My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger is often mistaken — and rightly so — as a novel about an angry young man. When I was an angry young man — about the age of 20 — I asked my English professor if I could sit in on her class since she was studying The Catcher in the Rye, and at that time I thought Holden Caulfield was an angry young man (note that the surname “Caulfield” is made up of “caul” ~ meaning “the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus” ~ and “field” ~ as in “a field of rye”).
Now, some fifteen years later, after having travelled across Asia and for the last ten years witnessing off and on extreme cases of poverty and grief, and after my second reading of the novel, I see a different side of Holden, and I also see a very tragic event that I had glanced over in my initial reading.
Holden is not an angry young man. Holden is a grieving young man unable to cope with his brother’s death and much like Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury, we watch a sixteen-year-old Holden as he indirectly contemplates suicide over the course of a few days.
But before we get down into it, let’s take a moment to consider what most never even knew about Jerome David Salinger. Much like Holden who by the end of the novel has been kicked out of Pencey Prep and knows his father will send him to a military school, a young Salinger was shipped off to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne Pennsylvania, and one can know from Salinger’s own words that if this book were ever made into a movie, only Salinger could have played Holden.
We should also take into account that Salinger was drafted and in World War II he landed at Utah Beach during the Normandy Invasion. And all through the war, Salinger was working on this very novel and was even photographed doing so (see pic above). Salinger served from 1942 to 1944, and thereafter he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized, much like our dear Holden. So it is by far safe to say that much of Holden’s life can be found in Salinger’s.
So for one thing, how do we know that Holden is hospitalized? The greatness of The Catcher in the Rye is partly due to its subtlety. Check out this passage and try to spot the clues:
Page 1: “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.”
Most people might believe that Holden is actually talking to them (i.e., the reader), but in the realms of the fictive dream which must at all times maintain literary soundness Holden can only be talking to someone within his own diegetic world. In other words, Holden is talking to a shrink and he is there laying on the couch as the novel opens and is uninterested in telling the psychoanalyst anything much about his early childhood. No, something else more tragic happened, and we are going to get to that later. But let’s continue with the opening page to spot more clues:
“In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all. He’s in Hollywood. That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe.”
What we do know about the rest of the story is that Holden’s home is in New York City, yet he clearly states on page one that “this crumby place” is near Hollywood, where his sole-surviving brother D.B. lives. And we also know that he is not at home, but he is somewhere that only allows visitors on the weekend and that he might be able to go home in a month or so. The only satisfying conclusion one can make is that Holden had a mental breakdown (e.g., “this madman stuff”) and he is now hospitalized somewhere in California and not in New York where the most of the plot takes place.
By the end of the novel, we return to more of these clues:
“That’s all I’m going to tell about. I could probably tell you what I did after I went home, and how I got sick and all, and what school I’m supposed to go to next fall, after I get out of here, but I don’t feel like it. I really don’t. That stuff doesn’t interest me too much right now.
“A lot of people, especially this one psychoanalyst guy they have here, keeps asking me if I’m going to apply myself when I go back to school next September. It’s such a stupid question, in my opinion. I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t. I think I am, but how do I know? I swear it’s a stupid question…
“It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” (p 213-214).
Here Holden makes a direct mention to working with psychoanalysts and we can gather that each chapter could quite possibly be a single session as Holden tells the story that is centered around an incident that takes place at Pencey Prep.
The entire novel revolves around a young man’s suicide and Holden’s own conflict to kill himself. Much like Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, the reader follows a young man over the course of a few days as he contemplates life and death.
Quentin is a Harvard boy, much like Holden who comes from a similar community of prep schools and the Ivy League. Quentin and Holden have also gotten into many fights, coming home with a black eye, much like the one Holden wears after he gets into a fight with his roommate Stradlater—which prompts the hero Holden on his journey—and, later in the novel, with the pimp Maurice. Agonized and neurotic, Quentin desires to save his own sister Caddy (much in the same way Holden does Phoebe) and ultimately quits college (Holden again) and drowns himself in the Charles River.
But will Holden have a different outcome than Quentin?
Holden, however, does not kill himself and is ultimately committed to a mental institution. But suicide is the focal eye of this narrative tale, and it is often ignored in far too many intelligent conversations about The Catcher in the Rye. I argue that Holden is not angry at all the phonies. Not really. Instead, Holden is deeply troubled and saddened by the death of his brother Allie and the death of James Castle, a peer at Pencey Prep. Holden even confesses that he wants to kill himself:
“What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would’ve done it, too, if I’d been sure somebody’d cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn’t want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory” (p 104).
And Holden is not saying this metaphorically. No. He actually is considering killing himself by jumping out the hotel window. We know this because James Castle killed himself in the same manner at Pencey:
“And you should’ve seen him. He was a skinny little weak-looking guy, with wrists about as big as pencils. Finally, what he did, instead of taking back what he said, he jumped out the window. I was in the shower and all, and even I could hear him land outside. But I just thought something fell out the window, a radio or a desk or something, not a boy or anything. Then I heard everybody running through the corridor and down the stairs, so I put on my bathrobe and I ran downstairs too, and there was old James Castle laying right there on the stone steps and all. He was dead, and his teeth, and blood, were all over the place, and nobody would even go near him. He had on this turtleneck sweater I’d lent him. All they did with the guys that were in the room with him was expel them. They didn’t even go to jail” (p 170).
The Quentin Compson section (“June 2, 1910”) in The Sound and the Fury is by far one of my most favorite sections of any novel. There is an elegant dance Faulkner performs as the reader follows Quentin’s thoughts and progress as he struggles with the Past and Present, much like Holden does, throughout a single day (Holden’s time lasts roughly two days).
Holden is traumatized by death, much like Salinger was during World War II, and it is this young man who cannot come to terms with his own mortality, especially after a loss of a loved one, his brother Allie. On the very next page from the description of James Castle’s death, Holden has a conversation about Allie with his sister Phoebe:
“I like Allie,” I said. “And I like doing what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff, and—”
“Allie’s dead—You always say that! If somebody’s dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn’t really—”
“I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can’t I? Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake—especially if they were about a thousand times nicer than the people you know that’re alive and all” (p 171).
Holden is not so much an angry young man as he is a grieving young man, and he so desperately needs someone to talk to. Phoebe, his kid sister, however, is not helping. She even mentions death to Holden later in the same conversation:
“Daddy’s going to kill you. He’s going to kill you,” she said.
I wasn’t listening, though. I was thinking about something else—something crazy. “You know what I’d like to be?” I said. You know what I’d like to be? I mean if I had my goddam choice?”
“What? Stop swearing.”
“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like—”
“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Old Phoebe didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, when she said something, all she said was, “Daddy’s going to kill you” (p 172-173).
Holden can find no comfort with his sister and when he seeks out someone else to talk to, Holden calls Mr. Antolini, the very teacher who is there at James Castle’s death.
“He was about the best teacher I ever had, Mr. Antolini. He was a pretty young guy, not much older than my brother D.B., and you could kid around with him without losing your respect for him. He was the one that finally picked up that boy that jumped out the window I told you about, James Castle. Old Mr. Antolini felt his pulse and all, and then he took off his coat and put it over James Castle and carried him all the way over to the infirmary. He didn’t even give a damn if his coat got all bloody” (p 174).
What tragedy. Imagine, as I can, that this happened: that that moment described above of a teacher having to use his coat to carry away a young boy who has just killed himself was real and you were the teacher or you were one of the students standing around the smashed and broken body of the boy. Oh, how we do not truly cherish life until it is too late! What heartache and agony must it have been for both Mr. Antolini and Holden! To witness such a death is almost incomprehensible. James Castle had so much potential before him, and yet he felt like whatever troubled him could only be solved through suicide. And Holden, like James Castle—the very boy Holden lent a turtleneck sweater too—is considering suicide. But Mr. Antolini has some words of wisdom for Holden, and this might have saved the young man’s life:
Mr. Antolini lit another cigarette. He smoked like a fiend. Then he said, “Frankly, I don’t know what the hell to say to you, Holden.”
“I know. I’m very hard to talk to. I realize that.”
“I have a feeling that you’re riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don’t honestly, know what kind…Are you listening to me?”
[and a little later in the conversation…]
He started concentrating again. Then he said, “This fall I think you’re riding for—it’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started. You follow me?”
[and a little later…]
“I don’t want to scare you,” he said, “but I can very clearly see you dying nobly, one way or another, for some highly unworthy cause.” He gave me a funny look. “If I write something down for you, will you read it carefully? And keep it?”
[Mr. Antolini has just directly referenced Holden’s conflict of suicide by saying “dying nobly, one way or another,” and a little later adds…]
Then he came back and sat down with the paper in his hand. “Oddly enough, this wasn’t written by a practicing poet. It was written by a psychoanalyst named Wilhem Stekel. Here’s what he—Are you still with me?”
“Yes, sure I am.”
“Here’s what he said: ‘The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry” (p 186-189).
And it is poetry. This last statement best sums up the overall theme, in my mind, found in The Catcher in the Rye. Humanity is about sharing knowledge and that “beautiful reciprocal arrangement” is indeed “poetry,” much like this book.
Most people, however, will focus on the somewhat homosexual encounter between Mr. Antolini and Holden and completely miss that Mr. Antolini, quite possibly, has just saved Holden’s life. But let us consider another possible interpretation of events besides a homosexual one.
Holden describes the incident between him and Mr. Antolini:
“Then something happened. I don’t even like to talk about it.
“I woke up all of a sudden. I don’t know what time it was or anything, but I woke up. I felt something on my head, some guy’s hand. Boy, it really scared hell out of me. What it was, it was Mr. Antolini’s hand.
“What he was doing, he was sitting on the floor right next to the couch, in the dark and all, and he was sort of petting me or patting me on the goddam head. Boy, I’ll bet I jumped about a thousand feet” (p 191-192).
Here, Holden takes Mr. Antolini’s act as a homosexual one. This may have been Mr. Antolini’s intentions, or it may not have been. Imagine that like Holden Mr. Antolini is also suffering from the death of James Castle and Mr. Antolini has recognized that Holden is in a similar predicament. Holden, a youth with such promise ahead of him, is considering taking the easy way out. And remember that Mr. Antolini has been up drinking highballs all night and perhaps he was just sitting there adoring the immortality and beauty found in youth’s promise, the innocence un-abandoned. Perhaps Mr. Antolini feared for Holden’s life and was sitting, indeed drunk, by the couch and thinking not of sex as some deviants might argue, but he was sitting and thinking of that dead boy he had to carry beneath his own coat to the school’s infirmary. What sadness!
Even Holden says he might have misunderstood Mr. Antolini’s actions:
“I mean I started thinking that even if he was a flit he certainly’d been very nice to me. I thought how he hadn’t minded it when I’d called him up so late, and how he’d told me to come right over if I felt like it. And how he went to all that trouble giving me that advice about finding out the size of your mind and all, and how he was the only guy that’d even gone near that boy James Castle I told you about when he was dead. I thought about all that stuff. And the more I thought about it, the more depressed I got. I mean I started thinking maybe I should’ve gone back to his house. Maybe he was only patting my head just for the hell of it. The more I thought about it, though, the more depressed and screwed up about it I got” (p 195).
Holden is wounded emotionally, and he even admits to such:
“When I was really drunk, I started that stupid business with the bullet in my guts again. I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in their guts. I kept pulling my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place. I didn’t want anybody to know I was even wounded. I was concealing the fact that I was a wounded sonuvabitch” (p 150).
And Holden’s “wound in the stomach” is not by accident but a direct reference to the emotional pain he is experiencing from another death, the death of his brother Allie.
“When the weather’s nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie’s grave. I went with them a couple of times, but I cut it out. In the first place, I certainly don’t enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all. It wasn’t too bad when the sun was out, but twice—twice—we were there when it started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place” (p 155).
And this very rain appears once more at the end of the novel, in one of my favorite scenes in all of literature, Holden is at the zoo with Phoebe:
“Then what she did—it damn near killed me—she reached in my coat pocket and took out my red hunting hat and put it on my head…
“She ran and bought her ticket and got back on the goddam carrousel just in time. Then she walked all the way around it till she got her own horse back. Then she got on it. She waved to me and I waved back.
“Boy, it began to rain like a bastard. In buckets, I swear to God. All the parents and mothers and everybody went over and stood right under the roof of the carrousel, so they wouldn’t get soaked to the skin or anything, but I stuck around on the bench for quite a while. I got pretty soaking wet, especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway. I didn’t care, though. I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling. I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there” (p 212-213).
The Catcher in the Rye is not really about an angry young man. Not really. It’s about a young man who is unable to grieve for his brother Allie’s death and the death of James Castle snaps something inside Holden when he comes face to face with pure, raw death that no longer hides behind a veil, and it is very likely that very teacher, Mr. Antolini, who picks up the shattered and bloody body of James Castle, that very teacher who reaches out and saves Holden from suicide, unlike Quentin Compson who is left unsaved and perishes beneath the anguish and turmoil that face every one of us in life.
So with that, there is really nothing left to do, except in the infamous words of Holden Caulfield:
“Maybe I’ll go to China. My sex life is lousy” (p 147).
Or if that doesn’t take your fancy, I recommend going out and purchasing a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and/or J.D. Salinger’s long awaited new novel due out in 2015.
Comin thro’ the Rye
BY ROBERT BURNS (1759–1796)
Comin thro’ the rye, poor body,
Comin thro’ the rye,
She draigl’t a’ her petticoatie
Comin thro’ the rye.
Oh Jenny ‘s a’ weet poor body
Jenny ‘s seldom dry,
She draigl’t a’ her petticoatie
Comin thro’ the rye.
Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body —
Need a body cry.
Oh Jenny ‘s a’ weet, &c.
Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the glen;
Gin a body kiss a body —
Need the warld ken!
Oh Jenny ‘s a’ weet, &c.
Gin a body meet a body, comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body, need a body cry;
Ilka body has a body, ne’er a ane hae I;
But a’ the lads they loe me, and what the waur am I.
Gin a body meet a body, comin frae the well,
Gin a body kiss a body, need a body tell;
Ilka body has a body, ne’er a ane hae I,
But a the lads they loe me, and what the waur am I.
Gin a body meet a body, comin frae the town,
Gin a body kiss a body, need a body gloom;
Ilka Jenny has her Jockey, ne’er a ane hae I,
But a’ the lads they loe me, and what the waur am I.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers