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Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)

Criticized by the press – still beloved by many readers

Seminararbeit 2010 16 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur



1 Introduction

2 Holden - not everybody’s darling

3 Innocence, “phonies” and running away - major themes and symbols in The Catcher In The Rye
3.1 Holden, lost in a world full of ―phonies
3.2 Holden, the runaway
3.3 Mortality and the fear of disappearing
3.4 Holden and the role of sex
3.5 Innocence and being the catcher in the rye

4 There is a little “Holden” in all of us

5 Bibliography
5.1 Primary Sources:
5.2 Secondary Sources:

1 Introduction

Ever since the publication of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, there were controversial discussions and numerous debates about the story of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield. Even so the book is often considered as a classic in literature, it can still be found among the list of banned books in many American classrooms, libraries or bookstores. Due to its usage of vulgar and offensive language, as well as the illustration of a rebellious teenage character, who indulges underage drinking, smoking, and promiscuity; the novel was often considered as too pessimistic and too obscene for young Americans on their way from adolescence to adulthood (qtd. in Lomazoff). Others, on the contrary, argue that Holden’s rebellious behavior against the American society of the 1950’s exactly represents an entire generation of American youngsters, which was later defined as the ―Beat Generation.

Although the book already celebrated its fiftieth birthday in 2001, the story of Holden Caulfield still enjoys great popularity among youngsters all over the world. Up to this date, youths are still identifying themselves with the sixteen-year-old protagonist. Holden’s rebellion against the ―phony adults, as he describes them throughout the novel, his first experiences with love, his strive for freedom and his struggle of finding an identity and a place in society, are mainly the key features adolescents can relate to. Unfortunately, the press and numerous critics cannot share the fascination of many youngsters. Down to the present day, most critics are rather interested in Holden’s mental state and his ―misbehaving in society, than in trying to understand the impact that he had and still has on youngsters. Most essays and articles that had been released about the protagonist’s characteristics deal with the analysis of his mental ―illness, his depression and nervous breakdown. Indeed, many analysts and newspaper journalists assign reasons for Holden’s behavior by arguing that he acts and behaves in such a rebellious way, because he’s just in the throes of the puzzling process of growing up. As if this was not enough, they also refer to him as an ―unregenerate whiner, being ―as phony as those he criticize[s] (Yardley para. 2). Clearly, teenager years are considered to be the most confusing and disturbing time a young person has to go through on the way to adulthood. However, considering that Holden’s crisis is just the result of being a frustrated teenager does not seem to be the most appropriate way when truly trying to understand what touches, motivates or frustrates Holden.

However, numerous youths seem to like Holden for exactly those reasons. They can relate to such a ―madman (1) that Holden represents, they admire him for what he does and how he’s presenting his story. And numbers do not lie - The Catcher in the Rye was sold over 60 million times throughout the years and can still be found on various best selling lists, such as the USA TODAY Best- Selling Books List, where it is still ranking at No. 431. Considering those facts, there has to be something about Salinger’s story that still appeals to today’s teenagers and that critics, up to this date, fail to see.

Assuming that Holden is probably the teenager that has been psychoanalyst more times than any other person his age; it will, therefore, not be part of this paper to introduce another analysis of the youngster’s mental state. Instead of labeling Holden as a teenage maniac, who is out of control and hardly sociable, the text will rather have a look at different critical opinions about Holden, the reason why Holden is still beloved by so many and finally find reasons why youngsters can still identify themselves with Holden Caulfield by looking at major themes the book contains.

2 Holden - not everybody’s darling

― All morons hate it when you call them a moron.
- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 6
― People always write how they like the book, but out of all the books I've read, I don't think it would come anywhere in my tops. In fact, I think it is somewhere near the bottom.
- comment of a reader, Oct. 20052

Talking about The Catcher in the Rye means almost ever getting confronted with a huge amount of critical essays and analyses that had been released over the past years. Ever since the book was published, the novel’s protagonist, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, has served as a target for many critics. Besides the ―goddam swear words that Holden uses constantly and the fear among critics that the novel might be too offensive for youngsters, it is the character’s morally questionable behavior, his self-destructive attitude, his psychological struggles and his non-conformism Salinger had to take a lot of flak for (Lomazoff).

Furthermore, Holden’s subtle critique towards the phoniness of the adult world, his straightforward talking about sex and his ―I-don’t-give-a-damn- attitude made people not only worry, but also caused the novel’s banning from many classrooms throughout America. Certainly, writing a story about a youngster would have been totally okay, if only there wasn’t an author, who was having a fancy for a teenage male character that was constantly using obscene language and rebelled against the norms of society wherever he had the possibility to. In his review ―Holden Caulfield and the Risk of Education Longenecker remarks with much apropos:

“I remember my English teacher telling us not to tell our parents we were reading this book. Pretty risky and risqué stuff and we felt daring and dangerous. With it’s (sic) inner city encounters and rebellious attitude it's still a dangerous and daring book.” (para. 1)

Even though using swear-words in a story and having a character that acts a little crazy from time to time is nothing that should bother today’s society too much, there are still voices that cannot cope with Holden Caulfield. Since obscene language cannot serve as a reproach in a modern society like the one we live in, that uses slang and such words as ―moron regularly; critics are now into criticizing Holden’s and Salinger’s way of presenting the story. For instance, James Stern, a reviewer of The New York Times, criticized Holden’s way of telling the story, by futilely adopting his style of speech:

“This book, though, it’s too long. Gets kind of monotonous. And he [Salinger] should have cut out a lot about these jerks and all that crumby school. They depress me. They really do“(5).

Moreover, in his review Stern claims that Salinger’s novel is not only too long, but also too depressing and therefore not of ―any redeeming value to the reader (qtd. in Lomazoff).

Apart from the book’s style, today’s critics claim that Holden’s story lost a lot of its attraction and meaning for youngsters over the years. In her article ―Get a Life, Holden Caulfield New York Times reviewer Jennifer Schuessler criticized Salinger’s young protagonist for ―losing his grip on the kids (para. 2). According to her opinion, today’s youngsters are much more attracted by a ―wide- eyed, quidditch-playing Harry Potter of Hogwarts than by the smirking manager of Pencey’s fencing team (who was lame enough to lose the team’s equipment on the subway, after all) (para. 10). Since our society offers so much more for kids than riding a carousel in Central Park, visiting the Wicker Bar, or prostitutes that come up to one’s hotel room, it seems that some teens are no longer interested in the worries of an even-aged boy out of the 50’s (Schuessler para. 12). As Schuessler remarks: ―Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry — not the beautiful losers who reject it (para. 10).

― I love this book and don’t see how a person in this universe couldn’t enjoy this book. It was an amazing novel.
- Tiffany, 20043

But yet, in a world full of Harry Potter fans there are still numerous people that would choose Holden’s story over Harry’s adventures. Aside from the fact that Harry Potter was an enormous bestseller all over the globe as well, Holden benefits from his authenticity and his uniqueness up to this date. Relating to a teenager that struggles with school, has a hard time finding his own identity, is sometimes frustrated or insecure and acts a little crazy; seems to be much easier for numerous youngsters than relating to an underage wizard who’s fighting evil forces with a magic stick that is 10 ¼ inches long. Captious critics may claim that kids are sick of a ―hero that cannot cope with his life and his endlessly searching for identity and, therefore, rather want a hero like Harry that at least manages to solve any problem towards the end of the book. And this is where characters like Holden might get a second chance. Some kids are simply tired of all the shining heroes that master every adventure and have a solution for every single problem that occurs. They rather long for characters they can relate to, that struggle with everyday problems like they do, but still stick out with a unique personality. Colette Bancroft noted in one of her blogs:

“One of the most powerful motivations for my lifelong love of reading has been the experience of entering the lives of characters, likable and not, who are nothing like me. In fact, characters whose lives are too much like mine bore me to tears“(para. 7).

These are exactly the features Holden unifies. Although he represents a teenager that could have been any one of us, he still sticks out with his own charm and his unusual and entertaining view of the world. Therefore, Holden is a truly interesting and a much more tangible person than any Harry Potter in the world could be. Arguments that Salinger’s book might be out of date are, indeed, comprehensible, if one keeps in mind that it was written 60 years ago and society changed considerably since then; but in a world full of Facebook and instant messaging programs that enable our kids to connect all over the globe, there are still youngsters that feel alone or abandoned, exactly the same way Holden does (Montgomery para. 7). Nick Guarcello, 14, says: "A lot of the stuff [Salinger] wrote about in that novel is still around today and still happens (qtd. in Montgomery para. 7).

What made it possible for Salinger’s novel to establish such a good reputation over the years was, apart from Holden’s unique outlook on life that reflects relevant issues of youngsters, the author’s thoughtful and sympathetic illustration of a teenage character that allows the reader to have an insight into both adolescence and adulthood (Lomazoff). Chicago Tribune reviewer Paul Engle praised the story for being "emotional without being sentimental, dramatic without being melodramatic and honest without simply being obscene" (3). He also stated that it is the way the story was written, using the ―voice of a typical teenager without ever being ―childish that was essential for the success of the novel among teenagers.

Furthermore, when reading The Catcher in the Rye, it is Holden’s honesty with the reader what teenager’s admire, what entertains them and what turns Holden into such a likeable figure. Critics, however, still fail to see it. In fact, Holden is never really dishonest with the reader; he is just fooling some of the other characters within the book. Indeed, he warns his readers right away that he is sometimes a ―madman (1) and that he is ―the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life (16). And even for critics who constantly refer to the protagonist as dishonest, Holden has something to offer. What the youngster simply does is telling his story for those who ―REALLY want to hear about it (1). Holden, therefore, leaves the reader with a choice: to read the story that will certainly not contain any ―David Copperfield kind of crap (1), because he does not ―feel like going into it (1); or simply not read the story. If one decides to dive into Holden’s world, then one must accept Holden’s rules.


1For more information about the ranking, please visit: catcher-in-the-rye.htm




ISBN (eBook)
920 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena
salinger’s holden caulfield catcher rye) criticized



Titel: Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)