By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most influential American novels published in the mid-twentieth century. Upon its publication in 1951, J. D. Salinger’s only full-length novel became something of a cult, helping to inspire the Beat Generation and powerfully capturing a moment in American cultural history.
Salinger had worked on the manuscript for a number of years: he had drafts of The Catcher in the Rye in his backpack when he fought at D-Day in 1944.
But why did The Catcher in the Rye become such a cult classic, and why does it remain so widely revered and studied? Before we offer an analysis of the novel, here’s a brief recap of its plot.
The Catcher in the Rye: plot summary
The novel is narrated by sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, who has been expelled from his elite school, Pencey Prep, for not doing any work. He visits his history teacher, Mr Spencer, at his home where the teacher is unwell. However, Mr Spencer annoys Holden when he wants to go through the body’s mistakes so he can learn why he has failed.
Holden then goes back to his dorm room, where another student, Ackley, and Holden’s roommate Stradlater turn up. Holden learns that Stradlater has a date with a girl he had fallen in love with the previous year, but agrees to write an English composition for his roommate so Stradlater has his evening free to go on the date.
However, later that evening when Stradlater returns from his date, Holden grows jealous, and the two of them fight, with Holden losing.
Although he is supposed to remain at the boarding school until the end of term, Holden decides to take off immediately, travelling to New York on the train with the mother of one of his classmates; he entertains her (and himself) by making up outlandish stories about how popular her son is at school. Then he checks into a hotel in New York, because he wants to avoid going home and telling his parents he has been expelled.
He visits a nightclub, and, back at his hotel room, arranges for a prostitute named Sunny to come to his room. But when the virginal Holden reveals he just wants to talk to her, she leaves, returning with her pimp, who demands more money from him before attacking him, while Sunny takes money out of Holden’s wallet.
To cheer himself up the next day, Holden phones a girl he knows named Sally Hayes, and, even though he considers her a phoney, they arrange to see a play at the theatre. It is while he is on his way to meet Sally, while purchasing a record for his sister Phoebe, that Holden hears a boy singing ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’.
After the play, Holden and Sally go ice skating, but Holden scares Sally away by suggesting they go and live in the woods.
Next, Holden meets Carl Luce, an old schoolfriend, for a drink in a bar. Once again, Holden ends up annoying someone, this time by taking an unusual level of interest in Carl’s love life. Holden gets drunk and goes to Central Park, before going home to see Phoebe, avoiding alerting his parents to the fact he has returned. Phoebe works out that Holden is home because he’s been expelled from school, and Holden tells Phoebe his dream of being ‘the catcher in the rye’ (of which more below).
Holden escapes the family home when his parents arrive back at the house, and goes to visit another former teacher of his, Mr Antolini, who taught him English. Antolini is worried about Holden and, like Mr Spencer, wants Holden to focus and make something of himself. He does, however, let Holden stay the night, though things take a dark turn when Holden wakes up to discover Mr Antolini patting his head and interprets this as an inappropriate advance. He leaves, passing the rest of the night at Grand Central Station.
The next day, he decides to leave society and go and live in seclusion in a log cabin. When Phoebe hears of his plan, she wants to go with him, but Holden refuses to let her. He takes her to the zoo and buys her a ride on the carousel to make it up to her, and the two share a happy moment. The novel ends with Holden confiding to us that he has met with his parents and agreed to start at a new school in September. The brief holiday, the youthful rebellion, is over.
The Catcher in the Rye: analysis
The opening lines of the novel see Holden Caulfield, and Salinger through him, signalling a departure from and rejection of the kind of nineteenth-century Bildungsroman novel charting one young character’s journey from childhood into adulthood. Caulfield also doesn’t want to join the ranks of adulthood – he views adults as more ‘phoney’ and suspicious than most children – and instead wishes to preserve the innocence of childhood, as the novel’s title makes clear (of which more in a moment).
But if Caulfield turns away from the Victorian novel embodied by Dickens’s David Copperfield, Salinger’s novel does look back to a different nineteenth-century literary tradition – but an American one rather than British.
As critics have often remarked, The Catcher in the Rye shares some useful parallels with Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), the novel which Ernest Hemingway named as the start of American literature.
Like Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield (his very name containing a number of faint echoes of Twain’s character’s name) narrates his own story in his own idiom, using a colloquial and down-to-earth tone to document his retreat from the society around him.
But whereas Finn heads into the free world of nature, Caulfield retreats further into the city, burrowing into New York with its vices and dangers. He wishes to seek out the real city – not the ‘phoney’ world he has inhabited until now.
At the same time, Caulfield is more of a romantic than a realist: he dreams of escaping the modern city in favour of a simple, honest rustic life, a cabin in the woods (a very Walden-inspired dream), and the love of a good woman. Like the Romantic movement – seen in the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge – he privileges childhood innocence over the fallen world of adulthood, and seems to think it’s a shame that anyone has to grow up at all.
And this is the explanation behind the novel’s title: Caulfield’s (largely imaginary) take on a line from a Robert Burns poem, ‘Comin’ thro’ the Rye’, which prompts him to envision a field of rye near a cliff, where his job would be to catch any children playing in the field and straying too close to the cliff-edge – hence The Catcher in the Rye.
But his idyllic vision of perpetual childhood is founded on a misunderstanding: Phoebe points out to him that he has misremembered (or rather, misheard) the line from Burns’s poem, which actually asks, ‘Gin [i.e., if] a body meet a body / Comin thro’ the rye’, rather than if a body catch a body, which is how Caulfield heard the line rendered when he heard the boy singing it earlier that day.
When he visits Phoebe’s school to say goodbye, he is charmingly but also puritanically offended that a swearword has been scrawled on the walls, corrupting the innocence of childhood. The problem with Holden’s character – which, thanks to Salinger’s masterly control of the teenager’s voice, is engaging and authentic – is that he thinks all adults are somehow lesser than children, and his belief in the primacy of childhood leads him to reduce adults to ‘phonies’ and teachers who don’t understand him.
In his two encounters with his former teachers – whom, suggestively, he seeks out himself, implying that on some level he wants them to set him on the right path to maturity – he views the first as annoying and the second as a possible sex predator. His innocence is appealing but also, as innocence is always in danger of being, founded on an overly simplistic view of the world.
The late, great literary critic Frank Kermode once described The Catcher in the Rye as having a ‘built-in death wish’, and a Freudian analysis of Salinger’s novel might analyse Caulfield’s desire to flee from adult society with its responsibilities and challenges into an earlier childhood stage of innocence as symptomatic of his unconscious desire to return to the womb. He appears to envy his dead brother, Allie, to an unwholesome degree.
And that title, The Catcher in the Rye, is emblematic of the novel as a whole, since Holden’s fantasy of catching children before they fall off a cliff might be analysed as a symbol of his desire to prevent himself, and other children, from falling off the cliff off childhood into the abyss of adulthood, with all of its phoniness and, yes, responsibilities.