Mar 10, 14
Read in December, 2007
I had been somewhat hesitant to read "The Catcher in the Rye" after snoozing through Salinger's "Nine Stories," but I'm glad I finally came around. This book is a work of genius.
The book is a "coming of age" tale, but it certainly transcends the adolescent garbage that fills up most of the genre. The protagonist is 16 year old Holden Caulfield - depressed, aimless, and disillusioned. The entire story covers just one December weekend in which he seeks to find direction in his life after flunking out of another prep school. As Caulfield contemplates his transition from adolescence to adulthood, he becomes disgusted with the utter "phoniness" of society and longs for the innocence of youth.
Where Salinger's masterpieces surpasses other notable coming of age novels such as "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man" and "This Side of Paradise" is in the treatment of social mores. Where these other novels offer a one-dimensional treatment of sexuality and religious apostasy as the sum-all of maturation, Salinger offers a more complicated, more realistic picture.
Caulfield's narrative certainly deals with sexuality, but he goes beyond the stock material of young man bucking sexual conventions. After first boasting about past sexual encounters, Caulfield admits he's actually a virgin. At an age in which sexual experience is a badge of honor for most young men, Caulfied decides that sex should be as much spiritual as physical and ought to be shared only with someone he really cares about. When his sexually experienced roommate goes out with an innocent childhood friend, Caulfield throws it down with the young man in protest against the perceived assault on innocence. Later, Caulfield accepts a prostitute into his room only to become depressed, pay the girl, and turn her out without accepting her services. The following day, Caulfield donates $10 to two humble nuns, the same amount paid to the whore the night before.
Salinger's treatment of religion is equally nuanced and equally honest. While claiming to be "practically an atheist," Caulfield also admits that he has a desire to pray. While disclaiming a belief in God, he occasionally asks what Christ would think about people's actions. In Caulfield's conflict, the reader sees a certain disgust with the phoniness of organized religion set against a sincere acceptance of Christ's actual message.
So while this book shares with other novels a contempt for societal mores, it is not a simple repudiation of religion in favor of unrestrained sexuality. Caulfield does reject most of the adult world he encounters as utterly "phony," but he does not follow the stock pattern laid down by earlier modernists. Caulfield questions it all, perhaps despising Hollywood above everything else.
So what does Caulfield accept after rejecting all of adult society? Childhood innocence. The only thing that makes this young man happy is spending time with children, his young sister most of all. Indeed, the section giving rise to the title of the work is a poignant plea for saving innocent children from the phoniness and corruption of the world.
So for all the past scandal about the profanity and sexuality in this work, there is much to be admired by the secularist and the Christian alike. That's difficult to do, but Salinger pulls it off marvelously. Though we can't all agree what influences in society are corrupting, I think most everyone can agree that there is initially some purity that is corrupted.