Lately, I have been training to become an English Language Arts teacher. Along the way, I’ve been perusing classic literary texts taught in high school, which brought me to The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I re-read it, hoping to find a way to connect the text to issues that are ripe in today’s media.
I’ll admit, I struggled with the beloved story and its protagonist. Part of me wanted to brush it off as mid-century and male, and therefore obsolete. Throughout the exposition, the privileged-white-male-boarding-school-student-narrator’s only problem appears to be his disinterest in school, and his cynicism towards “phonies.” The language is outdated, there seems to be an oozing preoccupation with masculine cis-gender roles in the text, and the derogatory view of women held by many of the characters make the text difficult to teach without lots of bracketing and contextualizing. I’ve been struggling to find a way to interpret The Catcher in the Rye as a future English teacher who hopes to empower my students who identify as female. A possible solution dawned on me when I realized Holden Caulfield may be searching for a way out of the environment of toxic masculinity. I feel his narrative calls for a #metoo reading.
The #metoo movement is known for leveraging the media to hold public figures accountable for sexual assault and give survivors a supportive platform. Harvey Weinstein’s public exposure and trial for serial sexual offenses encouraged many women working in the film industry speak out. However, the hashtag #metoo was created by Tarana Burke some ten years prior through her work to support sexual assault survivors in black and brown communities. Whether in a fictional account in the form of the “Cat Person” story, or in the public testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, the momentum of the #metoo movement has brought issues of consent, rape culture, toxic masculinity, and sexual power plays to the fore. I believe high school students can benefit from discussing these issues in a safe environment. In spite of my reservations, I feel The Catcher in the Rye can catalyze #metoo discussions.
The plot follows a troubled teenager who has apparently dropped out of multiple schools in the past. Once again, he’s failing all of his classes but English, and he decides to drop out just before Christmas. The narrative is propelled by the question: What is he running from? Critics have answered this question in different ways. Some say he is afraid of giving up his innocence. Others say it’s his sense of alienation in the society of that time. Yet, these explanations maintain a comfortable distance from the power dynamics related to sex that appear in the novel. I had a visceral impression that something about his own sexuality is eating at him.
The narrator becomes either enthralled, embarrassed, uncomfortable, or otherwise defensive anytime people broach the subject of sex. While these may be common feelings teenagers experience, I noticed that Holden Caulfield is particularly sensitive about sexual predation. Moreover, he can’t seem to voice this discomfort to anyone in the novel other than to the unnamed addressee of the text.
Once this dawned on me, I started to shuffle through the pages of my copy to search for Holden Caulfield’s #MeToo narrative. It may be suppressed because of the time of the novel and the narrator’s intense pressure to behave the way society prescribes, but as I dug in, it began to stare back at me. I believe that the real power of this novel is how Caulfield’s narrative is shaped by an unspoken story of an earlier sexual assault.
The subtle way the theme of consent is manipulated throughout the narrative is one of the most telling clues. For instance, at the start of a pivotal scene in the novel, Holden is asked to lend his jacket to his roommate Stradlater, even though he knows his friend’s broad shoulders will stretch the jacket. He begrudgingly agrees because it is difficult to say no to Stradlater who is known for imposing himself without waiting for consent. He is a fit, handsome, and manipulative male predator who is on his way to have a date with one of Holden’s admired acquaintances, Jane. The lent jacket symbolizes the forceful influence Stradlater has over his peers.
Holden knows this about Stradlater, already. He has joined double dates with Stradlater and he knows his strategy for engaging in sexual acts with women without their consent. Holden is concerned this time, because he cares about Jane, personally. In this scene and others, we see how Holden feels the need to protect others who are at risk of sexual transgression. After Stradlater returns, Holden tries to ask Stradlater about how he spent his night with Jane, but Stradlater shrugs off the subject, opting to remain silent about “private” matters, calling it “a professional secret,” as if he is a serial offender. The possibility that Stradlater had sex with Jane makes Holden so angry that he tries to punch him in the face. He misses and only nicks his ear. Then Stradlater gets angry, returns some punches and pins Holden on the ground, exerting physical power over Holden. Feeling defeated, Holden leaves school for New York the same night.
Later, Holden ponders how he himself lacks courage both in fighting and in love-making. It as if he believes that manhood depends on these acts of courage to prove one’s dominance. He sees it as a personal deficiency that he cannot push forward without women’s consent in similar situations, like Stradlater: “I can’t help it. You never know whether they [women] really want you to stop [sexual activity], or whether they’re just scared as hell, or whether they’re just telling to stop so that if you do go through with it, the blame’ll be on you, not them. Anyway, I keep stopping. The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them.” At no other point in the novel did I feel more critical of the narrator, who lays out all of the possibilities that women may be lying to men by asking men to stop. The implicit distrust of women’s motivations and the patronizing pity the narrator feels towards them made me irritated. Yet, as I read on, my perspective started to shift towards another possibility. Namely, I started to see that Holden not only sympathizes with women, he empathizes with them as a victim of patriarchal social norms himself.
For instance, when Holden has the opportunity to lose his virginity to a prostitute, he revokes his own consent for very relatable reasons. On the one hand, he feels he should go through with the act, out of a sense of social obligation. On the other hand, he feels the situation is too contrived, and it lacks the sincerity he seeks. He tells the prostitute he is “not in the mood,” and the prostitute takes this as an invitation to try harder to put him “in the mood.” Then, to avoid the awkward advances, he fakes a story about having a recent surgery. The prostitute feels frustrated with his inability to follow through with his initial request. Holden’s own reluctance to give consent comes forward, likening him to the women he criticizes.
It is also interesting how contemplative Holden becomes during the scene. He realizes he would actually prefer to speak to her about sex than actually engage in it. “‘Don’t you feel like talking for a while?’ I asked her. It was a childish thing to say, but I was feeling so damn peculiar.” His prostitute doesn’t want to talk, though, and she finds Holden’s wishy washy demeanor off-putting. She clearly wants to complete their “transaction” and get on with her night. The scene raises the question of whether it can ever be “too late” to say no to sex. Eventually, Holden pays his prostitute more than he owed her in the first place just to get her to leave him alone. Her pimp physically beats him, as if to warn Holden that you can’t give mixed signals about consent.
Holden’s alienation often stings worst when his conversations veer towards subjects related to sex because no one will give him the time of day to talk about it. In one scene, he invites his friend Luce to drinks and their conversation turns toward relationships. We learn from the Holden’s narration that Luce has a reputation for acting queer at times, and Luce begins to describe his relationship with an older, asian woman. Luce’s willingness to defy norms of gender, age, and ethnicity leave Holden perplexed, begging to know more. Luce, of course, considers this “typical” for Holden and is bored by Holden’s sincere interest in sex: “‘Listen. Let’s get one thing straight. I refuse to answer any typical Caulfield questions tonight. When in the hell are you going to grow up?’” Once again, he is chided for attempting to discuss sex. Conversations often cut off too soon for Holden, right as the subject of sex approaches.
Holden attributes this to Luce’s sense of intellectual superiority, which grants him the right to steer the conversation. As the submissive conversational partner, Holden feels unfairly coerced by the Luce’s will: “These intellectual guys don’t like to have an intellectual conversation with you unless they’re running the whole thing.” Even in the conversational dynamic of this scene, problems of consent drive the narrative forward.
In a last effort to connect on a personal level with someone, Holden goes to his former teacher Mr. Antolini to confide in him that he has failed many of his classes and that he will be leaving is current school. Holden looks up to Mr. Antolini, as he is one of the few people he trusts to carry on a meaningful conversation. Mr. Antolini tries to console Holden and give him helpful advice.
He offers him a place to stay on his couch, because Holden is drunk, tired and searching for a way to avoid his parents while getting some sleep. But when Holden wakes up to find Mr. Antolini caressing his head, a bolt of fear races through his body. He jumps off the couch to leave immediately, sensing danger. He discloses that “perverts are always attracted to him,” and he doesn’t know why, adding that it has happened to him “like twenty times or more” when he was a kid. At this point, Holden unambiguously reveals that he has survived sexual advances of some kind. From then on, all of the prior scenes are put in relief of Holden’s possible history of sexual abuse.
Holden isn’t able to utter more than a few sentences that articulate his explicit sense of violation. Nevertheless, the emphasis on social norms, coercion, and consent throughout the novel conform to a survivor-logic. Holden is preoccupied with avoiding and preventing situations of sexual exploitation for himself and others. It is his dancing around the issue that feels so resonant, because like Holden, many other individuals contemplating the wake of abuse rarely find audiences, even among trusted friends or family members. The #metoo movement has raised awareness of the veil of silence that looms over the survivors of sexual assault and I believe that The Catcher in the Rye shares a similar message. However obliquely, The story in the novel testifies to a need to break the silence.
Nevertheless, the book also shows how tone deaf the literary canon remains. We cannot escape the fact that a white male survivor’s alienation and innocence continues to be celebrated as an example of profound literature, while the stories of women, trans, and minorities continue to be ignored. I hope new stories on the theme of consent come forward, whether in fiction or in testimony, that earn the same kind of reception that The Catcher in the Rye has earned.