In defence of Holden Caulfield

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J,D,Salingers “The Catcher in the Rye” introduced the world to one of the most controversial narrators of all time. When it was first published the controversy was based around the content of the book being deemed inappropriate for young readers. In later years events like John Lennon’s assassination caused more problems as the killer, Mark David Chapman, claimed that the book had inspired him to carry out the attack. The book was banned from being taught in schools and was a taboo subject in the educational world of the time. Today, teenagers everywhere are introduced to Holden and his view on life. It seems that there is a clear split between those who find Holden to be a fascinating character who they will happily reread at different stages of their lives and those who find him to be whiny, self-centred, misogynistic and altogether annoying. For the people in the latter camp, this is in defence of Holden Caulfield.

I reread Catcher in the Rye and am always astounded by the new things I discover. I was 13 when I first encountered Holden and much of his character flew straight over my head. I enjoyed the book but missed out on huge amounts of subtext. The next time I read Catcher I was 17 and we were reading it for English A Levels. Most of my class thought Holden was pathetic and didn’t like him. I found an ally. School was a very difficult time for me and 17 year old Will was incredibly unhappy. I recognised parts of myself in Holden and while some of his more remarkable flaws had thankfully escaped me I could spot many similarities. Wanting to be treated like an adult and yet still being quite immature, being obsessed with women but having no idea how to actually talk or act around them and feeling like you were surrounded by people who had a shared language that you had somehow missed out on. These were the things I found in Holden Caulfield and why, out of all the books I had to read in school, Catcher remains on my book case.

I suppose that only really covers the outer shell of Holden but I wanted to say why, at 17, he meant a lot to me. Don’t get me wrong, I recognised the whiny and somewhat pathetic side of him but at that age I didn’t know enough, or hadn’t experienced enough, to figure out why. I reread Catcher this year and learnt a lot more. Holden carries serious scars that lie buried under his personality, driving his actions and his thoughts. The most obvious one is the death of his little brother but there are many more. One of his friends from school jumps out of a window after potentially being raped and does so wearing Holden’s clothes. Holden himself sees the body and one can only imagine the damage that would do to a person. There’s also the suggestion that Holden was molested himself which explain the scene when he freaks out to find his old teacher patting his head while he sleeps. Salinger left the scene fairly ambiguous for the reader but if Holden had experienced this in the past then his actions are fully justified. We know that his relationship with his parents is fraught and his history of expulsions and violence measure up to a deeply disturbed individual. Surely the behaviour we see is totally dependent on a young man trying desperately to find anyone or anything he can connect to?

I want to reread Catcher in another few years. Something tells me that I’ll discover something new. If you haven’t gone near Holden Caulfield in a few years then I’d really recommend giving him another try. Very few books grow with you through the years but your own rapidly growing understanding of life will change Catcher in the Rye each time you read it. Have a go and let me know how you get on.

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