Thoughts on “The Catcher In The Rye”
Mother told me, occasionally, since I was in my early teens, that I should read “The Catcher in the Rye.”
I haven’t talked to her about it in years, and she didn’t really mention it more than a few times many decades ago, but there was something about the way she said it that made it memorable.
Seems like she’d say it with a smirk, like the idea of me reading the book contained in it some inside joke just between her and J.D. Salinger.
Maybe it was the kind of smug satisfaction a certain type of person might draw from recommending Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to a black person, knowing well just how many goddamn times they’d be jabbed in the eyeballs with the word “nigger.” (219 times to be exact.)
Then, again, perhaps she saw something in the book that reminded her of me. Or, maybe she thought I might enjoy the book and wanted to share the literary experience of chatting with me once I’d read the work.
Don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t blatant in her delivery—hence my confusion—but still there was an implicit strangeness, possibly my inference alone, that there was something wrong with the book, or with me, or both, and that I would be uniquely qualified to relate to its character(s) and/or message.
Well, fuck me if I didn’t recently start and finish the novel, and I finally get the “joke.”
In the 25 years or so that I’ve known the book existed, I’d only ever heard one recurring theme from those who claimed to have read it: that Holden Caulfield was just a spoiled brat. I felt the same way from the beginning of the book. That feeling only strengthened as the story progressed.
I soon found myself wondering, at the end of each of the four sessions I read from it, what mother could have intended.
What did I possibly have in common with a wealthy prep school dropout who had a dead brother and a superiority delusion?
The further I read and thought, the more I realized a strange dichotomy existed within Holden.
In one way, he seemed deluded about his own motivations and intelligence because most people he met were, in his estimation, either phony or moronic.
By constantly labeling folks as either, he seemed to be thinking that he was one of the few intelligent and genuine souls.
It wasn’t until I reached the end of the book, when the reader discovers Holden is in a mental health facility receiving treatment for his neuroses, that I realized I had recognized many of his behaviors from the previous pages.
What appeared to so many readers and critics through the decades as puerile and overindulgent behaviors were actually more serious, and more deeply rooted than a simple tantrum or laziness would suggest.
I noticed the clue that tipped me off to the rest in the last few lines of the book. Holden Recounts a discussion with a psychoanalyst, recalling how he had told the doctor he had no way of knowing whether he would do what he was supposed to do until it came time to do it. Holden gave that answer in response to the doctor asking whether Holden planned to apply himself when he went back to school in the fall.
All those annoying, immature behaviors are absolutely trademarks of a spoiled brat. And, some—like being mean to his date—were. (His latent homosexuality notwithstanding.)
However, there were a great many signs that Holden Caulfield was suffering from depression and anxiety, and possibly other mental disturbances.
And, considering how often modern doctors still fail to recognize or properly diagnose the panic disorder family of conditions, it is certain that readers and critics had no clue what was likely the true motivation behind Caulfield’s seemingly simple juvenile outbursts.
Consider the paralyzing ennui, the pathological disillusionment—these behaviors and thoughts were more than mere dissatisfaction stemming from boredom.
Holden’s malaise concerned the very essence of existence, and it generated a futile worldview where prospects of the slightest effort or even the most exciting activity were rendered exhausting, unfulfilling and pointless.
Is mine a childish read of the material? Perhaps. It is entirely possible that my sympathy, my empathy, and my analysis are rendered biased and unreliable due to my own skeptical views on life.
I have often shared the feelings of annoyance at the seemingly superficial concerns—fashion, senseless infighting, occultism—of those around me.
I Have spent most of my life with the distinct feeling that I am an alien creature among a homogenous horde.
I also know the excruciating fatigue of attempting to camouflage oneself in hopes of avoiding detection … while simultaneously aching from the pangs of isolation.
Is Holden Caulfield a spoiled brat or just a fellow broken person trying to comprehend a world in which he does not belong? I’ll leave that to someone smarter than myself to attempt to answer.
One last note: The notion that means and money determine happiness or sanity is a childish one. To presume Holden Caulfied had no cause to misbehave because he had a full belly and fine clothes is to miss completely the complexity of mental illness and its effects on the human mind.