helped establish the literary significance of The Catcher in the Rye by showing how it belonged to the long tradition of epic quest narratives in western literature. Similarly, Charles Kaplan's essay, "Holden and Huck: The Odysseys of Youth," points out similarities between The Catcher in the Rye and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Both novels are about a young man who tells the story of his own personal odyssey using his own comical wisdom and colloquial everyday language. Critic Lilian Furst compares The Catcher in the Rye to Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels in the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. Helen Weinberg compares it to Franz Kafka's novels in The New Novel in America while John M. Howell in his essay "Salinger in the Waste Land," compares it to T. S. Eliot's poetry.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about The Catcher in the Rye, however, is that it redefines the focus of the literary text. Instead of focusing primarily on plot development like most traditional novels, The Catcher in the Rye focuses more on character development. In fact, most of the plot is mundane and uneventful; it only becomes interesting because Salinger makes the character of Holden and the perspective through which Holden narrates the story interesting. Consequently, when reading The Catcher in the Rye it is important to pay attention to how Salinger represents Holden's character, language, and world view. While some critics simply dismiss Holden's character as purely negative, vulgar, whining, and cynical, a more balanced reading of the novel could indicate that there is something more to Holden than his academic failures and adolescent cynicism: He is perceptive, sensitive, creative, and even intelligent in his own way.
There are several ways that critics have attempted to describe Holden's positive characteristics, including rather obvious childlike innocence. This quality is evident in a number of passages, including when Holden expresses his desire to be a catcher in the rye who protects little children from falling over the edge of a cliff, his fight with Stradlater for making sexual advances to Jane Gallagher, his inability to have sex with a prostitute, and his tender dance with his sister. In his essay "The Saint as a Young Man," Jonathan Baumbach, as other critics have, notes that Holden acts like a saint or savior of the innocent. It is this sensitive, innocent, and childlike side of Holden that makes him a complex and endearing...
(The entire section is 1843 words.)