The Catcher in the Rye home assignment
- Many readers observe that The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about grief. In what ways does Holden exhibit aspects of the grieving process? Does he reach any sort of closure or letting go? How do you know?
- In what ways is The Catcher in the Rye a novel of social protest? What aspects of society does Salinger critique? What alternatives does he offer?
- Holden, like each of us, faces living in a world he did not create. Nobody, not even Holden, can live in a culture without having some of it rub off on them. What faults of his society does Holden exhibit? How does Salinger reveal these faults to readers?
Many readers observe that The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about grief. In what ways does Holden exhibit aspects of the grieving process? Does he reach any sort of closure or letting go? How do you know?
Death is a consistent theme in the novel. It is continually implied by the presence of Holden’s younger brother’s spirit, even though Allie has been dead for about three years. When Holden fears for his own existence, such as when he feels that he might disappear, he speaks to Allie. He is haunted by the thought of Allie in the rainy cemetery surrounded by tombstones and dead people. Holden associates death with the mutability of time. He wishes that everything could just stay the way it is, that time could stand still, especially when something beautiful happens. When he compares this to the displays under glass at the museum, Holden seems to be rejecting life itself. Life is change. Aging and mutability are inevitable. It isn’t just that society wants Holden to grow up; his own biological condition insists that he become an adult. When he resists change, Holden is fighting the biological clock that eventually will result in old age and death. He also resists simply growing up. Although we may admire his candor and even sometimes identify with his adolescent wish, we are left to conclude that Holden’s way leads to considerable frustration and, eventually, madness.
In what ways is The Catcher in the Rye a novel of social protest? What aspects of society does Salinger critique? What alternatives does he offer?
Holden Caulfield’s America was a nation of contrasts. For example, Holden’s family, and the families of the boys with whom Holden attends school, appear to have no financial concerns. Holden’s family lives in an expensive apartment in an affluent section of New York City. Holden’s father is a corporate attorney. Holden assures us that all a lawyer does is “make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot.”
Throughout the novel, Holden seems to be excluded from and victimized by the world around him. As he says to Mr. Spencer, he feels trapped on “the other side” of life, and he continually attempts to find his way in a world in which he feels he doesn’t belong.
As the novel progresses, we begin to perceive that Holden’s alienation is his way of protecting himself. Just as he wears his hunting hat (see “Symbols,” below) to advertise his uniqueness, he uses his isolation as proof that he is better than everyone else around him and therefore above interacting with them. The truth is that interactions with other people usually confuse and overwhelm him, and his cynical sense of superiority serves as a type of self-protection. Thus, Holden’s alienation is the source of what little stability he has in his life.
Holden, like each of us, faces living in a world he did not create. Nobody, not even Holden, can live in a culture without having some of it rub off on them. What faults of his society does Holden exhibit? How does Salinger reveal these faults to readers?
According to most analyses, The Catcher in the Rye is a bildungsroman, a novel about a young character’s growth into maturity. While it is appropriate to discuss the novel in such terms, Holden Caulfield is an unusual protagonist for a bildungsroman because his central goal is to resist the process of maturity itself. As his thoughts about the Museum of Natural History demonstrate, Holden fears change and is overwhelmed by complexity. He wants everything to be easily understandable and eternally fixed, like the statues of Eskimos and Indians in the museum. He is frightened because he is guilty of the sins he criticizes in others, and because he can’t understand everything around him. But he refuses to acknowledge this fear, expressing it only in a few instances—for example, when he talks about sex and admits that “[s]ex is something I just don’t understand. I swear to God I don’t” (Chapter 9).
Instead of acknowledging that adulthood scares and mystifies him, Holden invents a fantasy that adulthood is a world of superficiality and hypocrisy (“phoniness”), while childhood is a world of innocence, curiosity, and honesty. Nothing reveals his image of these two worlds better than his fantasy about the catcher in the rye: he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play; adulthood, for the children of this world, is equivalent to death—a fatal fall over the edge of a cliff. His created understandings of childhood and adulthood allow Holden to cut himself off from the world by covering himself with a protective armor of cynicism. But as the book progresses, Holden’s experiences, particularly his encounters with Mr. Antolini and Phoebe, reveal the shallowness of his conceptions.