Theme And Character: Jd Salinger Essay, Research Paper
Theme and Character
Since the beginning of time there have been billions of books written. From those books have come novels. From the novels have come masterpieces. From the masterpieces have come critically acclaimed titles. From those critically acclaimed titles have come classics. Classics represent the highest acknowledged standard of writing. The ingenuity of their literary elements is impeccable. A classic will inspire, intrigue, enlighten, and more importantly draw the reader into the world of the author. J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye provides an intimate glimpse into his life at the time of the story. The story portrays Holden Caulfield’s trip to New York for three days, alone, at the age of sixteen. In essence, Holden Caulfield is J. D. Salinger whose peerless examples of mirrored characterization provide this glance. The purpose of this paper is to compare and evaluate literary criticisms pertaining to the theme and character of The Catcher In The Rye.
Of the two literary elements open for criticism, theme is the least discussed, but most clearly delineated component. The critics agree on the single underlying theme found in The Catcher In The Rye. First, Mollie Sandock feels that the theme is Holden Caulfield’s coming to terms with his inability to save his sister from ” ‘falling over the cliff’ into the adult world, so much of which disgusts him” (Sandock 621). A second critic states that the theme of the novel is Holden’s coming to terms with his inability to save all of the children from tumbling over the edge (French 515). For this classic,
minimal discussion was able to convey the clarity of the theme for The Catcher In The Rye.
The Catcher In The Rye certifies Sandock’s and French’s observations on the theme. Sandock and French are accurate in saying that the theme of the classic is Holden Caulfield’s coming to terms with being unable to save his sister, Phoebe, or all the children, from “falling over the cliff.” The base of validation of the theme is, “When I was coming out of the can, right before I got to the door, I sort of passed out. I was lucky, though. I mean I could’ve killed myself when I hit the floor, but all I did was sort of land on my side, It was a funny thing, though. I felt better after I passed out. I really did” (204). This was Holden’s fall over the cliff. He is obviously unable to catch himself and has now crossed over into the adult world. Further substantiation of Holden’s fall follows when he encounters Phoebe after leaving the bathroom. Phoebe requests permission to travel west with him. With that, Holden grabs Phoebe hard and tells her to shut up. In reply, Phoebe tells Holden to shut up. An enraged Phoebe then runs across the street, leaving Holden alone on the other side (206-208). The street embodies the separation that has now formed between the child, Phoebe, and the young adult, Holden. The last verifier of the theme is, “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them” (211). This is where Holden can be seen speaking from a new perspective. He has become an adult
and now understands that kids must be allowed to have certain experiences in order to learn. When Holden chooses not to prevent Phoebe from reaching for
the gold ring he has, in effect, relinquished his desire to be a catcher in the rye. For this reason, Holden’s coming to terms with his inability to save all the kids, or even Phoebe, is the theme supported by this classic.
Character is the major component of The Catcher In The Rye. In this case the critics possess different viewpoints of Holden Caulfield. First, Thomas Taylor feels that Holden Caulfield’s telling of the story brings forth a feeling of him being the only character present in the novel. Outside facts about Caulfield’s being are not even once as urgent as the complete vision exposed by the character’s personal ideas about the “phony” planet on which he resides. The recognizable trait of recognizing fakes has earned the character a unique position in writing (260). Second, Sandock observes that Holden senses a “scathing, harrowing disgust” about the “phonies” who seem to make Holden feel that he is being suffocated by them. He is “disgusted with the lack of sincerity and the advertisement of phonies, hot shots, jerks, bastards and morons” less than he is disgusted with the “phoniness that is excellence corrupted” (620). Lastly, Lundquist adds a final perspective of Holden Caulfield by saying, “The way (he) sees the world is stated in the novel’s most famous line, ‘If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “*censored* you” signs in the world’ ” (519). Therefore it can be seen that Holden Caulfield’s character is the major component in The Catcher In The Rye.
This classic supports Taylor’s, Sandock’s and Lundquists’s perspectives on Holden Caulfield’s character. Taylor’s observation that Holden possesses a
unique ability to detect “phonies” is substantiated in The Catcher In The Rye. In this classic Holden Caulfield quickly discovers that Pencey Prep, the private boy’s school he attends, is phony. Pencey Prep claims that it molds the youth. However, Holden knows differently. “They don’t do any more damn molding at Pencey than they do at any other school,” comments Caulfield after explaining Pencey’s magazine ads. Pencey’s advertisements featured a “hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did a Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place” (2). Another example in support of Caulfield’s recognition of “phonies” occurs when Holden is at a night club. The club’s piano player is adding difficult patterns to his music. Holden can sense that the piano player has played for so long that the player does not even know when he plays well. When the piano player concluded his presentation he gave a “very phony, humble bow. Like as if he was a helluva humble guy, besides being a terrific piano player. It was very phony-I mean him being such a snob and all” (84). Next, the classic confirms Sandock’s perspective that Holden feels he is being suffocated by “phonies.” Support for this observation occurs when Holden is on a date with Sally. During his date, a guy tries to steal Sally. “His name was George something-I don’t even remember-and he went to Andover….He was the kind of a phony that have to give themselves room when they answer somebody’s question….The worst part was, the jerk had one of those very phony, Ivy League voices, one of those very tired, snobby voices. He sounded just like a girl. He didn’t hesitate to horn in on my date, the bastard” (127-128). Plethoric support of Holden’s suffocation by phonies is demonstrated when he
tells Phoebe the reason he hates Pencey Prep. The rationalism that Holden gives is that there were so many phonies to live with during the school year it
had been the worst school he had ever attended. The “phonies” included both students and teachers (167-168). Finally, The Catcher In The Rye supports Lundquist’s perspective that Holden Caulfield’s view of the world is found in the classic’s most famous line, “If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘*censored* you’ signs in the world’ (202). This statement clearly shows that in Holden’s view
There is no placid and pleasant place left in the world.
That’s The whole trouble. You can’t find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. Try it sometime. I think, even, if I ever die, and they stick me in a cemetery, and I have a tombstone and all, it’ll say “Holden Caulfield” on it and then what year I was born and what year I died, and then right under that it’ll say “Fuck you.” I’m positive, in fact (204)
This classic thoroughly, corroborates the viewpoints of Holden Caulfield, the character in The Catcher In The Rye.
In conclusion, the ingenuity of J. D. Salinger’s theme and character in The Catcher In The Rye intrigues, enlightens, inspires and draws the reader into the world of the author. The single theme presented requires the reader to think in order to extract it from the novel’s many events. The character, Holden Caulfield, is a mirrored projection of J. D. Salinger. Caulfield allows the reader a glimpse at Salinger’s reclusive life. “Every student of mine who has read
Catcher In The Rye (which includes those of low, average, and high intelligence) has readily identified himself with its hero, Holden Caulfield. They see in him, not the ideal young man, but a young man in search of himself, in search of his place in the human scheme of things, and in conflict with the narrowness of the society in which he lives. Students come away from the book with a better understanding of themselves and with a deeper penetration into American life” (Alley 16-17). If a book is capable of these things, if it has the ability to intrigue, inspire, enlighten, pull the reader into the world of the author, provide a glimpse of a recluse’s life, and unveil a better understanding of one’s self, the book is no longer solely a book, a novel, a masterpiece, or a critically acclaimed title. It has earned the honor and prestige of being labeled a classic.
Alley, Alvin D. “Alvin D. Alley.” Holden Caulfield. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
French, Warren. “The Catcher In The Rye.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1980.
Lundquist, James. “The Catcher In The Rye.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale Research Compaby. 1980.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher In The Rye. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1986.
Sandock, Mollie. “Catcher In The Rye.” Reference to American Literature.
Ed. D.L. Kerkpatrick. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1982.
Taylor, Thomas J. “The Catcher In The Rye” American Fiction Series. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1986.