Monday, December 15, 2014

The Catcher in the Rye - Why it Matters to so Many

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2014
Holden Caulfield is one of the best loved fictional characters in American literature.  After learning of the death of beloved author J. D Salinger in 2010, I remembered my first experience of his controversial novel that kept me thinking about it for years.  It resonated to me in a way that no other novel or work of fiction had.  I used to read everything that came through our house and when there was nothing to read I would re-read already read books.  

I must have been around 17 years old when a copy of J. D. Salinger’s, The Catcher In The Rye came into my hands.  I don’t remember how it ended up in our house.  I opened the book and read the dedication that said, “To my mother”.  It interested me in an eerie strange way, as I had just told my own mother how I hated the fact there was “never” any “good literature” in our house.   I don’t think my mother could relate as she didn’t read much except ocassionaly the bible, religious prayer books, or a newspaper.  But she did understand the need for knowledge and thanks to her, we had a very nice glossy set of  world book encyclopedias.   

The first paragraph in The Catcher in the Rye opens in first person:

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. 

I love the David Copperfield character of the Charles Dickens novel, so naturally I kept reading to know what Holden Caulfield, the fictional character in The Catcher in the Rye had to say.  Holden Caulfield is the narrator and within the narrative there is Holden’s interior monologue, in which there is dialog.  At times it seems as if Holden is talking to you (the reader) inside his head.  It’s as if he’s sharing with the reader, like a friend, his interior thoughts and feelings.  You can hear him actually say things.  It’s an amazing literary feat in which the author allowed the character to tell a story, yet the author is still there to direct the writing.  

A Portrait of J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951.  It is one of the most read novels of American literature and its author, J.D. Salinger is one of the most famous yet least known, due to his reclusiveness and sudden escape from society after the novel was published.  The main character became so well known, more so than the novelist himself, that it is believed (but never proven) that the fictional character is a biographical mirror of the life, fears, personality, wit, and thoughts of the author.  

Why has The Catcher in the Rye mattered so much to so many people for so long?  Holden, the main character never feels like he’s being heard, yet the reader is the only listener.  We read The Catcher in the Rye and feel like the book understands us in every way.  Holden, who is sixteen years old lives the story that he later narrates at the age of seventeen.  As Holden tell us his story, he rants about all the people involved in his life and how they’re all too “self absorbed” and never listen to what he had to say.  To Holden, they’re all phonies and the only people he can get to listen to him are his sister and a probable creeper.  He found a way to narrate his story and make us care.  As readers, we understand him and we can listen to his inner voice.   Holden let us see the world thru his eyes and as he narrates he makes us feel that we are there, experiencing everything in his head. 

There are 26 chapters in the book and it is worth the read.  The pages seem to go by so fast as it captures the reader into the many stories that are told by Holden in his own voice.  They are stories about how Holden feels about his life, about the many people that are in his life that just don’t seem to “get it”, that don’t understand how improper, impure, or superficial they are.  Many of the characters according to Holden are phonies, the word used often by Holden to describe people whom are not genuine, fraudulent, or superficial.  In fact, Holden holds many in this category except himself and some nuns.

What makes the book so great?  The book is written in a very surprising, unpredictable way and it rapidly reveals the life of Holden in an almost humorous way that only the readers and Holden believe.  Even though Holden’s point of view derives from his self justified disorderly thinking, his manner of ranting about his life is grabbing and entertaining.       

Though controversial, the novel appealed to a great number of people.  Many people could relate to The Catcher in the Rye as it spoke of an individual’s alienation within a heartless world.  Holden seemed to stand for young people everywhere, who felt themselves beset on all sides by pressures to grow up and live their lives according to the rules, to loose individuality, to restrict their own personalities, to “blend in”, and to fit into societal and cultural expectations.

At the time when the book was published, social expectations and cultural norm were different.  It was a different time.   As a result, the novel caused quite a stir because it contained profanity and part of the text discussed adolescent sexuality in a complex and open way, provoking great controversy.  The book was banned and shunned from many public libraries and schools.  Censorship might have kept the book out of some communities, but it did not keep the book away from the hands of readers and thru the years it has proven to be one of the best novels of the 20th century.  It has been translated into almost all of the world's major languages, selling over 65 million copies.  

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”