Fiction. Published 1945.
Read: December 2011, 277 pages
Superficially the story of a young man’s expulsion from yet another school, this book is in fact a perceptive study of one individual’s understanding of his human condition. Holden Caulfield is a teenager growing up in New York during the 1950s. In an attempt to deal with being expelled for bad performance, he leaves school a few days prior to the end of term, and goes to New York to ‘take a vacation’ before returning to his parents’ inevitable wrath. Told as a monologue, the book describes Holden’s thoughts and activities over these few days, during which he describes a developing nervous breakdown, symptomised by his bouts of unexplained sadness, impulsive spending and generally odd, erratic behavior, prior to his eventual nervous collapse.
However, during his psychological battle, life continues on around Holden as it always had, with the majority of people ignoring the ‘madman stuff’ that is happening to him – until it begins to encroach on their well defined social codes. Progressively through the novel we are challenged to think about society’s attitude to the human condition – does society have an ‘ostrich in the sand’ mentality, a deliberate ignorance of the emptiness that can characterize human existence? And if so, when Caulfield begins to probe and investigate his own sense of emptiness and isolation, before finally declaring that he world is full of ‘phonies’ with each one out for their own phony gain, is Holden actually the one who is going insane, or is it society which has lost its mind for failing to see the hopelessness of their own lives?
This book is initially hard to get interested in being as the narrator is very negative and uses language from the 1950s. Once I actually got an idea of his language and character it became easier to read. I think if the reader is able to identity his issues with extreme sadness and coming of age, a compassion and interest will grow in the reader completing this story.
Holden Caulfield tells his story about leaving Pencey and traveling home after he is expelled. One recurring theme is that he identifies others as phonies. It is his catch-all for describing the superﬁciality, hypocrisy, and shallowness that he encounters. His perception of others provides a means to withdrawal and feeds his sadness. Phoniness is his cynical observation of everything that’s wrong with the world. Holden is terrified by the unpredictable challenges of the world—he hates conﬂict, he is confused by Allie’s death, and he fears interaction with other people. Holden cuts himself off from the world but it in turn causes him to be unbearably lonely.
I found the most interesting point to be about Holden’s resistance to growing up. He wants things to stay the same, be simple and concrete. He shares his confusion, misguidances, and fears. Instead of admitting that adulthood mystifies him, he invents a fantasy that adults are all phonies and childhood is a world of innocence, curiosity, and honesty. Holden wants to be the catcher in the rye-his interpretation of saving children from adulthood/death/falling over the edge of a cliff. Holden has a close relationship with his little sister Phoebe and it is a major step for him to accept that kids will grow up and adults must let them. Other important themes include suicide, death, social class, lying, intimacy, and loneliness.
Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. -p158
It was really nice sightseeing, if you know what I mean. In a way, it was sort of depressing, too, because you kept wondering what the hell would happen to all of them. -p160
I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to get lousy unless you did something? -p169
I think one of these days you’re going to have to find out where you want to go. And then you’ve got to start going there. But immediately. You can’t afford to lose a minute. -p245