The Catcher in the Rye Persuasive
- Pages: 17
- Word count: 4096
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On reading ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J. D Salinger we discover Holden Caulfield’s quest to preserve innocence in the world of phoniness and cruelty that surrounds him. However, the various people, places and events that we come across as the story unfolds lead us to doubt the possibility of such a quest. The novel takes the form of a retrospective narrative as Holden, the seventeen year old narrator and protagonist, relates to us from a kind of institution the “madman stuff” that happened to him the previous December.
It charts Holden’s journey other three significant days in his life, from the elite boarding school Pencey Prep to the urban wilderness of New York City as he resists entry to the adult world which he views as a cold, cruel and corrupt place. His overriding belief is that this world poses a major threat to the purity and virtue of childhood innocence. I will now explore the many ways in which Holden attempts to protect this innocence and evaluate the extent to which he succeeds in his quest. In order to better understand the innocence-threatening world presented to us in the novel, we must first consider its various contextual influences.
The novel, published in 1951, is set in post-Second World War America. It was a time of economic boom largely thanks to the enormous financial boost provided by the war. The standard of living for many Americans had dramatically improved as manufacturing output and food production soared and wages rose. Generally speaking, society was affluent and very materialistic as the country became the first real ‘consumer society’ and saw the birth of the ‘rat race’, the frantic scramble for success in business. From Holden’s point of view, this materialistic society is closely related to the corrupt, superficial world of adulthood.
His scorn for it is particularly evident in a conversation he has with Sally Hayes. He remarks that most people are “crazy about cars” and want a newer one almost as soon as the latest model has been bought. He seems convinced that once adulthood is attained with all its rituals and responsibilities such as “working in some office, making a lot of dough” any escape from this shallow society will be impossible. This ultimately causes Holden to dream of moving “out West” where he will be able to live an idyllic life as a deaf mute, cut off from the society he detests.
This escapist fantasy in itself highlights the impossibility of Holden’s quest because it suggests that one must isolate themselves completely from modern society to have any of hope of guarding their innocence and purity from its shallow, materialistic values. As Sanford Pinsker points out in Innocence Under Pressure, ‘Holden is convinced that one would do well to avoid the “getting business”, the “rat race,” in order to protect one’s soul’. Holden clearly considers the shallow materialism of the adult world a danger to one’s spiritual well-being and ultimately to one’s innocence.
This spurs Holden on to see himself as defender of innocents, those untainted by the superficiality of contemporary society. Holden equally draws our attention to how adult materialism and corruption is reflected in American prep school culture. As Christopher Brookeman highlights in his essay Pencey Preppy: Cultural Codes in Catcher in the Rye, the American prep school became a “particular instrument of social control”.
He goes on to state that during the twentieth century “the dominant role of the family [was being] supplanted, though not entirely replaced by a whole range of institutions such as the school, the college… Therefore, it is hardly surprising that these schools promoted a rigid code of conformity to traditional bourgeois values. Holden alludes to this when he complains about how prep schools are “full of phonies” where all you do is “study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day” and “talk about girls and liquor and sex all day”. He is clearly mocking the shallowness of American society which is so painfully prevalent in the prep school environment. This may explain why Holden is keen to leave Pencey.
It is not conducive to his quest to protect innocence because of its corrupting, conformist atmosphere. Given the way Holden rejects the kind of social rules that post-war American society sought to impose on the younger generation, one could easily identify him as a teenage rebel. The concept of the ‘teenager’ was first identified as a social phenomenon in the 1950s, a conservative period in which the disruptive potential of adolescents, who enjoyed the greater freedoms and leisure activities afforded by a more affluent society, became a major anxiety.
This may go towards explaining the controversy that the novel provoked upon its release. Many objected not only to its offensive language but also to its open discussion of adolescent sexuality. Nevertheless, ‘Catcher’ was an instant success among students and young people. This was because many adolescents could identify with the teenage narrator. Holden stands up for young people everywhere who felt themselves beset by pressure to grow up quicker and live their lives according to the rules of a superficial society. This is pointed out by James E Miller, Jr in J.
D Salinger : ‘the very young are likely to identify with Holden and to see the adult world in which he sojourns as completely phony and worthless”. Consequently, Holden could be regarded as a heroic figure, someone on a quest to defend childhood innocence from a cruel and phony world. A significant aspect of the phoniness that Holden derides throughout the novel is the corrupting potential of the relationship between audience and artist. For example, the nightclub pianist Ernie is deemed a “corny snob” on account of the “tricky stuff” that he does when he plays in order to please the “dopes that clap their heads off”.
Holden believes that the latter has been corrupted by adulation. Moreover, Holden resents his older brother D. B’s decision to write screenplays for Hollywood, something he equates to “being a prostitute”. Holden’s fears that fame corrupts artists reflect Salinger’s own. For all his life he has refused to autograph copies of his book, believing it is not something that good writers do. In his view, they simply write without needing the ego boost that fans are only too glad to provide. On the other hand, we note Holden’s fondness for the kettle-drum player in the Christmas show at Radio City Hall.
Holden remarks how he “never looks bored”, unlike the actors dressed up as angels who “could hardly wait to get a cigarette”, and how he bangs his drums “so nice and sweet, with this nervous expression on his face”. Holden reminisces about how used to watch this as a young child, establishing a link between authenticity and simple, genuine enjoyment with childhood innocence. Whereas the kettle-drum player’s performance appeals to Holden, he finds Ernie’s performance, his brother’s job and the Broadway actors depressing and sickening since they signify a world of affected adults.
It is what the children around him are going to grow up to know and most likely emulate. Hence his mission to preserve their uncorrupt authenticity seems impossible. Another aspect of the adult world that Holden feels is threatening to innocence is sex. It is clear that Holden has an ambivalent attitude towards sexual matters: while he is fascinated by the “perverts” of Edmund Hotel and “can think of very crumby stuff [he] wouldn’t mind doing”, he seems resistant to the idea of sexual maturation and the loss of innocence that it implies. This is most apparent in his thoughts about Jane Gallagher.
Their relationship was never complicated by sex and Holden holds onto simple and innocent memories of her, such as how they would hold hands at the movies or the way she kept all her kings in the back row when playing checkers. As Pinsker notes, ‘…. for Holden, Jane Gallagher’s kings in the back row are rather like the purity of snow by in winter: “nice and white”. ‘ Holden’s memories of Jane thus represent innocent childhood untarnished by the sexual corruption of adulthood. This may explain his reluctance to make contact with her on several occasions, evidenced by excuses like “I didn’t feel like it” or “I wasn’t in the mood”.
We sense that he fears reconnecting with Jane in case she has changed, possibly by becoming sexually mature. As someone who seeks to save childhood innocence, this process frightens him. This is equally the reason behind what intentions the sexually precocious and “unscrupulous” Stradlater has on his date with Jane. The idea of them spending time together made him “so nervous [he] nearly went crazy” and disturbs him to the point that he responds with violence, provoking a fight with Stradlater shortly after he returns. Holden, protector of innocence, reacts in this way because he sees Stradlater as one of its many destroyers.
Sex, in Holden’s mind, is also clearly associated with adult callousness. This is apparent during Holden’s conversation with Carl Luce who, on dismissing his former girlfriend with the notion that she may now be the whore of the New Hampshire, elicits this reaction from Holden: “If she was decent enough to let you get sexy with her all the time, you at least shouldn’t talk about her that way”. Holden believes that sex should take place between two people who respect each other and have a meaningful connection. In Holden’s world this does not seem to be the norm and for this reason Holden links casual sex with adult corruption.
This is evident in his decision not to sleep with the young prostitute Sunny. On hanging her dress up in the closet, he is overwhelmed by sadness: “I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute…. It made me feel sad as hell – I don’t know why “. Holden is clearly mourning ‘the loss of innocence that makes her very name so ironic’ (Pinsker). She is described by Holden as being “young as hell” with a “little wheeny-whiney voice”, making her appear almost childlike. It is little wonder then that he loses all sexual interest in her.
It is also worth noting that in refusing to sleep with Sunny Holden has almost tried to save what little innocence she has left. This is congruent with his position as protector of innocence as Pia Livia Hekanaho points out in her essay Queering Catcher: flits, straights and other morons: ‘he empathises with the vulnerable and feels more comfortable with the role of protector than with that of sexual predator’. By remaining a virgin, Holden remains on his quest to prevent innocence’s corruption. Furthermore, innocence is put under threat by old age and death, depressing reminders of the inevitability of change and adulthood.
When visiting Mr Spencer he indicates his disgust at seeing “old guys in their pyjamas” and their “bumpy old chests” and we note his depressed mood when he recounts how a Pencey alumnus, on his visit of the school, was “all out of breath from just climbing up the stairs”. Holden’s revulsion on both these occasions suggests that he fears the physical decline and vulnerability associated with ageing, a cruel process that innocent youth cannot avoid. Holden is also painfully reminded of the fragility of life by the death of his younger brother Allie.
He is haunted by the thought of his brother in a rainy cemetery surrounded by “dead guys and tombstones”. He was also disturbed by the death of James Castle, an innocent boy he knew at Elkton Hills who committed suicide jumping out the window rather than bear the “repulsive things” that his bullies were doing to him. The injustice of Castle’s death and the more devastating loss of Allie leave no doubt in Holden’s mind of how precious innocence is and spur him on to defend it. These personal experiences of the cruelty of the world have resulted in Holden’s increased resistance to change.
He wishes that everything could stay as it is, that time could stand still. This can be seen in his thoughts regarding the Museum of Natural History, a place of preservation: “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed the way it was”. Holden would like life to be like the Eskimos and Indians in the museum: silent, unchanging and predictable. He believes that you ought “to be able to stick” some things in “one of those big cases and just leave them alone”. However, the adult world is much more prone to change than the museum displays. Change is an intrinsic part of life.
It is a basic fact of life that everyone grows up, grows old and dies at some point. The implication of all this is that Holden’s dream of saving children from adulthood, from losing their innocence is unfeasible. Holden’s desire to preserve childhood innocence is reinforced by the fact that there are no admirable, supportive adult figures in his own life. In fact, any adults in Holden’s life only seem to add to his disillusionment with the world. An example would be Mr Spencer who at first appears warm and fatherly towards Holden during his visit but their meeting soon turns into an insensitive lecture by Mr Spencer.
He seems more interested in exonerating himself after having failed Holden in history than in Holden’s feelings given that he looks as if he has “beaten hell out of [him] in ping-pong” after reading out his essay. There is evidently a lack of communication between adult and teenager. Holden even remarks that they were “on opposite sides of the pole”. Dr Thurmer, Pencey Prep’s principal, is branded a “phony slob” by Holden who scorns his advice that life is a “game that one plays according to the rules” with “Game, my ass. Some game”. He is no doubt mocking those phony values that adult society adheres to.
What is even more significant is the near total absence of Holden’s parents in the novel. We have the impression that his mother is emotionally troubled considering how “she hasn’t been too healthy since…. Allie died” and how she is “nervous as hell”. Moreover, his father is depicted as a remote figure, defined by his success as a corporate lawyer and threatening presence, suggested by Phoebe’s repetition of “Daddy’s gonna kill you” when she discovers that Holden has dropped out of Pencey. It may be that we never see Holden’s parents because they conform to a society that Holden despises and seeks to escape.
The only adult figure who seems at all close to Holden and who has some understanding of the teenager is Mr Antolini, “about the best teacher [he] ever had”. Mr Antolini can see that Holden is troubled by the corruption of the world, “frightened… even sickened by human behaviour” and advises him to return to education to find his way. However, in Holden’s eyes any advice that Mr Antolini has given him is undermined by an ambiguous physical gesture, a patting on the head that Holden is quick to see as a “flitty pass”.
Once again Holden is let down by an adult figure, someone who seemed to promise some kind of safety and sanctuary on the complex, confusing journey into adulthood. It is therefore evident that Holden is alone on his quest. There is no adult who shares his romanticised vision of innocence. As Jonathan Baumbach notes, ‘at 16 [Holden] is ready to shed his innocence and move…. into the fallen adult world, but he resists because those who are no longer innocent seem to him foolish as well as corrupt’. Thus, Holden has no role model, no adult to look up to as an example of decency in the world.
This is one of the reasons why he wants to retreat into and preserve the safe, familiar world of childhood innocence. Although Holden seeks to protect innocence from a phony world, it would seem that this is undermined by the fact that Holden, to a certain extent, exemplifies phoniness himself. He admits to being “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” and in the course of the narrative we see that this self-assessment does indeed have some truth. He tells absurd lies to Mrs Morrow on the train journey to Manhattan, adopting the name Rudolf Schmidt and letting her believe that he has a brain tumour.
Moreover, he masquerades as a friend of Eddie Birdsell’s on a telephone conversation with Faith Cavendish, even making his voice deeper “so that she wouldn’t suspect [his] age”. This lying to others could be regarded as a kind of phoniness, a sort of deception that indicates insensitivity and callousness. On the other hand, as Sarah Graham points out in her study of the novel, Holden’s lying could be seen as a ‘simple telling an untruth for some reason, such as boredom or politeness rather than ‘being phony’.
In any case, it is clear that Holden is not the paragon of virtue he often makes himself out to be. We likewise note that, despite Holden’s reluctance to become an adult, he has a penchant for swearing, cigarettes and alcohol, traditional trappings of adulthood, revealing the degree to which Holden is, as Joyce Rowe notes in Holden Caulfield and American Protest, ‘already contaminated by the manners, institutions and authorities of his society’. This display of phony adult behaviour evidences once again the impossibility of Holden’s quest.
There is no doubt that Holden views children as the ultimate emblem of innocence. This can especially be seen in his thoughts about his ten year old sister Phoebe. Holden admires and has deep affection for his young sister who he describes as “so pretty and smart”. Sitting on a bench in Central Park Holden is saved from his dark state of despair by his love for Phoebe – or more importantly, by her love for him. When Holden sneaks back home his comments about his sister, that she is “no slob” and “very good in all her subjects” suggests his real admiration of her.
However, she is not the only child in the novel who Holden’s admires. Walking towards Broadway, Holden is cheered up by the little boy who was “just singing for the hell of it” and is delighted by the “very nice, polite” little girl who thanks him for tightening her skate. Holden clearly views innocent children like them and Phoebe as something precious in the cruel and phony world he sees around him. In this respect a link can be made between the teenage narrator and his creator. Salinger once stated in an interview, ‘Some of my best friends are children.
In fact, all of my best friends are children’. Salinger and Holden, repelled by an egoistical, phony society, both appreciate the unpretentiousness and authenticity of children. It is little wonder then that throughout the novel Holden sees himself as protector of children who are yet to fall to the perils of adult society. The most significant expression of Holden’s desire to preserve childhood innocence is of course his “catcher in the rye” fantasy.
When Phoebe asks Holden what he wants to do with his life, he replies with this image: … I’m standing at the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. ” In Holden’s eyes, it is his responsibility to keep children safe as they play in the rye field, to safeguard their innocence by ensuring that they do not fall over the cliff – that is, become corrupted by adulthood.
As Pinsker points out, ‘given the competitiveness, the phoniness, the sheer inhumanity of man to man, what could make for a more appealing life’s work than to be a “catcher in the rye”. ‘ However, the image of Holden standing on the edge of a cliff could be read as a sign his own vulnerability to falling. He may see himself as the children’s’ protector but there is no one in his vision who will save him. Mr Antolini alludes to this when he foresees a “terrible fall” for Holden after a fruitless search for an ideal. He envisions Holden becoming a bitter and disappointed adult who will hate the world around him.
This is a different kind of fall from the one Holden seeks to save innocent children from. The fall that awaits Holden consists of him disengaging himself from the world, losing his sense of self and even dying for a “highly unworthy cause”. We have the impression that although Holden considers himself as the protector rather than the one to be protected, he is really the one who needs to be ‘caught’. This illustrates the weakness of Holden’s romantic outlook and therefore the unlikelihood of him succeeding in his quest. However, Holden eventually comes to realise for himself the hopelessness of his fantasy.
As he takes comfort from being at Phoebe’s school, symbolic of his own innocent childhood given that it is “exactly the same as it was when [he] went there”, he notices “Fuck you” scrawled on the wall, something that provokes a violent reaction from Holden – he wants to find the “perverty bum” who wrote it and beat him until he is “goddam dead and bloody”. The violence of his reaction reveals how deeply Holden is disturbed by the corrupting influence of the adult world. He is concerned for the children and the worry such phrases might cause them.
Even at the Pharaoh’s tomb the “nice and peaceful” atmosphere is ruined when Holden discovers the same message on the wall. At one point he even remarks: “If you had a million years to do it, you couldn’t rub out even half the ‘Fuck you’ signs in the world. It’s impossible”. As Graham points out, Holden ‘begins to realise the impossibility of protecting children from corruption: the impossibility of being the catcher in the rye’. However, Holden’s most poignant revelation comes when he watches Phoebe on the carousel at Central Park.
He assures Phoebe that she is not “too big” for the carousel but the fact that he takes his seat with the adults, showing awareness of his own maturity, confirms that he is. He also realises the necessity of allowing children to grow up: “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 for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything.
If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them. Holden comes to the understanding that children should be allowed to take their own risks, to make their own mistakes. This is a step forward for Holden who up until this point has considered himself protector of innocence, someone who must safeguard children from the adult world. He now seems ready to surrender to the inevitability of adulthood. In conclusion, it is evident that Holden struggles throughout the novel to come to terms with adult society in view of the phoniness, cruelty, sordidness and hypocrisy that he associates with it.
Whether it be among the “hot-shots” of elite boarding schools or on the streets of Manhattan he continually encounters threats to innocence, to the purity and integrity of childhood. There is a clear divide between the sweet world of childhood innocence where Holden wishes to stay and the cruel world of adulthood where he is afraid to go. But society and his own body is telling him that it is time for him to become part of this world. At the end of novel it seems that at last Holden’s ‘uncompromising sense of innocence’ has finally collapsed ‘under the thumb of the world’s pressure'(Pinsker).
He comes to understand that maturation into adulthood and subsequent loss of childhood innocence is a natural, necessary process. Speaking to us from the California institution, Holden denies that anyone knows “what you’re going to do till you do it”, allowing us to suppose that uncertainty about the future, including what will become of childhood innocence, is no longer something that frightens or disturbs Holden. After his three day journey of self-discovery, Holden has acknowledged that his quest to preserve innocence is an unobtainable dream.