The Catcher in the Rye is a book that I think will always be relatable. The sense of hopelessness that persists in its pages drowns the reader in total despair and disillusionment at the adult world. Through the mind of the narrator and protagonist, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, we too observe our surroundings with increasing distaste and disenchantment.
I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I haven’t stopped reading it since. I don’t think I could have picked it up at a more appropriate time. When I began to identify with the bleakness of Holden’s musings, it felt somehow significant. The somewhat polarising nature of the novel, it seems, comes from the fact that you’ll either identify with Holden, or you won’t.
Holden is not a child but not yet a grown-up either. This is a period of time that everyone has experienced and to an extent, never stops experiencing. For me, that’s what makes Holden’s story memorable. It follows his rather spontaneous (and often drunken) escapades over the course of three days, after he’s expelled from his boarding school. His observations and perceptions expose the banality of the real world, and of adult life, serving as a very astute commentary on the ‘phony’ nature of everyday human affairs. I especially enjoy the stream of consciousness style of fiction, but even for those who don’t, this novel isn’t short of dialogue or action. There’s an awkward incident with a prostitute, a confrontation with a pimp, and several other bizarre encounters through Holden’s erratic exploits. The pervading feelings of alienation and isolation, rather than making Catcher a depressing read, force us to see the astonishing beauty in moments of innocence:
I felt so happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.
Here, Holden describes his joy at seeing his little sister going around on a carousel. That’s another thing about Catcher in the Rye: it ‘cuts the crap’, for lack of a better expression. Written in the teenage colloquial speech of the time, it allows us as readers to fully engage with Holden’s thought processes and sympathise with his impressions of the world surrounding him. We are cocooned in his disgust for corruption, and there is a certain comfort to be found in the loneliness of his ventures.
Holden’s attitude remains unchanged at the story’s end, differentiating the novel from other young adult fiction. If there is an overriding message to be understood, it is vague and unclear. But again – this is what makes the book so special. I was thoroughly content at the ending, and was grateful for the lack of dramatic character epiphanies or revelations. There’s no ‘Hollywood-like’ element to the story (Holden by his own admission hates Hollywood), and no real purpose to his adventures. It is simply an account of something that happened to a lonely teenage boy, at a lonely time in his life.