The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Classics Club Review by M
The Catcher in the Rye is narrated by Holden Caulfield. He starts off by saying that he’s not going to tell us too much. And he doesn’t. It’s a short novel (about 200 pages, small type though) and the plot covers just a few days - a few days that he tells us covers some “madman” stuff when he’s just been dropped by his private Pennsylvanian prep school for failing too many subjects. He’s not too keen to tell his parents and, with only himself to blame, things go a bit haywire for him.
I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was thirteen and just about to finish primary school. My English teacher had recommended it to me and apparently I loved it so much that my parents bought me my own copy as a gift nearly ten years later. That also means the copy I read must have been lent to me from either the teacher or the library.
I can hazard guesses at what I liked about it so much then: teenage angst and rebellion would be at the top of the list; chunting about the state of people living in the world around me would be another; and it was possibly the first plot thin novel I’d ever read.
So what did I think now?
For the first few chapters I was a bit sceptical about the story. Holden doesn’t like anyone and he’s overly caustic and rude in his judgements about them. I can see why many readers see him as an unsympathetic character. Despite some unpleasant content, it’s nevertheless a smooth read (which is surprising because there are hardly any paragraphs!) and I wanted to read on. Having read it before, I should have known what happens (but I’d forgotten the whole thing completely!) and I thought that someone was going to get hurt – I just didn’t know who or how. I read it quickly and more-or-less in one go. However, if it was a new read and if it hadn’t been a cult classic, I might have skipped out on finishing it. I’m glad I stuck with it though.
By the end, I'd warmed to Holden hugely. Yes, he’s rich and abuses his privileges, and yes he’s rude about people. But, I suspect his character was a pretty accurate portrayal of someone in his position at that time. On the surface, he’s sexist too but underneath (and when it really counts) he actually treats girls far better than any of his friends: he’s torturing himself about stopping when someone says ‘no’ (although I’m not giving him too many brownie points because he does this out of cowardice rather than for any loftier reasons). There are a number of other things that suggest Holden is a nicer person than he seems so maybe his name calling all those ‘phoneys’ and ‘jerks’ around him are justified.
I’m not saying what happens in the novel other than there really isn’t too much plot. The Catcher in the Rye is all about Holden’s state-of-mind from his point-of-view. If you can cope with all the slodgy murk that goes with that, you’ll probably like the novel.
First published in 1951, and regarded by many as one of the first novels about the ‘teenage condition’ (if there is one), The Catcher in the Rye has been both revered and reviled and repeatedly finds itself on a number of ‘banned’ and ‘challenged’ lists. Of course, there’s the language: lots of swearing and references to sex but ‘sexual intercourse’ and ‘goddam’ are as strong as it gets, so language-wise it’s tame in comparison to some of today’s YA fiction. And of course, Salinger didn’t write with a teen nor a politically correct audience in mind, which I think is a strength. The most surprising thing about The Catcher in the Rye, is that while it could be seen as a very despairing story, ultimately, to me, it is a very hopeful novel.
I think I can see why my teacher recommended it to thirteen year old me: not least would have been that it was a highly challenged book! Interestingly, I don’t know if my copy is a censored edition or not. I wouldn’t say that I loved reading it a second time round but overall, I enjoyed it and liked it much more than I was expecting. I would recommend it to older teens or younger readers that I knew for all sorts of different reasons. The writing style is likely to be quite different to most other novels they've read.
Some key issues in the novel include teenage angst and rebellion, belonging, sex (including prostitution), education, depression, suicide, death, privilege, adult/child relationships and (possibly) grief.
Publication details: 1958, Penguin, London (first published 1951)This copy: my own (Easter gift from my parents).