With the death of my favorite “coming of age” author a few years ago, I started thinking about my take on Holden Caulfield. Sure fifty years have skipped by since my first reading, but I wondered how I felt about Holden now that I am way past my teen years. Was he one of the good guys or bad guys? Was he still a hero in my mind? In the process of this to re-evaluate of Holden and his world three myths surrounding this famous literary character emerged in my mind’s eye. That is, these are myths because I thought they were true as a teen, but not now. And for the sake of seeing this in print, I will bleep out several words along the way.
1. Although the book has been banned by some schools, there’s nothing in “Catcher in the Rye” on the very first page that would upset the typical reader-after all, it’s a classic. Well, the first word bomb appears right in the beginning on page five, “crap,” and then “hemorrhages”, “bleep,” “bleep,” and “bleep.” Back in 1951, many readers thought those words were rather vulgar, especially my parents and Aunt Dolores. Now, if you ever had the pleasure of meeting Aunt Dolores, she would have knocked your socks off. Besides being gorgeous, she was my godmother. She hated the book from the first page on. That mystified me at age sixteen because I loved it. I thought it was so honest! So authentic! I wondered to myself: “You mean there were other YA books out there that might be like this one?” And that novel inspired me to become a “reader” of many YA books.
2. Holden Caulfield played mainly by the rules, but the world was out to get him.Aunt Dolores thought that you should play by the rules, or at least her rules. She would not have gotten along swimmingly with Holden. Did Holden think life was like a game and best to follow the rules? He said (on page 8): “Game my bleep. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game all right-I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side… Nothing. No game.”
Not too long into Holden’s world the reader discovers that he’s not a reliable narrator. He’s great on the details of what he sees, but he’s poor at putting what he sees in a well-rounded perspective, just like many teens striving to find their place in the world. Grown-ups don’t make much sense to them. To teens, we seem like aliens from outer space that they have to tolerate. Holden tends to see first the negatives in people such as Ackley’s pimples, Stradlate’s untidy toiletries, Mr. Antolini’s drinking problem, and Mr. Spencer’s old bathrobe and bumpy chest. He fixates on these things instead of exploring and enjoying the talents of others. In other words, he misses out on many simple pleasures.
3. Holden is such a beloved character in American literaturebecause he marches to a different drummer. Holden has a mind of his own, but he really isn’t willing to grow as person or learn from his mistakes. When he says good-bye to his former history teacher, Mr. Spencer, he describes him this way on page 9, “I’m not too crazy about sick people, anyway. What made it even more depressing, old Spencer had on this very sad, ratty old bathrobe that he was probably born in.” Holden is quick to belittle those adults who hope that he will become more responsible. He would rather avoid any immediate emotional pain, and act as if the future doesn’t matter. Mr. Spencer tells Holden that he wants to help him, but Holden thinks (on page 15): “we were just on opposite sides of the pole, that’s all.” That’s understating it.
By meeting with Mr. Spencer, Holden appears to be getting closure on his disturbing days at Pencey Prep, but Holden is just going through the motions of life. He doesn’t want to share any real feelings or think about what’s next for him, although Mr. Spencer strongly urges him to do so, even to the point of being rather blunt with him on page 14: “Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?” Holden says, “… not too much, I guess.” Holden uses “denial” as a defensive weapon to repel self-knowledge and change.
Holden wants to escape any self-introspection that he can, and live in a more innocent world where he can rescue kids from falling into adulthood, where the “phonies” are, and where they may not even know they are phonies.
Nonetheless, it was Holden’s story that inspired me at sixteen to read more and be more aware of phonies, especially when I was being one.
Thank you, Holden Caulfield.
By Joe Sottile
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