Thrower of the Cry
Holden Caulfield is me.
When my English class began reading Catcher in the Rye, I had to hold in my laughter of amazement. This kid was just like me! I had never identified with a character from any book — fictional, nonfictional, read in school, or for pleasure — before. The way he thought, the way he judged people, and yet the way he interacted with others in a kind, forgiving manner… This kid was me. (Note: before you scoff in outrage and then proceed to send me an angry letter claiming that Holden was not kind, I’d like to point out that he asked Ackley twice to cut his nails over the table in his own room before finally yelling, and I quote, “‘Willya please cut your crumby nails over the table?’” Even when he raises his voice, he says the magic word, and that too, to the kid everybody at the school shuns.) I could see why I was the only person in my entire class to like Holden — if you identify with someone, you’re somewhat obligated to like them — because he could seem pretentious and hypocritical at times. But all contradiction aside, if you really think about what is implied behind the immaturity, if you allow yourself to ignore the gaping holes in his logic, Holden is quite profound and grown up for his age. Despite those around him calling him out for thinking in the “classic Caulfield” way and Holden himself admitting he acts immaturely, his internal dialogue reveals how sensitive Holden is to his world. He’s a great liar, and he utilizes his skill to hide his vulnerable side — the one struggling with uncomfortable truths — from public. He acts childish because he is afraid of the cruel realities he faces as he observes his surroundings change. He loves his kid sister, Phoebe, thinks of her all the time, and is able to understand her and children in a way adults never do. He treasures the innocence of Phoebe, and the one job he envisions himself having is that of a catcher in the rye (roll credits!), someone who catches children before they fall off the “cliff” of adulthood and become aware of the real world and its mortality. Someone who sacrifices his own purity to prevent them from suffering the way he suffers.
“But he’s not even suffering!” you say. “He’s a typical rich kid who’s ungrateful for what he has!” I agree it may seem that way. But read beyond the mere surface of his words. The person that you’re really thinking of is Stradlater, or Ackley, or any of the aptly-described “phonies” from Holden’s school.
Holden is wealthy, but as we are all aware, money does not mean happiness. Throughout the story, Holden is dying. He’s a heavy smoker and mentally troubled, and the book goes full circle — Holden starts off feeling like he’s disappearing from the world when he runs to Spencer’s house, and suddenly feels the same way on while going to the museum. He is blessed and cursed with the ability to think about things, rather than accept them for the way they are, and this results in his disillusionment with society. He is stuck in a bubble of his own making, isolated from the rest of the world as his peers progress through life, longing for an indescribable something that never did and never will exist, and he drowns out that dark pit of loneliness he constantly feels by constantly drinking. His discontent grows as the book goes on, causing him to develop the beginning bouts of insanity. Talking to your dead younger brother isn’t usual and borders crazy, and it is a mark of how desperate Holden is to make sure he does not fade from the world that he engages in doing so. Which brings me to my next realization: identifying with this character is not a good thing.
At first, I was excited to see myself represented in a book my classmates and I read in school. This was previously unheard of for me. After we progressed through most of the book, however, the excitement turned into concern. I identified with Holden. I identified with a person who was too preoccupied with the aspects of life no one else cared about. None of his “friends” liked him. He was lonely, so lonely, and not even a prostitute whom he paid for her time cared to talk to him. Not to mention the small fact that he ends up in a mental asylum. And, sadly, I can see myself going down the same path. Angsty teenager? Check. Living in a city and from a relatively well-to-do family? Check. Surrounded by people I feel are phonies? Check to the extreme. The only thing that’s missing is a drinking problem, which I fortunately don’t have thanks to today’s more inflexible enforcement of the legal drinking age.
So, all things considered, I find myself at the end of this article not sure why exactly I’m writing it. Are there hidden truths in my rambling thoughts, much like those concealed in Holden’s? Do I think everybody should stop hating Salinger’s main character? Should people stop being phonies and appreciate the small things that society classifies as trivial?
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