Catcher revisited

In the aftermath of J. D. Salinger’s death, Robert Segal looks again at the novel that made his reputation, and asks whether it is relevant today

February 8, 2010

In Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, J.?D. Salinger seemingly captures the viewpoint of sensitive teenagers everywhere: idealistic, hopelessly sincere, contemptuous of the hypocrisy of society, desperate for purpose in life and wholly misunderstood by adults.

The book prompts two questions. First and foremost: does Catcher really characterise its subject so positively? Second: does it still capture teenage life?

Compare Holden, who is 16 at the start of the novel, with the 17-year-old subject of the 1955 movie Rebel without a Cause, Jim Stark. The movie was inspired by Rebel without a Cause: The Story of a Criminal Psychopath, a 1944 book by Robert Lindner, a psychiatrist. Salinger never allowed Catcher (1951) to be adapted for cinema.

Like Holden, Jim is wary of the adult world. But unlike Holden, Jim, portrayed by James Dean, really is idealistic, sincere and egregiously misunderstood. Both his parents and the police are too obtuse to see juvenile delinquency as a symptom. Jim cries out for understanding. Compared with Holden, he is a stick figure.

Jim’s problems stem from his family, not from society. He has a stereotypically weak father, played superbly by Jim Backus. Jim Stark does not need therapy: he needs a strong father, and his father finally vows to become one. The ending is embarrassingly upbeat.

Holden’s problems likewise stem from his family. The death from leukaemia of his younger brother, Allie, has rendered the whole family “dysfunctional”. Idealised older brother D.?B. has responded by escaping to Hollywood to write scripts. His parents do not know how to help Holden, who has just been kicked out of his fourth private school. The most stable member of the family is his clear-sighted kid sister, Phoebe. The novel has no happy or even certain ending. Holden has apparently been institutionalised after an actual or threatened suicide attempt. The first-person story is for his psychiatrist.

Catcher in the Rye might seem closer to John Knowles’ 1959 novel, A Separate Peace. It, too, is about a 16-year-old boy at a private school. In contrast to Catcher, there is a context: the Second World War. The story is told by Gene, returning to his school after 15 years to find that nothing, least of all him, has changed. Gene recounts his friendship with Finny, the school hero whom he at once idolised and resented. Unlike Jim, Gene is no misunderstood angel.

Far from facing eviction from school for failing grades, Gene is at the top of his class. He worries about succeeding in life after school. Far from mistrusting authority like Holden, Gene worries whether he will be brave enough to serve in the army.

Like Holden, Gene has problems growing up, in his case involving his rivalry with Finny. Consciously or unconsciously, Gene causes Finny to fall off a tree and break a leg, thereby rendering him disabled and ending his aspirations for Olympic, if not military, glory. The initial injury leads eventually to Finny’s death. The proverbial subtext is Gene’s sexual attraction to Finny. Overtly, Holden reviles anything gay.

Catcher in the Rye might seem closest to Ordinary People, the 1976 novel by Judith Guest adapted to become the first movie directed by Robert Redford. The teenage subject, Conrad Jarrett, has just come home from a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. Like Holden, Conrad cannot cope with the death of a brother. Whereas Holden can scarcely blame himself for Allie’s death, Conrad blames himself for Buck’s: a storm arose while they were sailing, and Conrad managed to save only himself. Buck had been the “star” of the family. Beth, the mother, subsequently closes herself off emotionally from not only Conrad but also her husband, Calvin.

Previously, Calvin had been as obtuse as Mr Stark about his troubled son, but eventually father and son here, too, reconnect. Conrad becomes more independent than he would have had Buck lived. He, too, had worshipped Buck, much as Gene had Finny.

Ordinary People is written with compassion for Conrad, who learns that he is no more to blame for his brother’s death than for his mother’s coldness. Conrad is a victim of circumstances and in no way the culprit.

Catcher in the Rye is seemingly written with at least as much compassion for Holden, from whose viewpoint it is, after all, presented. But Holden’s story to his psychiatrist, while evincing vulnerability and despair, is surprisingly damning. Like Conrad, Holden is afraid to “feel” since the death of Allie. He observes people typically with contempt, rather than connecting with them. He idealises love, almost in the fashion of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Werther, and separates it from sexuality, which repels him.

Holden’s judgments of others prove to be as superficial as, for him, theirs are. He is as “phony” as everyone else. He sees himself as special, but this conceit is a defence. If he can learn to trust his psychiatrist, he may yet overcome his self-destructiveness and grow up. He needs to be willing to cross the rye himself.

Catcher in the Rye was pioneering in its acceptance of psychiatry, but it may seem dated for the same reason. Social problems are deemed to be psychological ones. Contemporary social categories such as race, gender and class barely appear. Holden has no money worries. He may even seem more spoiled than troubled, and his narrative too much about himself.

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