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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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The Catcher in the Rye has been popular with readers since its publication. Its success is due largely to the creation of a memorable narrator, an achievement made possible by Salinger's use of diction. The time period in which The Catcher in the Rye was written also influences the themes of the work. Salinger published his masterpiece in an often-overlooked but important sliver of time between World War II and the full swing of the "atomic age," the prosperous decade of the 1950s.

Narrative Style

The Catcher in the Rye is arguably most memorable for its point of view. Written in first-person limited, the story is told from the perspective of Holden Caulfield. That is, Holden talks about himself as "I." Salinger limits the narration to only Holden's knowledge, experiences, and perspective. He is incapable of reading other characters' thoughts or knowing what is going on outside of his line of sight during his weekend in New York City.

This limited viewpoint allows Salinger to develop such a rich study of Holden's character. Holden tells the reader everything he thinks and feels, which offers revealing insight into his grief, alienation, and conflict against society—all major themes of the book. Understanding Holden's feelings is crucial to seeing beyond his erratic and sometimes inappropriate behavior to embrace him as a full human being. This, after all, is what Holden wants most: authenticity, rather than a "phony" presentation of the self in order to satisfy society's rules.

The subjectivity of Holden’s narration, combined with his intense feelings of alienation, contribute to his role as an unreliable narrator. Since Holden is only able to communicate his own thoughts and experiences, he often unfairly judges those around him or represents events in a biased fashion unique to his point of view.

Because Holden is the narrator, Salinger faithfully recreates the word choices and syntax of a 1950s American teenager, including many slang terms. He also includes mild profanity—like "bastard," "god damn," and "crap"—which makes Holden's rebellious spirit clear throughout the piece. By rendering Holden's vernacular so vividly, Salinger creates a complete character that feels very real to the reader. This, in turn, creates sympathy for Holden's struggles and encourages the reader to identify with the protagonist, even when he makes questionable choices.

Historical Context

The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, though portions appeared as magazine stories in 1945 and 1946. This is the period immediately following World War II, which is alluded to in the war movie Holden watches and rejects as “phony.” During the 1950s, the United States transitioned quickly from a nation at war to one not only at peace, but one that was a leading superpower in the world. The deprivation of the Great Depression, the food rationing and air raid drills of the war years were all in the past, and the soldiers who survived returned home to a thriving economy that would create a decade of welcome prosperity in the 1950s.

It is in this environment that Holden lives. He is privileged to be a member of an upper-middle class family that can afford to send him to private boarding schools and spend summers at their house in Maine. Holden's peers enjoy nice cars, Ivy League educations, and a comfortable daily existence in apartment buildings with doormen and the culture of New York City at their fingertips.

Despite these outward signifiers of social success, Holden is unhappy. He feels misunderstood by those around him and is isolated, unable to find joy in the material wealth that the rest of the nation can't get enough of. In this sense, Holden is like a combat veteran returning home from the war. Soldiers had seen awful things and often had no one to confide in about the horrors of war. They were usually were left to cope on their own, which resulted in their feeling alienated from a society that was rapidly moving on.

Salinger fought in World War II on D-Day and helped to liberate a concentration camp. His experiences led him to seek treatment for "combat stress," which today is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Though Holden is too young to have served in World War II, his depression, loneliness, and disconnection from mainstream society can be interpreted as a parallel to the experiences of many of the "greatest generation" who struggled to rebuild their lives after leaving the armed forces.

Holden's adolescent rebellion is also a precursor to a wider rebellion against authority that would develop throughout the 1960s as the "Baby Boom" generation reached young adulthood. In prior decades, most teens and young adults had to work to support themselves and their families, but post-war prosperity meant that more teens than ever before could go to college. Adolescence itself changed and became a time of exploration and rebellion, an extension of childhood that had never existed before. Holden's rebellion foreshadows the ways that the post-war generation would turn against their parents' values and create their own culture of self-expression. However, Holden is not part of a larger movement and is instead on his own in his lonely, misunderstood conflict with society.

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