J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye depicts a short span in the life of a sixteen-year-old boy who has a lot to say about others yet recognizes little about himself. Holden Caulfield is not your typical bildungsroman protagonist. He would probably like that title; it confirms he’s not archetypal, not phony, and not a bore. Throughout the story, his cynicism and eccentric thoughts reflect his alienation, and often his tone is downright depressing. From open to close, the story only details a few days of Holden’s life. His past is never quite uncovered, and even in the final chapter he does not give readers any indication of self-fulfillment. While this novel is termed a bildungsroman, many may question if Holden Caulfield ever comes of age. The novel itself is named after his only one true aspiration: to catch children from falling into the depths of adulthood.
The Catcher in the Rye parallels much of the life of its author. Born in 1919 to a wealthy family in New York City, Salinger flunked out of prep school and was eventually sent off to military school (McGrath). Making several attempts at college, he eventually found his passion in writing. As his writing career was beginning he was shipped to France for two years of military service during World War II. During his deployment he began writing The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger was hospitalized upon his return to the States in 1945 for a nervous breakdown, but he continued to write and was quickly published (McGrath). In 1951, The Catcher in the Rye was released and received both immense popularity and strong criticism. While many young readers connected to Holden’s feelings of alienation from and cynicism toward the phony culture of the 1950’s, some critics found the portrayal of Holden to be immature, immoral, or outright unworthy (“J.D. Salinger” 2). Little is known about Salinger’s late life due to his spending his last fifty years in isolation. Charles McGrath of the The New York Times explains that Salinger “spent more time and energy avoiding the world . . . than most people do embracing it” (McGrath). The reclusiveness and mystification of Salinger’s life is most certainly mirrored in his most popular character, Holden Caulfield (McGrath).
As the novel begins, readers find that Holden, like Salinger, is flunking out. He is failing four out of five subjects at Pencey Prep and has been asked to not return after Christmas break. When Holden goes to visit his old history teacher, Mr. Spencer, it is evident that Mr. Spencer cares about the well-being of Holden and may be the only person who is concerned about him leaving. This passage shows that Holden defends himself by pushing others away, especially people who aren’t like him and specifically people who are old. Holden calls his teacher “old Spencer” and is repulsed by his bumpy chest and other physical qualities of aging. Throughout the novel Holden uses this defense mechanism whenever anyone questions his lack of motivation. He often finds a way to distract himself from the reality of his life. However, by rationalizing his disdain with some pet peeve or random story that shows how phony or boring someone is, he only exemplifies his immaturity and insecurities.
The majority of the novel describes Holden’s time in New York City. Despite having come home, he cannot actually go to his family for fear of his parents’ reaction to his expulsion. Holden’s time in the city is impulsive. He does not have a plan or anything to do; he simply wanders from place to place, bar to bar, and girl to girl. He is lonely, that much is true, but any time he has the opportunity to be with someone, he generally shuts that person out. He cannot make up his mind, and when he does, he often contradicts his decision a few sentences later. McGrath credits Salinger with perfecting the use of literary irony by “validating what you mean by saying less than, or even the opposite of, what you intend.” It seems Holden exemplifies this tactic throughout the book when he cannot access anything about himself that is not on the surface. When he doesn’t want to experience real thoughts or feelings about his life, he simply criticizes someone else.
Holden’s alienation and judgment of phoniness are representations of his fear of growing up. He, in many ways, could be considered an anti-bildungsroman character. One of the most important quotes in the book is the one from which the title stems. Holden tells his sister that the only thing he really wants to be is the catcher in the rye. He wants to keep little kids who are playing in the tall rye, and who cannot see, from falling off a cliff. Holden’s only desire can serve as a representation of his life. Not only does it show his inability to want anything real, it shows his fear of falling from childhood, from innocence and simplicity.
While this story does not have an obvious climax or even a point in time where the reader sees Holden’s growth, there is possibility for development. Even though Holden represents the extreme case of not wanting to grow up, he is not Peter Pan. He will eventually be forced out of childhood. It may not be much, but in the final words of the book, Holden says, “Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody” (Salinger 214). This shows some growth in his character. He actually admits to having feelings. He may not ever have a major epiphany or self-actualization, but Holden Caulfield will figure things out — just in his own time and certainly in his own way.
McGrath, Charles. “J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91 .” The New York Times: Books. The New York Times, 2010. Web <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29salinger.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little Brown, 1951. Print.