Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Novel on Adolescence

The Catcher in the Rye

This is a complex novel, but on the heels of the last post about the complexity of the human condition, one might not expect less for a novel about the angst of the adolescent years. I read this novel many years ago – in fact it was on the Leaving Certificate course in English as one of the modern novels. I read it in my mid-twenties because I was giving a grind in Honours English at the time to earn some much needed extra cash. The novel had me spell-bound to say the least. Again, I was captivated by the narrator’s voice which essentially means that the style is conversational and direct and that of a friendly confused adolescent.

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel by the reclusive and highly eccentric American novelist J.D. Salinger. This novel was published in the USA in 1951. It was voted by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the top 100 novels written in English since 1923. J.D. Salinger – he was born in Manhattan, New York in 1919 - is still alive and has given very few interviews in his life. The last interview he gave was in 1980 and he has not made a public appearance or written any new work since 1965.

If one reads anything about J.D. Salinger – what little there is to read about – one will find him to be a highly eccentric individual and probably as tormented and angst-ridden as his partially-autobiographical hero Holden Caulfield. Which of us is not so in his or her own way?

Always keep the reader guessing:

I love the technique of keeping the reader guessing. Immediately we open The Catcher we are listening to Holden’s captivating voice and to his story. This boy is 17 years old when he tells the story, but was 16 when the events narrated took place. This protagonist is named in full as Holden Morrissey Caulfield, a tall, lanky, highly critical and depressed sixteen-year-old who academically flunked out of Pencey Prep boarding school. It is not clear whether he was kicked out of school or left it at his own volition. Neither is it clear where Holden is now as a narrator. Is he is in another school, or what the Americans call Juvenile Hall or even in a mental institution? I remember annotating my original copy of the book with the words: “Where is Holden now?” This is a brilliant ploy on the part of Jerome David Salinger. We are left in suspense and in mystery. At the end of the book the reader is given more clues that Holden is narrating the book from a mental hospital. He explains that he will be going to another school in the fall again but doesn't know for sure if he will start applying himself. He finishes talking with these sad, untrusting, cynical and life-sapping words, "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody".

Is Redemption Possible?

This is another deep question asked by this gem of a book. Can all those “phonies” out there in society be redeemed? Everywhere Holden looks he sees these “phonies”, these two-faced adults in a phony two-faced world. From Holden’s cynical and depressive perspective it would seem that the world cannot be redeemed at all. All its adults are flawed and tainted and show worrying motivations. Sincerity and truth, or if you like to state it in modern psychotherapetic terminology, authenticity and congruence are severely lacking.

The Innocence-Experience Tension

Also I am struck by the age-old tension in literature between Innocence and Experience. William Blake, about whom I have written extensively in a previous post, deals with this topic in a more all-rounded, deeper and less emotionally-fraught way. For him Innocence was a huge value in his life and in the living out in fullness of that life. However, Willaim Blake realised that children have to grow up; they have to come of age and slough off the clothes of childhood for more adult ones. Hence Blake wrote his Songs of Experience to counterbalance, and essentially to magnify the deep truth of his of his Songs of Innocence. It’s not either/or for Blake – it’s both/and. Jerome David Salinger in his protagonist (who is after all only 17 years old) only has time for the Songs of Innocence as it were. However, given his young age, and given that Salinger is writing in a 17 year old’s voice anything more would not have been possible. Consequently, we are in Salinger’s debt for captivating this one-sided experience of a much-troubled and tormented adolescent. That’s why this novel makes good reading for secondary school angst-ridden boys.

A Note About the Title

The title is strange indeed, and it is not explained to us until at least half-way through the novel. During a short conversation with Phoebe, his much-beloved younger sister, Holden reveals the meaning of the novel's title. The idea is based on a misreading of a line in the song "Comin' Thro' the Rye", by the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, which Holden heard a young boy singing once. Holden mistakenly substituted "When a body catch a body, comin' thro' the rye" for "When a body meet a body, comin' thro' the rye." Holden interpreted the line literally, imagining a field of rye at the edge of a cliff, in which children constantly wandered about – as children do - and that someone had the job of catching any who might fall. Thus, he says that he wants to be the catcher, because it serves a real purpose in a world that is otherwise so often phony or trivial or superficial. Here are his own words to his little sister Phoebe, 10 years old: "I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy . . ."

The standard English version of Robby Burns poem/song is:

Coming Through The Rye.
Chorus. O Jenny is all wet, poor body,
Jenny is seldom dry:
She draggled all her petticoats,
Coming through the rye!

Coming through the rye, poor body,
Coming through the rye,
She draggled all her petticoats,
Coming through the rye!

Should a body meet a body
Coming through the rye,
Should a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Should a body meet a body
Coming through the glen,
Should a body kiss a body,
Need the world know?

Should a body meet a body
Coming through the grain,
Should a body kiss a body,
The thing is a body's own.

Holden is a young romantic and this very much appeals to me, and indeed to most readers. For him, the world of experience and of adulthood is disappointing, in fact more than disappointing, it’s phoney, inauthentic and superficial. It’s a two-faced, hypocritical, besmirched, impure and evil one. Children, childhood and innocence need to be protected. They are pure, or “pure out” (= really pure) as they say in my part of Ireland. I’m not so sure that psychologists would agree on the depth of the purity thereof. However, that’s work for another day. Hence, Holden imagines himself being the “saviour” or as he calls it the “catcher” for all the innocent children. As a child, I often remember my father, my bigger brother, or even another adult saying to me: “Jump, it’s easy, I’ll catch you!” Yes, indeed, we all need to be caught. From Time magazine, 1951, we read the following from J.D. Salinger: “‘Some of my best friends are children,’ says Jerome David Salinger, 32.'In fact, all of my best friends are children.’” Is this a sad comment on life or not, from a 32 year old man?

I suppose, in my own life as a teacher and an adult I have often seen myself as a “catcher.” Indeed, I hear many teachers at school saying, “We saved (caught) Joe X” etc


A major theme undoubtedly is that of what Holden terms “phoniness.” Many adolescents, and indeed adults, feel affronted by the dishonesty and the false pretenses, and the superficiality of the real world. However, every attentive reader will notice that there is much evidence in this novel that Holden himself exhibits much of the same "phoniness" he denounces in others. Holden also lies and pretends to be other than he actually is. I am reminded here of the conntradictions in several young adolescent lads I know who eye up girls, speak about them in the most lewd ways to their mates and try to “have it off” with any good looking girl they meet, while at the same time being protective of younger or older sisters or mothers who are, as it were, “out in the world.” However, our Holden believes that he is honest with himself, and the reader, throughout the book. In this sense, we could say that Holden is an unreliable narrator, criticizing others for faults which he himself later exhibits abundantly. So the question remains in our mind: “How far can we trust Holden?” Maybe that is the question, indeed, that J.D. Salinger puts to us the reader: “how far can we trust anybody?” Salinger’s life would seem to show that he trusted few and certainly suspected as sham and forbidding the real world out there. Hence, the insecurity, eccentricity and reclusivity of our author.

This is a brilliant book and a brilliant read. Ten out of ten on any scale for a modern novel. However, as a reader I am left a little disturbed and not a little disappointed that life cannot be better for this troubled and tormented young man.

The above picture is of some buttercups I took some years back in Newbridge House. I wonder if the Grass is Rye?

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