The Irony in the Rye

Just as a heads up, this post will probably not make a great deal of sense if you don’t know the book at all; it also may contain minor plot spoilers.

Still here? Let’s dive in!

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has left generations of readers divided. On one hand, it has reached cult status due to its off-beat style and content, and of course due to several murderers who claimed to identify with the story; the most notable case of course being Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon, and who claimed The Catcher in the Rye as a sort of personal manifesto. On the other hand, thousands and thousands of students who have been forced to read this classic novel in school have largely been unable to find any merit in it. It’s often described as an incoherent, uninteresting story interlarded with the inane ramblings of never-do-well Holden Caulfield about his first world problems.

Somewhere in the middle, The Catcher in the Rye is an interesting literary achievement, in my opinion. But that’s not what I want to talk about. There is irony in the fact that so many people dislike the book, at least insofar as the reason for this aversion is a lack of understanding of what pulls the book together.

Oh, Holden

The Catcher in the Rye tells the fairly brief story of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, who has just flunked out of his fourth school and consequently has a few days to kill before the Christmas break. His parents haven’t heard yet, so going home straight away doesn’t appeal to Holden. He decides to spend a few days wandering around New York City.

The sense many people get from the story, that ‘nothing happens,’ is understandable. All things considered, not that much does happen as Holden kills the time, and the things that do are chaotic and superficially rather meaningless. The Catcher in the Rye is not plot-driven. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the book. The story is highly symbolic, and very subtly so. It’s not easy to dig out the meaning behind the things that happen to Holden; however, if you read them knowing what the main theme of the book is (which, to make things more inconvenient, you don’t get a fair chance at until quite late in the story) you can start to discern that the story is not so random at all.

The Innocence of Children

The theme, then: Holden is obsessed with innocence. It becomes most explicit, if not very much so, in the passage that explains the book’s title: Holden describes how he imagines himself standing in a field of rye, where a large group of children are playing. The field abruptly ends in a cliff, though, and if you’re not careful where you step, you could just go tumbling off; so Holden describes how he wants to be a catcher in the rye, his job being to stop any careless kids from falling off the cliff.

The children symbolize the innocence of childhood; the cliff the irreversible transition into adulthood and the corruption associated with it. Holden, at 16, is making that very transition and he’s not having an easy time of it. Sexuality confuses him, the grown-up world of jobs and apartments and cars doesn’t appeal to him and his views of and relationships with all the adults he knows are very unsatisfactory to him.

The theme recurs over and over, when Holden is stricken by the purity (he couldn’t throw a snowball at a car because it ‘looked so nice and white’) or impurity of things (e.g. profanities written on the walls in his little sister’s school and at the museum) or when he laments change and the passing of time. (‘The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move.’)

So, how does that help us make sense of the seemingly ramshackle chain of events in the storyline? Nearly everything that happens to Holden centers around an interaction he has with someone; mostly adults and other young adults. These interactions are a mess. On the one hand, Holden is terrible at expressing himself, and on the other, nearly everyone he meets, be they a cab driver, a prostitute, a teacher, or whoever, is too self-absorbed to really listen to what he’s saying. The result is that Holden’s message hardly ever comes across. He is looking for some comfort and understanding, perhaps some guidance in this troubled period in his life, but the adults all fail to empathize with him. He only finds one adult who seems to take a genuine interest in him, a former teacher, but that one turns out to be a pervert. Tellingly, Holden remarks, as to the teacher’s inappropriate behavior,

“That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it.”Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

Now, Holden is everywhere very liberal with his numerical exaggerations, but the fact that this isn’t the first time he encounters a depraved adult must have helped shape Holden’s perceptions of adulthood. And this is what all the seemingly random events are about and what connects them: they illustrate the rottenness of adulthood as Holden sees it.

In the end, there is only one person in the entire book who actually listens to anything Holden has to say, and that’s his little 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, who is still untainted.

Holden’s Voice

The other problem readers face in The Catcher in the Rye is that it is written in the voice of 17-year-old Holden, looking back on the events of the previous winter. Salinger has managed to give Holden a very authentic voice, but that voice belongs to a school-flunking teenage boy. It’s rough and raw. Holden has some poignant insights and interesting chains of thought, but not the eloquence to clearly bring them across to the reader, and so the reader has to try to decipher for himself what Holden is trying to tell him. Take this passage, for example, where Phoebe is riding a carousel:

“All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall of, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.”Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

(For context: back in the day carousels had a ‘ring game’ where children could try to grab a ring as they went around, to redeem for prizes such as a free ride.)

It’s not very eloquently put, but you can sense there is some kind of genuine pedagogical insight buried in there, even if you don’t immediately see what it is. Holden has grasped something, but not firmly enough, and he doesn’t have the vocabulary and coherence of mind to adequately put it into words.

The voice Salinger has given Holden is one you might expect from a teenage boy. It’s laced with a bit of casual bravado. His remarks, whether about something crucial or about the weather, are usually off-handedly expressed, like the comment about perverted adults mentioned above, and a lot of what he tells us about himself is expressed using the passive voice; Holden wouldn’t want you to think he really cared all that much. It takes some effort, and some guesswork, to try to figure out what Holden is really thinking.

The Irony

Most of the book is written in this obfuscated manner. This, combined with the seeming randomness and inconsequentiality of the plot, is what makes the book so difficult to appreciate, if what it does offer on the surface is not enough to pull you in.

But I promised you irony. It is this: 16-year-old Holden, in the story, fails to make any meaningful connection with all the characters he meets; just so, ironically, 17-year-old Holden, the voice Salinger chose for The Catcher in the Rye, continues to fail to connect with readers who cannot penetrate what Holden is trying to tell them.

Does that say anything about us as readers? Are we too self-absorbed to listen to Holden, or can we blame him for not expressing himself more eloquently? If the former, does that teach us anything in the way we listen to and empathize with people in general?

These are all very subjective questions which everyone can answer for themselves. I’m just putting them out there. In the mean time, though, if you couldn’t get through The Catcher in the Rye for the above reasons, I hope you’ll give it another go. If you can pierce the mist, the book really is a very interesting literary study and Holden isn’t quite as boring as he may first appear.

Marco is a theoretical (bio)physicist, currently engaged in unraveling the sequence-dependent dynamics of DNA molecules to earn his PhD at Leiden University. Other passions include literature and history.

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