Catcher in the Rye
By J. D. Salinger
“Catcher in the Rye” is a classic and required reading in many schools. It not a classic because it is a simple tale of three days in the life of a sixteen year old adolescent struggling, as most adolescents do, with how they can and should relate to the world and their feelings that much that they see and hear is phony. Nor does is reveal why more than three disturbed individuals claimed that the book shows why they killed or tried to kill people – at best we can say that these sociopaths scanned the book superficially and supposed that it expressed their alienation from the world. Nor is the book significant because it describes J. D. Salinger’s opinion about the world, his social criticisms, and why he, Salinger, secluded himself from the world. It is more than these things. The book is a classic because it is filled with symbols that can reveal insights: a careful reading discloses that everyone of Holden’s ranting, every event, and every person in the book has significant meaning.
Salinger gave the book a strange title. Therefore it is important to note that Holden does not remember the correct wording of the poem “Gin (meaning, if or should) a body meet a body comin’ thro’ the rye.” He substitutes “catch” instead of “meet.” The poem, composed in 1782 by Robert Burns, was filled with sexual imagery. But Holden tells readers that he pictures children playing in a field of rye grain dangerously near a cliff, and he stands near the end of the field to “catch” them when they start to fall over the cliff.
Holden may be seeing himself as a savior of young people like himself who are disillusioned with society. Yet, he doesn’t reveal how he will save them and he is unable to save himself from being disillusioned. Additionally, while he deletes the word “meet,” he is able to meet people and engage with them in a friendly fashion, but his meetings miss something important, and we need to decide what these items mean.
The imagery of “catching” is emphasized by the repeated mention of Holden’s brother’s catcher’s mitt that is so important to Holden that he takes it with him to school. Again, Salinger wisely leaves it to his readers to think and decide the meaning of this mitt and its connection to Holden’s view of himself as a catching savior of children.
Salinger also leaves it to readers to analyze what is bothering Holden, what is the significance of each of his three day experiences, such as his inability to have sex, is this a metaphor and if so what is it saying? Why doesn’t Holden fight when he is hit twice in the novel? What does his red hat signify; is it important that the color red is the color of his dead brother’s hair, a brother he loved so much? Is Holden intelligent, why despite his ability to write compositions his teachers praised he does not want to study, why was he kicked out of several schools? Why does he react well with people even though he thinks they are phony What is his true views about religion even though he mocks it, what does his reactions to two nuns reveal about religion? Should we be appalled by his obscenities, why does he use them, what are the sophisticated ideas in his ramblings? What is the significance of Holden’s brothers and sister, his father and mother, his girlfriends Jane and Sally, the schools he attended and his teachers, and why is the novel set in New York, and why in the winter.
Is he deteriorating into a mental breakdown, will he fully or partially recover from it; will he always be alienated from society? Salinger left this last significant point vague. Should we say that Salinger is suggesting that Holden could never become reconciled to society just as Salinger apparently never did and secluded himself? Why couldn’t Holden and Salinger adapt to society? What do all these and other things in the novel tell us about Holden, about Salinger, about people and society, and about ourselves?
In short, this book is a classic because it has so much in it and causes readers to ask and seek answers to many questions. The Argentinean novelist Jorge Borges wrote that great literature contains obscurities and ambiguities so that two people can write the book, the writer and the reader. This is why “Catcher in the Rye” is a very good book.