Tackling Tomes: Catcher in the Rye

Jasmine Xie ‘16, Senior Columnist

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There he stood, a thin silhouette topped off with an outrageous red hunting hat, against the hurling winds of New York City. It’s a romantic image: a diminutive young man taking on the big wide world with little more than dreams of protecting the innocent and fending off the corrupt. But then he opens his mouth:

“I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father… Sometimes I act a lot older than I am—I really do—but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

With his vapid cynicism and incessant hypocrisy, Holden Caulfield plays the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The novel has been a staple of the Honors American Literature summer reading list for years.

While this year’s Tackling Tomes series strives to make it a point to read pieces of literature sans SparkNotes, I have had the pleasure of reading Salinger’s magnum opus three times cover to cover, all prior to discovering the beauty of online literary study guides. My first time was in the 8th grade for pleasure (and inflation of my middle school ego), my second for a Hero research paper in Mr. Minicozzi’s English 9 class, and my third for the mandatory sophomore summer reading. Contrary to the adage of all good things coming in threes, however, I found that my third read was enough for me to put down the book for good.

But just because I never wish to lay eyes on that scarlet carousel cover ever again doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate my three experiences with the paperback. My first two times were voluntary and even enjoyable. Back in eighth grade, I knew that the book was a classic and thought it would sound impressive for a middle school reading repertoire. I ended up finding the story fascinating.

Despite being a classic, The Catcher in the Rye was more engaging and easier to understand than most. Holden’s language was simple and easy to understand—even for an eighth grader—and his adventures in New York City contained nothing too convoluted. I had also never met a protagonist quite like him: pitiful, naive, despicable, hypocritical, and profound, all at the same time.

Holden is an absolute failure in every respect of the word—unable to stand up to bullies, a dropout from two boarding schools, and an irrational thinker who worried more about ducks than about catching pneumonia in the dead of winter. Yet his cause of preserving the innocence that was all too rare in the bleak streets of New York is both noble and romantic. Meandering through the city in search of anyone who would listen, Holden speaks about his dreams of becoming a supposed “catcher” in a rye field of children. He would grab those that teetered near the abyss, keeping them in the bucolic field of innocence and from the void of corruption.

But then came a reality check. Out of money and old friends patient enough to sit through his banter, Holden finds his little sister, Phoebe. He complains to her about the endless list of phonies in his life and how they all fail to understand his nonsensical ideas. So Phoebe, the ten-year-old in the blue coat, straight up schools him (for the lack of a better term). She accuses Holden of “not liking anything that’s happening” and judging everyone else while he himself is the problem.

During my third read-through, I found the ten-year-old sister to be a breath of fresh air. While I withstood Holden’s cynicism before, something about the third time made me fly into a rage every time he began pointing fingers and whining about “phoniness.” First: the only action he ever took was moving his mouth to the sound of endless criticism and accusation. Second: his best and only diss was calling someone a “phony.” Ten times per page is probably an underestimate.

Annie Zhao ‘18 expressed a similar sentiment: “I found the whole premise of the book a bit strange. Even though Holden was so set on combatting corruption, he isolated himself from the society that he was supposed to be trying to save. In the end, I found the plot dull, as everything was told in the perspective of one very passive person.”

In short, The Catcher in the Rye is worth the read. It contains profound themes that are presented through a very unique perspective. And who knows – the fourth time may be the charm as I approach Holden warily once again.

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