Questioning a classic – The Catcher in the Rye

“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are the words of Holden Caulfield, perhaps one of the best known protagonists in American literature. They are also words that pretty well describe how I feel about this novel, which I read for the first time as a 41 year-old woman. My reactions to this book are a little bit confused and hard to explain; and, while the story grew on me in the second half, I never fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye.

So who am I to question the presupposed genius of this classic? Who am I to doubt its place in high school English classes across the country? Who am I to dare criticize an author as wrapped in mystique and reputation as J.D. Salinger?

I am a reader. I am humble enough to acknowledge that I probably don’t have much new information to add to a 60 year-old discourse, but I’m confident enough to declare that I don’t have to like a book just because it’s deemed a “classic.” So here I go.

Holden Caulfield is a deeply depressed, conceited young man on a 24-hour drinking, smoking and spending bender, unsupervised in New York City. His voice is “lousy” with criticisms of the “phonies” who surround him in boarding school and nightclubs, dismissive of anyone whose life doesn’t measure up to the unrealistic ideals he’s created and immature about relationships. These qualities may have been revolutionary in 1951 (and they may indeed still describe most 16 year-olds), but characters like Holden are now found everywhere, and in far more likable guises, in literature.

So, basically, I didn’t like him for most of the novel. I spend most of the book wondering why someone would want to write this particular character. That’s a problem.

But here’s where my confusion comes in. There were moments (too few and far between) that Salinger really touched my heart, when Holden seemed three-dimensional and painfully honest.

“That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never knew where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.”

And then, the middle-of-the-night scene in his sister Phoebe’s room is really genius. I found this book so much more engaging when we got out of Holden’s mind and into some dialogue and interaction. With Phoebe, we see Holden’s sensitive side. I finally started to like him, but the book was 75% done. It just took too long to get there.

I find it very difficult to grasp that in a few years my son will likely have to read this novel as the definitive “coming-of-age” novel of modern literature. It doesn’t feel in any way modern. I don’t think my sons will identify with Holden’s life. So if they come back to me with, “this book is so boring,” at least I’ll be able to relate.

I’m glad I read it, because I do think this book has influenced so many writers. I am willing to concede that I may just not get the point. Are the very things that bothered me the reasons it has stood the test of time? Maybe, but, in the words of my husband, “meh.”

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13 thoughts on “Questioning a classic – The Catcher in the Rye

  1. The one thing I always remember about Catcher is that Phoebe wears pajamas with red elephants on them. I think I remember that because I’m so fond of penguin pajamas myself and I recognized a kindred nightwear spirit in Phoebe? I don’t know. But I agree, her appearance is the best part of the book.

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  2. Catcher is one of the hardest novels I have taught. Students either love it, hate it or don’t get it. It isn’t my favorite, but it does have an effect on some things – like his journey to almost find himself. It is a tough one.

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  3. I’ve felt exactly the same way about a couple of different “classics.” There very few books out there that are truly timeless and yet, once the plaudits are earned, they keep getting repeated. Somewhat like the Emperor’s new clothes minus the greedy tailors.

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    • Maybe the greedy tailors are the original editors and critics? Some classics I love (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), but the choice in high school was this or Lord of the Flies, which I remember disliking.

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  4. Pingback: W…W…W…Wednesday « alenaslife

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