Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Fiction Review: The Catcher in the Rye

The last time I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, I was about 16 years old (I think I read it on my own, not for school). I decided to re-read it in honor of Banned Books Week, since I didn’t remember much about it. I’m so glad I did! I really enjoyed it and devoured the novel in just a couple of days.

Holden Caulfield is a boy in his late teens who has been kicked out of his private boarding school at the start of the novel. This is not a new experience for Holden, who is often criticized for not “applying himself.” Holden is clearly depressed and visits his favorite teacher to say goodbye before leaving, but his visit is unsatisfactory. During an evening spent in his dorm, the reader sees Holden interacting with his roommate and other peers before he decides abruptly to head back to New York City a few days early, before he is due at his parents’ house for the holiday break.

Much of the novel follows Holden’s escapades in New York, as he kills time postponing the day when he has to face his parents and his latest expulsion. He wanders the city, meets up with old friends, smokes a lot of cigarettes and drinks way too much alcohol. But he’s not partying it up in a happy, rambunctious way; rather, he is trying to work through his complicated feelings about school and life and dreaming of running away to live in a cabin in the woods where he wouldn’t have to deal with all “the phonies.”

Superficially, it would be easy to write Holden off as a rebellious teen sowing his wild oats. I’ve even heard critics refer to Holden as a spoiled rich kid. But what struck me with this new reading of The Catcher in the Rye, as an adult, was the pain and loss that lie just beneath Holden’s cool exterior. Soon, it becomes clear what the root of his depression is, and that loss makes his actions far more understandable.

In addition, in spite of his coarseness, I had to admire Holden’s impatience with “phonies,” a common theme in his frequent internal rants. His kindness also shines through his rough outer shell, toward fellow students who’ve been mistreated and also his obvious love for his siblings. In all, Holden’s pain touched me.

It is true that this story captures a sort of classic portrait of teenage angst, but I thought there was much more to it than that. Holden’s own unique losses and pain make this novel a complex depiction of one particular teen’s own life – and yes, angst – filled with emotional depth. I thoroughly enjoyed my short time in Holden’s head and was pleased by the hint of hope at the end that – as for most teens – better times are ahead.

214 pages, Little, Brown & Company
(I read an old copy of the novel that was my husband’s – I also still have the copy my mother read in high school!)

Why Has It been Challenged and Banned?
Oh, that’s an easy one. Just read a few pages, and you’ll see! The novel is completely narrated by Holden himself, filled with profanity (which is still the way many teens really do talk!) and very honest in its depiction of real life, including ruminations on sex, plus plenty of alcohol and smoking. It has come up again and again on Banned Books lists over the decades, often in the top 10 or 20.


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