To some readers–both past and present–The Catcher in the Rye is a mishmash of unacceptable and irrelevant moments from a young kid who doesn’t know any better. He’s a runaway hooligan who doesn’t realize how lucky he is to be where he’s at—attending a prep school with every privilege that money can buy.
If that’s your opinion, I hope you look beneath the surface of The Catcher in the Rye. Perhaps you’ll see some surprises. And, even if your opinion is further validated, I hope you notice some ways this novel can touch each of us, stay with us, and inspire us to reach out to those troubled kids in our lives…
So, why is The Catcher in the Rye important? Here are a few ideas…
- Serious, life-altering disease/illness. Yes, you’ll say that his brother had leukemia, and that part of his life is long done and over. You may even say that he should move on with his life. But, I think we also have to realize that serious diseases like leukemia leave invisible scars on all of us (the patient, the family, friends–all of us). We can pretend that those scars don’t exist. And I hope we all move on with our lives, eventually. For now, please take a moment with me and grieve. He lost his brother. In some sense, he also lost his childhood. His life will never be the same, and he’s acting out.
- Hope. In The Catcher in the Rye, the main character’s name is “Holden”–which reminds me of “hold-on”… it s like the phrase we all like to tell each other in the most difficult (and trying) moments: “Hang in there.” He needs someone to tell him that: to reach out, to show him he’s not alone, and to demonstrate that not everyone is damaged by the adult phoniness.
- Dreams. Holden doesn’t like museums because he believes those places are filled with false hopes and dreams. What a bitter reality for us all to face… He’s a 16-year-old boy, and already all his dreams for the future has been destroyed. Yes, we could point to depression and hormonal imbalance. We could even say that the alcohol, survivor’s guilt, and other angst-ridden activities have driven him to dismiss any thought of dreaming. But, he still holds out some hope for the innocence of other kids… that they won’t be ruined, destroyed as the train wreck of adulthood spirals them forward.
- Outsiders. One of the reasons that teenagers have appreciated The Catcher in the Rye over the years is because of Holden’s outsider status. He doesn’t belong anywhere. He’s in the no-man’s-land–between teenhood and adulthood. But critics have also questioned whether he matures at all. Would we expect him to suddenly show signs of being a full-fledged adult after his brief journey around town and many musings? Like Huck Finn, he’d determined to go West, but he never follows that dream (in fact, when his sister wants to join him, he nixes the idea).
- First-and-Last. The novel was the only book we know to have been written by J.D. Salinger (though there are many rumors that other works exist). What does that mean for the novel’s importance? We can’t compare it with other novels–for good and bad. It stands on its own. It also takes on a life of its own as we imagine what stories Salinger might have imagined for Holden: growing up, healing, developing relationships, and even (perhaps) having his children. How would his view of life, the universe and everything have altered with age? Or would Salinger have given us other (completely different) characters to know (and love or hate)?
- Controversy. The novel has been challenged, involved a firing (a teacher lost his job for assigning the book in 1960), and been removed from book lists across the US. The book has also been listed in top book lists for the 20th century, has inspired famous persons (like George H. W. Bush) to call it “a marvelous book,” and it has been called “a defining book.” Despite all its fame and controversy, it remains one of those books that stays with me. It has grown with me, taking on new significance over the years.
- Healing. A novel is a way to communicate, a way for Holden to reach outside of his own fears, doubts and disillusionment. At the end of the novel, we don’t know if he’s “better. But, he makes reference to living in a sanatorium, that he’s going to school in September, and that he misses some of his former cohorts. Perhaps his journey of words is also a part of his healing process.
How do you see the novel? Is it important to you?