The life of a teenager can be isolating, confusing, and painful. It was at times for me and maybe for you too. It certainly was for Holden Caulfield, the 16-year-old narrator of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Holden has just been kicked out of his third private boarding school and embarks on a dark night of the soul in Manhattan rather than return home to face the wrath of his parents.
Way back in yesteryear, we all read this novel, right? It’s made a regular appearance on many a high school English syllabus. It has also been banned, mostly by religious zealots. One such activist pointed out that the novel used the lord’s name in vain 200 times. I hope she had fun counting every instance.
For Holden, everything was goddam this and lousy that. In addition to profanity, the novel depicts underage alcohol use and drinking, plenty of sexual references, Holden’s awkward encounter with a prostitute and her pimp (with Holden, everything is awkward), and a constant calling out of the “phonies” of the world—adults and teenagers alike.
Here’s Holden telling his date about going to an all-boys school:
That passage captures Holden’s voice perfectly. Throughout the novel, he is disillusioned, depressed, anxious, and angry. He is doing his best to resist growing up. And yet time marches inexorably forward. Holden doesn’t stand a chance against time and deep inside he knows it.
His older brother, D.B., was a short story writer who Holden thinks sold out to Hollywood. He had a younger brother, Allie, who died. His father is remote and his mother is “nervous.” His only real connection is with his younger sister, seven-year-old Phoebe, who he sneaks home to see without his parents finding out that he’d been expelled. He enters Phoebe’s bedroom while she was asleep:
The next day, he meets Phoebe at the museum and they go to the park and the zoo. It’s to Phoebe he confides what fantastical, impossible life he’d really like to live:
Holden wants to protect and preserve the innocence of youth, an impossibility, and foundation of Holden’s existential anguish.
There’s a reason “The Catcher in the Rye” is one of the most popular novels of all time. It’s because Holden, despite how annoying he can be, despite how you want to shake sense into him, despite his cringeworthy behavior and black attitude, speaks the truth: coming of age is no party.
This novel isn’t just for high school kids. I highly recommend a rereading for all adults. It made my list of The Most Important Novels in My Life. I read it in high school and have probably read it three or four times since then. Holden Caulfield is an unforgettable character.