‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is written by J.D.Salinger, published in 1951. Since its publication, the book has attained the ‘cult status’, a symbol of teenage rebellion. It is such a layered book; one can interpret the meaning in so many ways – there is text and there is a subtext that will keep playing in your minds. Though I feel, I could have related more to the teenage angst and rebellion at the turn of late teens or early twenties. Now, the interpretation is a more distant one, trying to go back to the confusing times in life, figuring out adulthood by being mostly judgmental and gushing with discontent.
The reason why this book works, even after 6 decades of its publication is its subject matter and the treatment in first-person narration.
Holden Caulfield is the central character and the narrator in the book. The book begins with him being at an institute, where he expects complete recovery in a month’s time.
“..I am not going to tell you my whole goddamn autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas…”
Holden begins his story with the last day at Pencey, a boarding school in Agerstown, Pennsylvania in the US, from where he is expelled. He had been taken out similarly from three other educational institutes.
Holden does not want to go home immediately and plans to spend the next three days by himself without telling his family, until Wednesday when they expects his arrival for the Christmas break. During this period, the readers get glimpses of Holden’s roommate and some students at the boarding school, his teacher, an encounter with a prostitute, an old classmate, ex-date and his younger sister, apart from a few strangers. The randomness of the things and ramblings of Holden’s mind makes this book interestingly intriguing.
“I mean how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it? The answer is, you don’t.”
The book plays out as a grim satire on the society and about the hypocrisy of the people, “Glad to’ve met you” to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though. Holden calls people ‘phony’ meaning fake. The language is true to the teenage boy’s everyday vocabulary (apt for his times).
Why is Holden disgruntled and disinterested with everything around him? He is a chain smoker, drinks limitlessly, lies recklessly and has sexual encounter with a prostitute. There is no direct answer to his behavior or breakdown. Perhaps, the family is coping with the death of Holden’s brother, Allie. Or, because D.B, the other brother has left for Hollywood to become a screenwriter. There are no details about the parents, apart from Holden’s mother being emotional. Then, there is Phoebe, the younger sister, whom Holden considers smart. She is happy and content, again the depiction of the childhood innocence against the corrupt adult world. Phoebe mentions that if their father would come to know of Holden’s expulsion from Pencey, he would ‘kill’ him (does this suggest him to be a frantic abusive father?).
There is absolutely nothing that interests Holden. And, all he thinks he wants to be is ‘Catcher in the Rye’, where he would be the only big boy amongst thousands of kids playing in the rye field, and if unknowingly anyone may trip off a cliff, he would be there to save that kid. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is derived from Robert Burns’ poem titled, ‘Comin thro’ the Rye’. The first time, the reference to the poem is made when a kid sings it on the sidewalk. Holden overhears the song and it makes him feel less depressed. He tells Phoebe, “You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like—”. But, Phoebe corrects Holden that it’s a poem and not song and, “Its ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” The interpretation lies between ‘catch’ or save from falling and ‘meet’ to mature to adulthood with consent.
The deeper meaning in Holden wanting to save children from falling off a cliff could be the metaphor for saving them from adult predators. There is an instance of distrust when Holden is patted on the head by Mr.Antolini in sleep, the place where Holden had decided to spend a night. Mr.Antolini had been Holden’s English teacher at one of his previous schools. The reference to the school comes with a boy committing suicide and Mr.Antoini being the only man to carry the body. However, the drunk Mr.Antolini’s pat makes Holden leave the place immediately, in anxiety, tagging this man to be a pervert but later feeling confused about whether what he did was wrong or not, you can never tell about these things.
The book leaves you with so many things to ponder over. Let’s say: Is the red hunting cap a symbol? It gets passed from Holden to Phoebe. Is it about growing up…maybe drawing inference from Red Riding Hood? The childhood needs to go through the experience of a wolf to gain maturity as an adult. The textbook interpretation says that the hat is the symbol of uniqueness and how Holden preserves his uniqueness through this hat.
J.D.Salinger serves us a slice of life, paints an honest picture of the people around us and of our inevitable ‘phony’ adult world.