This book killed me. It really did. No kidding. I felt like a goddam phony when I was crying about it. It killed me.
I am fresh off my second reading The Catcher in the Rye and I am astounded. I will admit, at first I wasn't. Holden Caulfield came off to me incredibly privileged, bratty and unbelievably whiny. I began to question why it was considered a classic novel, with such a tasteless protagonist and a seemingly unsatisfying plotline.
And then I kept reading.
I can't exactly pinpoint the moment I began to fall head over heels in love with Salinger's work (and the surprisingly complex Mr. Caulfield), but I did. I started eating up every single word and with my second reading, digested it. Catcher is good. It's really good.
Let's start with the plot. The story is being retold by our main protagonist, aforementioned sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. He recounts his one of many expulsions, this one from esteemed high school Pencey Prep. He's failed most of his classes and has finally gotten the ax. Holden leaves behind the jerks and pimple-faced phonies and heads to his home in New York City, but not before wandering aimlessly in search of well, anything.
And that's just it. Not much happens at all in Catcher, unless you consider drinking and smoking and thinking much of anything. It's Holden's inner monologue that turns this slice-of-life story into something heartbreaking and eye-opening. It almost lends itself to a second read, just so you can really understand him. Which is understandable, because he's not the most likable or easily understood character to begin with.
He is cynical, stubborn, judgemental towards almost everyone he meets. His favorite word is "phony", which is what just about everyone is in his eyes. Everyone who says things they don't mean, do things they don't wanna do, hang with people they don't want to--they're all phonies. Ironically, Holden is the biggest phony of them all.
He lies. He lies about his age to get drunk, he lies about his expulsion, his health, his name. Almost his entire experience in New York City revolves around his phoniness. And his inability to recognize and accept them stems from his denial of adulthood and his want to preserve innocence.
Holden cusses enough to trick the reader into believing his is more mature than he truly is, when really, everyone he calls out and almost all the things he dislikes comes from change, time and growing up. The only characters he truly loves and cares for are his family--specifically his younger siblings--and all the children he meets while he explores the city. When visiting museums, he thinks about how much he loves them because they just stay the same all the time. When his younger sister, Phoebe, asks him what he'd like to be when he was older, he replies in such a way that it redeems almost all his negative traits: he says he'd be a catcher in the rye, protecting the children that run around and grabbing them before they get hurt.
We see Holden stumble upon graffiti in his younger sister's school, reading "fuck you" and he gets so anxious about young children seeing it that he removes it, and goes as far to say that he'd "smash his [the vandalist] his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody" and yet he soon follows with "I wouldn't have the guts to do it", and that's where Holden's innocence and phoniness is recognizable. He would do so much to preserve innocence for others, to a point where he would abandon it himself.
Holden's disdain for the adult world is understandable, too. He goes completely unheard by them for the entire novel. He goes to countless adults he presumes to trust and like, asking them for help after expulsion. He asks every cab driver he meets where the ducks go in the winter. He even pays a prostitute not to have sex with him, and for Chrissake, maybe answer some of his worries. And yet, he never gets answers from people he was taught to get answers from. He also calls up his friends, who have seemed to mature more than him, and every experience ends with him being ignored or left behind, all by people who he sees as changed, grown up.
(There is a glossed over scene in the novel which is very quick but critical, however it is more than often overlooked and ignored, because of its brevity. However, it provides perhaps some of the most insight into Holden's discomfort and fear of adults. The scene is this: at the very end of the novel, very soon before it's conclusion, one of the final adults Holden confides in is a former, respected and liked teacher of his, Mr. Antolini. He offers Holden a place to stay for the night only to make sexual advances while Holden sleeps. The whole scene ends with a very scared, disturbed and anxious Holden, quickly leaving as Mr. Antolini tries to convince him to stay. As Holden leaves, sweating and shaking, in his last sentence of that chapter he quickly admits "That kind of stuff's happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can't stand it." A history of sexual abuse is hinted at, and never mentioned again.)
And yet, at the end of the novel, it is his younger sister Phoebe who begins to listen, answer and comfort him. It is in untouched and precious youth where he finds his strongest relationships. It is Phoebe who places the red hunting hat on his head at the end, which he admits makes him feel more confident.
The red hunting hat is important. Holden buys it on a whim after he accidentally leaves the school's fencing team's equipment on the subway, rendering him a failure in many people's eyes. So at that moment, one of Holden's most vulnerable, he buys and wears the hat. He wears it later when he begins to write an essay about Allie's baseball glove--Allie being his younger brother who passed away. Again, in a vulnerable moment in which he discusses loss of what he loves the most, it is his hat that brings him comfort and confidence. It is only when he is around people he knows when he doesn't wear the hat, as if he's embarrassed to admit that he needs protection and help. But at the end, when Phoebe puts it on his head as it begins to rain, it gives him the confidence he needs to admit to the world--including people he knows--that this is who he is and what he needed.
The red hat's significance to confidence, protection and youth could also come from the fact that Holden's hair is graying uncommonly quickly. Throughout the book, he mentions half of his hair has begun to rapidly turn gray, which is an undeniable sign of age and growing up and ascending into adulthood. However, with a hat--a red hunting one, even--the gray hairs are covered, out of sight, and so is the prospect of growing up.
Holden is pretentious, yes. He is annoying and he is judgemental and impulsive. But he is not all of this just for the sake of being so. It is, in simplest terms, a defense mechanism. He is growing up and doesn't know how, and his narration is hopelessly trying to convince us and himself that he knows what he is doing, when in reality, none of us do.
And that is where a reader can begin to empathize with Holden. Not everyone is a rich, white boy who has been given countless chances by schools. But everyone is confused and scared, just as Holden is. He often steps out of cabs and hotels and stands at phones with no idea where to go and no idea who to call. We all can relate to a feeling of helplessness, whether in our teenage angst years, midlife crises, or other times.
Catcher is a story of someone trying to become less lonely and scared, and sometimes, no one can truly get lonelier than Holden.
Holden has been through and seen a lot. From the death of his younger brother, the death of fellow students, seeing his own roommate sleep with girls against their will--he's become so terrified that he's isolated himself, and this is not without reason, as mentioned already. And isolation and loneliness makes him depressed, suicidal, even. One of the most touching yet heartbreaking points of the story is when, without knowing quite why, he begins to sob at the edge of his younger sister's bed, not being able to stop no matter how badly he wants to.
Holden begins the novel as someone you don't wanna be or know. He is rude, repetitive, snarky as hell and cynical. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to wade through his narrative knee deep before you get to the parts where it is all worth. And then, by the end, you understand that Holden is who you'd never admit that you truly are and who you truly know.
And this is a frightening realization for many when you realize in the last chapter that Holden is recounting his thoughts and feelings to a psychoanalyst, finally getting the held he so desperately needed. It is a subtly terrifying way of reminding readers to get the help they may need.
Holden is not a Catcher in the Rye, or a savior. He is a strict anti-hero. But his deep desire to want to be a catcher, or a hero is what makes him one. Holden is defined not by his current status and impulsive actions, but by his hopes and goals and wishes for the future, much like we all are.
So aspire to be a catcher or a hero or anything. But be kind to all and maybe a little less phony, because we're all a little bit scared.
P.S - Where do all the ducks go in the winter?