I’m cheating. Again.
It’s getting toward the end of the school year, and quite frankly, I am sick of students at this point. I have spring fever more than they do. And if I hear one more student complain about not wanting to read, I won’t be responsible for my actions.
My junior class has finished reading The Great Gatsby, which is on the curriculum, but because there are three weeks left of school, I’m having them read The Catcher in the Rye, which is not on the curriculum. If they complain about it, they’re going to be sorry. But I figured that since I’m having to read it with them, then I might as well skip ahead and count this as a plus in the read column.
The Catcher in the Rye is the only novel by J.D. Salinger, who wrote mostly short stories, especially those concerning the Glass family. It was published in 1951 and is both lauded and lamented, as it appears equally on lists of the greatest novels of all times and is one of the most frequently challenged and banned books. Teachers have been fired for teaching the book in their classes. Oops.
The narrator is the apathetic Holden Caulfield, who has just been expelled from yet another prep school. The greatest insult Holden bestows on people or things is that they’re phony, and pretty much everyone or everything he encounters is labeled as such. His roommates are phony, the school is phony, his teachers are phony. As he’s expelled from the school, he packs up and leaves for New York City in the middle of the night, but as he doesn’t want to face his family with the news (it’s Christmas vacation), he goes on a lost weekend of sorts as he wanders around New York City.
The title of the book comes from a misinterpretation of a line from a Robert Burns poem, Comin’ Through the Rye — where the poem says “gin a body meet a body/comin’ through the rye,” Holden hears it as “gin a body catch a body/ comin through the rye,” and imagines a scene of children playing in a field of rye with him standing watch, making sure they don’t fall off the cliff. He wants to be the catcher in the rye. The rye field in this case is metaphorical for innocence, especially the innocence of children. There are several accounts throughout the nvoel of Holden trying to protect children; in one case, he rubs the words “fuck you” off of the wall of Phoebe’s school because he worries that someone will explain to the children what it means.
As the novel reaches the end, Holden’s breakdown is becoming more and more apparent. He is overwhelmed by what he perceives as the ugliness and phoniness of the world, including the graffitied profanity on the walls, vulgar Christmas tree delivery men, and visits with his younger sister and his former English teacher that don’t satisfy him and leave him feeling lonely. Holden takes his sister, Phoebe, to the carousel in Central Park and as he watches her, feels deliriously happy:
I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe keptgoing around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around adn around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.
The novel ends abruptly — the last page is Holden revealing that he’s been writing this story from a rest home to recover from his breakdown, and that a psychoanalyist keeps asking him if he’s going to return to school in the fall, which he thinks is a stupid question. His facade of apathy and misanthropy is beginning to crack in the final lines, however:
About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everything.
The thing that is the most notable about the novel is the language; not just the liberal use of profanity, but the slang of the time and the stream-of-consciousness form that Holden uses to narrate. Having taught teenagers for two years, this really is how they write, like the pencil and paper are an extension of their thoughts. There is very little planning with my students; they basically sit down, start writing, and turn in whatever comes out, regardless of spelling or grammatical errors or content that should really be saved for Oprah. Reading the book really does seem like you’ve picked up a diary of some emo kid named Holden Caulfield who is annoyed with the world.
J.D. Salinger is known for his writing as well as his publicized recluse status. He gave his last interview in 1980 and refused to let any of his work be adapted into movies after what he considered to be a disasterous movie adaptation of “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” However, movie studios have been dreaming of turning The Catcher in the Rye into a movie pretty much since its publication. Given that Salinger passed away in January 2010, a movie is probably in the works right now.