The Catcher in the Rye

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The Catcher in the Rye
Published 1951

Jerome David Salinger was born on January 1, 1919, in New York, the second child of Sol and Miriam Jillich Salinger. His father, of European Jewish ancestry, became very successful during the 1930s importing ham and cheese from Europe. Salinger's mother, of Scottish descent, may have been an actress and might have influenced her son who, in his youth, flirted with the idea of acting as well as writing for the stage and films. From 1934 to 1936 Salinger attended Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, where he first began writing at the age of 15.

Salinger entered New York University in 1936 but quickly dropped out. During 1937 and 1938 his father sent him to Poland and Austria to become acquainted with the suppliers of his food import business, perhaps in the hope that he would one day take over the family business. But Salinger was convinced from an early age that he wanted to be a writer.

After his European travels, Salinger attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. This small liberal arts college, populated mostly by middle-class Pennsylvanian students, must have seemed very distant from the sophisticated, wealthy Park Avenue, New York culture that had surrounded Salinger in his adolescence. Although he wrote nine articles, including theatre reviews, for the Ursinus student paper in the one semester he was there, as was generally his experience Salinger felt alienated, unhappy, and disdainful of the process and rituals of formal education. He left Ursinus and returned to New York, where, in 1940, he took a night class at Columbia University taught by Whit Burnett, a famous editor and the owner of Story magazine. Salinger began writing stories targeted for sale to the popular mass market magazines of the era and had his first one published in Story in 1940.

During World War II, from 1942 to 1945, Salinger served in the United States army, training first at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and then seeing active service in Europe. As a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps assigned to the 12th Infantry Regiment, Fourth Division in Europe, he landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, on June 6, 1944: D-day. Salinger observed the ferocious fighting on the Normandy beaches and went on to witness the liberation of Paris, where he met Ernest Hemingway, who was serving as a war correspondent. Salinger saw tremendous slaughter and casualties once more when he participated in the fight to liberate Luxembourg, known as the Battle of the Bulge. His army job was to interrogate prisoners of war, gather intelligence, and write reports about his findings. He was required to continue these duties even after the Nazis had surrendered, a particularly unenviable task for a half-Jewish American, considering the profound horror of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry.

The trauma of these wartime experiences seems to underlie the transformation in Salinger's fiction that occurred in the late 1940s. His work reflects the wartime era with poignant sensibility, particularly in the group of stories published in the New Yorker beginning on January 31, 1948, with "A Perfect Day for Bananafish", an ironic title for a story that ends with a character committing suicide. This and other serious stories about the World War II era launched Salinger on a prominent and enormously successful career. During the 1950s and 1960s he was one of the most widely discussed and influential authors in the United States. But as his celebrity grew, he withdrew progressively from the limelight.

His fiction—published infrequently and almost exclusively in the New Yorker—explored a single fictional family, the Glass family, and was met with a mixed, sometimes hostile, critical reception.

Growing implacably hostile to the New York literary and publishing world, in 1953 Salinger moved to the small New Hampshire village of Cornish. In 1955 he married Claire Douglas. The Salingers had a daughter, Margaret Ann, born December 10, 1955, and a son, Matthew, born February 13, 1960.


The Catcher in the Rye introduces Holden Caulfield, who ranks with Huckleberry Finn as one of the most popular adolescent heroes in American literature. Set in the 1950s, the book gives a witty, sardonic, and sometimes sad and poignant insight into the experiences of an adolescent boy as he struggles to come to terms with his metropolitan New York upper-class milieu.

Within ten years of publication, The Catcher in the Rye had sold one and a half million copies, had been translated into 30 languages, and was acknowledged by leading academics in the United States as one of the five most influential books by an American author published after World War II.

The Catcher in the Rye was frequently censored from school and public libraries in the United States because of its use of profanity and its expression of what many people saw as anti-social attitudes.

However, The Catcher in the Rye is more than a novel about an adolescent unable to accept social norms and public values. It is an ironic pastiche of the Bildungsroman, the literary tradition of stories about idealistic, often impractical and romantic, youths struggling to grow up and adjust to the adult world. The Catcher in the Rye also reflects a whole body of modern literature that expresses the alienated sensibility of artists who have had difficulty adjusting to the often vulgar customs and values of commercial urban civilization. Within this social criticism, the book indirectly celebrates the values of childhood innocence, the loyalty of children to each other, and spiritual purity.

The plot of The Catcher in the Rye, set soon after the end of World War II, is relatively spare. Holden Caulfield has been expelled from a private prep school, Pencey. As he prepares to leave, Holden sardonically comments on the boorishness of his classmates and the "phoney" behaviour of students and adults alike. Holden cannot communicate his feelings of alienation to teachers or counsellors and he habitually avoids conversation with them by telling lies, particularly ones he knows they want to hear.

He takes a train home to New York and continues to lie to adults to mask his reason for being away from Pencey. Once he has arrived in New York, since his parents are not expecting him, he checks into a hotel and his wanderings begin.

As he roams about the city, Holden encounters his brother's old friends, calls strangers to whom friends have referred him, mixes in a hotel bar, and invites a prostitute back to his hotel room, only to be swindled by her pimp. He arranges to go on a date to a theatre performance with an old girlfriend, Sally Hayes, and the evening ends in a row after he pleads with her to run away with him to the Vermont wilderness.

Having taken Sally home, Holden goes to see a film at Radio City, then stops off for a drink at the Seton Hotel with an old school friend named Luce who chastises him for his social and sexual immaturity. Holden finally sneaks into his parents' apartment and wakes up his little sister Phoebe. His long conversation with Phoebe goes some way towards explaining his alienation, revealing much about his personality that has been masked, particularly his love for the innocence of young children and his desire to save them from the pain and corruption of the adult social world. On a sudden impulse, Holden sets out for a late night visit to a favourite old teacher, Mr Antolini.

The visit presents further insights into Holden's unusual sensitivity. Antolini gives Holden wise advice about the need to adjust to adult society and to outgrow dangerous illusions in order to avoid suffering a serious "fall" or disillusionment, but Holden remains unconvinced. Holden falls asleep and awakes to find Mr Antolini touching his head in an affectionate gesture. Confused about sexuality, Holden interprets the gesture as a homosexual act and quickly departs.

Later, he realizes that he may have misjudged Mr Antolini and senses the wisdom of his advice, but Holden remains unable to overcome his feelings of alienation towards what he perceives as society's hypocrisy and selfishness or his longing for a purer, uncorrupt world of childhood innocence. He visits Phoebe at her school and dreams of escape to the peaceful isolation of the American West.

The book ends suddenly with Holden describing his "illness" and treatment by psychoanalysts at a country hospital, treatment apparently meant to "cure" Holden of his feelings of alienation so that he can adjust to the adult world.

Within the complex history of modern literature, Holden Caulfield is one of many rebels. Literature of protest against society often purposefully satirizes conventional values. It forces the reader to look at reality from what the critic Kenneth Burke has called a "perspective by incongruity". The Catcher in the Rye depicts how easily modern man, in Holden's eyes at least, accepts a vulgar environment characterized by graffiti, urban decay, fake behaviour, and a culture that glorifies the trivial while remaining insensitive to human needs.

While Holden rejects the trivial, he is profoundly hurt by the death of his brother Allie and the accidental death of a school friend, James Castle, whom no one even wants to touch after he falls off a school building. In the novel's most famous passage, Holden explains that what he most wants to do is catch little children playing in a field of rye to prevent them from falling off a cliff: "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." Symbolically, he may also be pleading with the reader to regain a love of goodness and beauty.

Such ambition, to be a protector of all, is incomprehensible to a cynical world of "adults" who adapt and adjust to the cruelty, big and small, that people often perpetrate on one another. Holden Caulfield is a conscious literary invention, a character who readers are meant to see as similar to Henry David Thoreau's persona in Walden (1854), Jay Gatsby, and Huck Finn. These eccentric figures were misunderstood, criticized for their "alienation" from contemporary America, or seen as social misfits. But their symbolic rebellion is meant to force readers to see from new perspectives the ideals of humanism and respect for the individual, and the necessity to strive for a more perfect social reality. Huck and Holden are romantics, idealists, and moralists like Thoreau and Fitzgerald's heroes.

A wide variety of characters appear in The Catcher in the Rye, many of them only briefly. Several important characters never actually appear at all. All the characters, however, are important primarily for what they reveal about Holden's values.

Holden's fellow students, such as Stradlater and Ackley at Pencey, and Luce from Whooton school, represent the youth of prosperous America, sent off to prep schools to be educated for entry into elite universities or to prepare to inherit America's businesses. Holden sees them as "uneducated" in what is important to him: the needs and feelings of individual people. Unlike Holden, who is both confused about and sensitive to the adolescent transition to adult sexuality and social requirements, Stradlater represents the self-centred, often crude teenage male out to "score" sexually with girls without any real concern for their feelings. Luce, on the other hand, typifies a false maturity, a young adult who acts and speaks with a knowing condescension that his limited experience cannot justify. Ackley, awkward and self-conscious, demonstrates the feelings of social inadequacy and discomfort associated with the biological changes the body undergoes during adolescence.

Holden's parents, although never seen in the novel, clearly represent an adult world that expects high achievements but little inconvenience from children. Adults throughout the novel, with the exception of Mr Antolini, seem unable to relate to adolescents. They treat them as mature while, perhaps unconsciously, wanting the Holdens of life to remain unaware, like younger children, of the social hypocrisy by which adult society often operates.

Mr Antolini is an adult who understands Holden's feelings of alienation and his deeply disturbed sensibility. Yet the only advice he seems able to offer is to conform, adapt, and "grow up", something Holden cannot or will not do.

Holden's sister Phoebe, in contrast, represents an innocent world he has outgrown yet wishes to forever regain. Phoebe constantly reminds Holden of the years when he played imaginatively, unburdened by sadness, guilt, or responsibility. His urgent pleas to Phoebe and Sally Hayes to join him in running away to an idyllic place in Vermont or the mountainous West symbolize his impossible quest to return to this lost innocence.

Holden's dream of escape would be unconvincing if it were not justified by some legitimate motives. Those motives are represented by both of his brothers, neither of whom ever appears in the book. Holden's older brother D. B. is a scriptwriter in Hollywood. This character reappears in Salinger's later fiction and some critics have argued that he represents an aspect of Salinger himself. To Holden, the writer who adapts to America's commercial entertainment industry by supplying soporific, "phoney" popular entertainment corrupts his or her own integrity.

Finally, Holden's younger brother Allie has died of leukaemia. This death haunts Holden. An extremely sensitive teenager hiding behind his public veneer of flippant cynicism, Holden finds the human condition deeply troubling and spiritually empty.


The Catcher in the Rye does not merely detail the awkwardness of a young adult growing up. Holden's periodic allusions to his favourite authors and books, his often humorous and consciously unsophisticated analyses of those books and writers, and the novel's carefully ironic imitation of several powerful literary traditions help explain why Salinger's book is so closely studied by scholars and critics.

From the novel's first ironic sentence contrasting Holden with Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, Salinger lets his reader know his story has a much more sophisticated literary background than the narrator's youthful voice would indicate. Throughout the novel Holden refers to famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Hardy, and William Shakespeare. The books and plays of these writers also express themes that help explain Holden Caulfield's alienation. Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms (1929) was a testament of an earlier American wartime generation disillusioned by the folly of an adult society that led to the loss of millions of lives in World War I.

Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) presents a romantic young American who becomes involved in bootlegging liquor during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. Fitzgerald's hero, Jay Gatsby, may be for Holden a model of the perfectionist-idealist who dares to challenge social conventions and to attempt to rise above the vulgar reality he is born into.

The Shakespearean references in the book are also illuminating. Romeo and Juliet, like Holden, dare to defy adult conventions and challenge, for romantic love, the hatred of adults. Hamlet is a deeply troubled young man who faces moral dilemmas and exhibits strange behaviour that, like Holden's, leads people around him to think he is abnormal, even mad.

Holden constantly uses the word "phoney" to describe people, events, and popular culture such as films. What does he mean by this word and what does it indicate about his values?

Although he discusses the subject with ironic humour, the idea of war clearly disturbs Holden. He states that his older brother "hated" the army and World War II. Holden dreads military service because he will not be able to choose the people with whom he associates. What does this tell us about Holden's social ideal?

Although only indirectly discussed in the book, the theme of death by war, disease, and accident has a profound impact on our understanding of Holden Caulfield. His obsession with the death of innocents, such as James Castle, indicates his complexity and sensitivity. How does this obsession affect his thoughts and actions?

Holden criticizes virtually all the young people he encounters. They appear to be unaware of the complex world outside of school and personal desires. Is his criticism of adolescent egotism accurate?

Several times Holden discusses the Bible, religion, and Catholicism in an extended analysis, with seemingly sharp, ironic commentary. What is he really criticizing?

Why does Holden so often tell lies or at least answer questions with only partial truths, especially questions about his real feelings?

What does Holden mean when he says he wants to be a catcher in a field of rye preventing children from falling off the edge of the field?

Mr Spencer and Mr Antolini are in fact very reasonable, intelligent people. Why can Holden not accept their advice?

Holden is unlike most boys and he dislikes much of what other boys do unthinkingly. Is he mentally ill or does he just see things from a point of view we normally cannot see?


Compare and contrast Holden and Huckleberry Finn. How does their adolescent inexperience permit their creators, Salinger and Mark Twain, to assert moral values?

Several of Salinger's own writer peers have criticized his books for being naively romantic and juvenile in their point of view. Research the criticism of Salinger and support or refute such arguments.

Holden frequently refers to Hollywood and New York's Madison Avenue as American centres of phoniness. The capitals of the American film and advertising businesses, these locales symbolize for Holden the creation of false reality. What were these industries like in the 1940s and 1950s?

Holden champions the American writer Ring Lardner. What qualities does Lardner's fiction have that attract Holden?

Salinger's other books also focus on youth or recall nostalgically and poignantly the lives of characters now grown up. Analyse the common themes and events that underlie Salinger's later books and The Catcher in the Rye.


Salinger's other important books, all of which were published after The Catcher in the Rye, deal with a more extensive family than Holden's: the Glass family. These works can be viewed as more sophisticated, philosophical explorations of the concerns and themes first raised in The Catcher in the Rye. In Nine Stories (1953), Salinger introduces the Glass family and suggests the profound spiritual disillusionment of Western artists that resulted from the Great Depression and World War II. Franny and Zooey (1961) describes the youngest members of the family and reiterates Salinger's sharp criticism of contemporary society, pseudo-intellectuals, and East Coast academic and literary culture. The character of Franny dramatizes a theme Salinger spent most of the 1950s exploring: the conflict between alienation from a world the European existentialist philosophers described as meaningless and without religious certitude, and a neo-mystical, religious psychology that Franny exhibits in her desire to escape that world. Salinger suggests that mysticism and the search for perfection, which Franny absorbs from her brilliant but suicidal older brother Seymour, are insufficient solutions to the condition of modern humankind. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (both 1963) portray Seymour as a visionary seer and seeker after Eastern religious insight who is so wounded by the world and frustrated by his inability to find perfect consciousness in its squalid reality that he cannot find peace. Salinger's later fiction, scholars argue, is deeply philosophical and central to expressing the spiritual and psychological anxiety of artists and intellectuals in the post-World War II decades.

Source: Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults. Copyright by Gale Group, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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