An Evaluation of The Catcher in the Rye
Despite some opinions to the contrary, The Catcher in the Rye is a good novel. It is written from the point of view of a deeply distrubed sixteen-year-old boy, Holden Caulfield, as though Holden were talking to us, the readers, directly. Throughout the novel this point of view is consistently maintained, and we believe in Holden as a realistic portrait of certain type of adolescent. Technically perfect as the novel is in this respect, however it would have only a surface beauty if it were only technically perfect. For this reason the degree to which Holden's character is realized, together with the strength of Salinger's vision, is most vital in an evaluation of the novel.
Though it has been a few years since I was sixteen, I believe that Holden says and does what a sixteen-year-old with his background and in his circumstances would say and do. Holden is real. A good child, he finds himself faced with circumstances with which he cannot entirely cope. Jane Gallagher is a case in point. Holden has had a pleasant and innocent relationship with her, but when he learns that Stradlater has had a date with her, he senses that she might have been seduced, even though he claims that Stradlater would not "get to first base withher." I As a result he wants to drive this thought out of his mind. His responses to most of what happens in the story are similarly truthful.The ducks frozen out of the Central Park lagoon and the James Castle story are therefore morbid images which cling to his mind, since they symbolize to him the harshness of life. His attempts to become harsh himself--his language spiced with profanity, his experience with Sunny--all end in unhappiness. With a capacity for dreaming, Holden findsthat the world ends his dreams, or else that it provides him with dirty stuff to dream about. As a result he winds up in the hands of the "psychoanalyst guy." All his feelings are perfectly in accord with what an extremely sensitive boy would feel under these same circumstances. Salinger's portrayal of Holden is therefore "true" in the best sense.
Throughout Salinger's creation of Holden, I sense a profound pathos. Without question Salinger makes us deeply sorry for Holden's failures, and as a result we are left with little hope at the end when we learn that Holden does not know whether he is going to succeed at school. But his "little hope" makes us review the novel with an eye toward answering the question of whether the world in which Holden finds himself is really worth succeeding in on its own terms.
Here the ambiguity of Salinger's vision, and its force as he makes usstrongly involved with Holden, are brought home with incrediblevigor. If one only supposes that Holden is right--that children shouldbe kept playing in the rye, and by extension be kept from becoming adults like Maurice, to name only one bad example--then The Catcher in the Rye is a forceful protest against our own society. The "psycho-analyst guy" wants to make Holden "mature" enough to get along,but if being mature means being able to succeed with Sunny, or to bear the vision of Stradlater corrupting Jane, then maturity is callous and society's definition of maturity is wrong. I have been told that Salinger is interested in Zen Buddhism, which is associated with the saying to the effect that "a child is a guest in the house, to be loved and respected, since he belongs to God" (74). If this idea was in Salinger's mindwhen he wrote The Catcher in the Rye, this novel is a forceful and radical analysis of life. The idea that the child is right and the adultis wrong is fresh, invigorating, mysterious, and perhaps right.
The total effect of The Catcher in the Rye is that life is delicate and frail; since it can be so easily destroyed, it should be more carefully nourished. The author behind the idea has obviously thought deeply about life, and has done in this novel what we may expect of the best art--namely, to give a new and challenging insight into life. Right or wrong, insights of this sort cannot be ignored; nor can The Catcher in the Rye be ignored.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: New American Library, 1961.
Roberts, Edgar V. Writing Themes About Literature. Englewood Clifts, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964. 148-50.