The Catcher in the Rye is a novel I think will always be relatable. Through the mind of the narrator and protagonist, seventeen-year-old Holden Caulfield, we too begin to observe our surroundings with increasing disenchantment and disillusionment. We are, along with Holden, in total despair of the adult world.
I first read this when I was eighteen or nineteen, and, being of an angsty age, it felt somehow significant when I began to identify with the bleakness of Holden’s musings. The 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, the novel isn’t short of dialogue or humour. There’s an awkward incident with a prostitute, a confrontation with a pimp, and several other bizarre encounters through Holden’s erratic exploits. The atmosphere 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’s written in in the teenage colloquial speech of the time, and allows us as readers to fully engage with Holden’s thought processes and identify 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 sets the book apart. There are no dramatic character epiphanies or revelations. There is no Hollywoodesque element to the story (Holden by his own admission hates Hollywood), and no real purpose to our hero’s adventures. It is simply an account of something that happened to a lonely teenage boy.