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Book #2: The Catcher in the Rye October 4, 2010

Posted by pittsburghmike in Uncategorized.

I have to admit, the first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, I thought Holden Caulfield was a dick. It was several years ago that I first read the book by J.D. Salinger, and I simply saw Holden as a self-righteous, pretentious rich kid that could get away with anything. This is the perfect example of how re-reading a book after years can completely change a reader’s experience.

Since I first read The Catcher in the Rye, I’ve experienced both loss and love in a way that only comes with age. I’m only 33 years old, so I’m not trying to sound like a great sage, but I’ve lost a close grandfather and a grandmother to whom I was very close but grew distant. I’ve witnessed my wife’s loss of her father at a young age and amazement as friends have brought new life into the world, include the little whirlwind that is my nephew.

Only now can I really understand that Holden Caulfield is not a teenage jackass, but just a boy that was never given the opportunity to grieve for his brother and was separated from his sister, the only other person that really cares about. But before I move further into my analysis of Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye’s protagonist, a quick plotline.

While I generally avoid Wikipedia’s plot overviews, the site’s review of The Catcher in the Rye is actually fairly well-written and complete. In general, teenager Holden Caulfield has failed out of yet another boarding school in New England. Rather than returning home to New York City at the end of term, he leaves on a train in the middle of the night, tramping about the city, even hiring a prostitute. But when the young prostitute arrives at his cheap hotel room, all Holden wants to do is talk.

The key to his adventure in the city is a visit to the Natural History Museum, where he notes that the exhibits never change. Here is where we really get a view into Holden’s damaged psyche, where we can get just a glimpse of the deep loss he feels from the death of his brother. Eventually Holden sneaks into his parents’ apartment to see his younger sister Phoebe, where he talks of his fantasy of being the “Catcher in the Rye,” protecting innocent children from falling off a cliff.

Holden eventually returns home to face-up to his parents, and in the finale, after skirting around what has happened, he admits he was sick and spent time in a mental hospital and is about to go to another boarding school.

I now see Holden Caulfield very differently; he’s no longer a flat, misbehaving character that dismisses everyone else. He is damaged and sad and misunderstood. The worst thing that could have been done after the death of his brother was separating him from Phoebe, and his repeated successful efforts to fail out of boarding schools is simply in order to return home. Holden feels that with the death of his brother, he lost his childhood, and by imagining himself the “catcher in the rye,” he can protect others from the loss he experienced.

First published in 1951 for adults, The Catcher in the Rye has become required reading in many high school English classes. Unfortunately, this is a prime example of youth being wasted on the young – without life experience similar to Caulfield’s, teenagers can’t truly grasp Holden’s emotional rollercoaster.

The Catcher in the Rye should be given to every parent just as their kid is entering puberty. Holden experiences emotional highs and lows, pushes the boundaries as far as he can but steps back before going too far, and in general, acts like the teenager he is. And for any parent that has lost a child, Holden Caulfield is a window into the mind of a teenager following the death of a sibling.

While I enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby, re-reading The Catcher in the Rye really opened a new window for me into the characters and how well Salinger captures Holden’s grief. I hope I can remember Holden’s pain and better empathize with those who lose a love one.

Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to the library this week, so I am jumping around the top 100 banned book list in order to read another two books I already have – Animal Farm by George Orwell (a key part of my education as a political science major in college) and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, home of one of the most noble characters in all of literature. I will be on the road the most of this week for work, so hopefully time in the evening will be available while hanging out in hotel rooms in Frostburg and York.



1. Barb - October 5, 2010

I have to admit that I loved Catcher when I read it in 10th grade. Then I hated it when I re-read it later in my 20s. For me Holden went from angsty, relateable teen to annoying, whiny pain. But I really like your insights into the loss at the center of the book.

When you are done with the 100, I would recommend you check out Salinger’s Franny & Zoey, which is in my top 10 favorite books of all time. It’s about faith. I think you might enjoy.

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