Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 132 lessons | 11 flashcard sets
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Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.
There may not be a more polarizing figure in American literature than Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye . Some people identify with Holden so strongly that they practically idolize him, some find his antics and attitudes so selfish and immature that they can't stand him and some just want to give him a hug. I, personally, fall into the last category, though I'll admit I might want to follow up that hug with a smack upside the head.
So, who is this Holden Caulfield, and why does he yield such strong emotional responses from readers? So glad you asked. We meet young Holden at a fancy Pennsylvania prep school called Pencey, and we can almost tell instantly he's unhappy. The novel is told from Holden's point of view and begins like this: 'If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.'
So, we learn two things right off the bat: first, Holden is telling us a story from some point in the future - at least he's not telling us of the events as they happen. Second, he's irritated at the reader for wanting to know his story, but it sounds like he's going to tell us anyway.
Holden's attitude towards the reader is pretty representative of how he feels about everyone. He frequently refers to people he doesn't like (and that's most people) as 'phonies.' Holden can't abide phonies, and it seems like he finds them everywhere. He's so unhappy with the people he encounters in life that he's already on his fourth prep school at the age of 16. Things don't appear to be going great for him at this school either; Holden learns he's going to be expelled from Pencey and will have to go home to New York City and share the disappointing news with his parents.
After getting into a fight with his roommate, Stradlater (an excellent name in my opinion), Holden decides to leave school early to go back to New York but not tell his parents he's there yet. Most normal teens would wonder how he'd be able to pull this off, but we're to understand that Holden's family has a lot of money, and a few days in a Manhattan hotel is well within Holden's financial capability. I was excited to get a Mexican pizza from Taco Bell when I was in high school, so I found Holden hard to relate to right off the bat.
One thing that's important to note about Holden's arrival in New York is a conversation he has with a cab driver. He asks the cabbie where the ducks (that hang out in the pond at Central Park) go when it gets cold and the pond is frozen over. The cabbie does not seem to know or care and probably just wants this weird, chatty teenager out of his car. This interaction may seem inconsequential, especially since by this point, the reader has already witnessed some pretty weird interactions between Holden and the people he encounters (the guy seems to love lying for lying's own sake). But this particular exchange shows that, beyond his outward bravado and disregard for most people, Holden does think about the well-being of others...at least of ducks.
Holden can seem really unlikable, selfish and overly judgmental, but Salinger drops little clues along the way to indicate that there's more to Holden's personality than we might realize. The first clue actually comes quite early in the novel, when Holden talks about a paper he wrote describing his brother, Allie's, baseball mitt, which his brother Allie had written poems all over. Holden's fondness for Allie is a great contrast to the disdain he feels for just about everyone else.
Anyway, back to his time in Manhattan. He goes around, having weird interactions with a lot of different people, some friends, some strangers and, memorably, one prostitute. Holden assures us that he is not a virgin for lack of opportunity and that he was always respectful when a girl didn't want to sleep with him. When he sets up this meeting with Sunny, the prostitute, he discovers he's unable to sleep with her (emotionally, not physically) and instead pays her just to talk. Sunny is surprised by this, since I assume this is not how her general workdays progressed, and actually returns later with her pimp, Maurice, to get more money from Holden. This little encounter results in Holden getting punched by a Maurice, one of the more memorable scenes in the novel.
Holden continues to make weird choices, like inviting this girl Sally to see a play only to first ask her to run away with him and then insult her, or making racist and homophobic comments to one of his old school friends. He also keeps doing sweet things like buying a record for his sister Phoebe (though he accidentally breaks it later) or continuing to worry about the fate of the Central Park ducks come winter.
Eventually, after finding the charms of Manhattan less than charming, Holden decides to head home, mostly to see Phoebe, who appears to be the only person he likes. 'Wait, what about his brother Allie?' you might ask. 'Didn't you say he liked Allie too?' Why yes, I did, but it's at this point in the book that the reader learns that Allie is dead. Very astute readers might pick up on this earlier, but by this point of the book, it's impossible to avoid. Allie has died of leukemia three years prior to the start of the story, and it's at this point that we start to realize that Holden's never really moved past Allie's death. If we've started to hate him because of all the strange, unkind things he's done so far in the book, it's pretty hard not to feel sorry for him at this point.
And this brings us to the book's title: once Holden sneaks into his parents' apartment, he visits with Phoebe (who, incidentally, is annoyed at him from getting kicked out of yet another school, but clearly loves her brother very much) and tells Phoebe he fantasizes about being a 'catcher in the rye,' based off a poem he'd once heard that went 'if a body catch a body, comin' thru the rye.' He thinks a catcher in the rye would 'catch' bodies in a rye field, children's bodies - he thinks - to save them.
At this point, it's all but impossible to not feel sorry for Holden. The poor guy is clearly haunted by his brother, Allie's, death and wishes there was something he could have done. This explains why he's so concerned about the ducks in wintertime; he wants innocent things to be protected from the things that could hurt them.
Phoebe explains that the poem actually says 'if a body meet a body, comin' thru the rye,' and a 'catcher in the rye' isn't really a thing, which further shows how set Holden's mind is on the idea of protecting innocent things - he was looking for it in places that it didn't exist.
The novel ends with Holden having an unsettling encounter with a former teacher, in which the teacher lets Holden crash at his place, but when Holden awakes to the teacher patting him on the head, he gets weirded out and leaves in the middle of the night. He later tells Phoebe he's running away for good, but when she demands to go with him, he realizes that it probably isn't a great plan.
We don't quite know what happens after that, but we learn that Holden is now in an institution recovering from what we can assume is some kind of breakdown. He's tells us he's going to a new school in the fall and is feeling good about that. The book ends like this: 'Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.' It seems that, in the act of telling this story, Holden has started to miss even the people he thought he couldn't stand, which I believe we're meant to take as a sign of progress and an optimistic view for his future.
In summary, J.D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951. The Catcher in the Rye is the story of Holden Caulfield a teenage boy who at first seems like a spoiled, miserable rich kid, but we learn is actually still coping with the untimely death of his beloved brother Allie. Throughout Holden's various misadventures around Manhattan, we learn that he has a hard time interacting with most people, but cares deeply about protecting innocent things, like children and the ducks in Central Park. Ultimately, we realize that he's still grieving and also has a lot of growing up to do and, by the end of the novel, are hopeful that he'll be able to do just that.
By the conclusion of the lesson, you should have a greater understanding of Holden Caulfield's character. You could be able to explain the origins of the title, 'The Catcher in the Rye,' and recount some of Holden's adventures in New York City.
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Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 132 lessons | 11 flashcard sets