You can relate. We all can. Holden Caulfield holds a special place in the angst-ridden hearts of teenagers too. The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden’s few days of folly in New York City after getting kicked out of yet another prep school. Holden wants to treat himself to a few days of fun before breaking the bad news to his parents, but it all goes to hell. The women he meets are shallow and dull. He gets excited and asks old flame Sally Hayes to run away with him and live in the wildness, but she declines, thinking him crazy. The Broadway shows he sees are lifeless and uninspired (though he’s impressed with performances by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne). He hooks up with a hooker, but the young prostitute makes him sad, so he sends her away. She returns with her pimp, who demands more money. Holden pays it, but the pimp beats him up anyway. Fun NYC visit so far.
Above all else, Holden Caulfield keeps it real, yo. He hates phoniness in all its guises, and he longs to preserve innocence. The novel’s title refers to a bastardized version of the Robert Burns poem, “Comin’ Through The Rye”. Holden fancies himself “a catcher in the rye,” someone who protects children playing in a rye field from falling off an unseen cliff. He’s angered by obscene graffiti on the walls of his little sister’s school and the museum.
“If you had one million years to do it, you couldn’t rub out even half the fuck you signs in the world. It’s impossible.”
Welcome to adulthood, Holden. Fuck you is everywhere.
With nowhere else to turn, Holden visits an old teacher, Mr. Antolini, who offers him sage advice.
“You’re not the first person who was ever confused, and frightened and even sickened by human behavior … Many men have been just as morally and spiritually troubled as you are right now. Happily, some of them the kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them … just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement… It’s history. It’s poetry.”
Then Holden’s pretentious paranoia gets in the way again. Was Mr. Antolini a “flit” (i.e. a homosexual)? Was he hitting on him? Was this more phoniness, another sinister agenda wrapped in the cloak of kindness? Holden flees Mr. Antolini’s home more confused than ever.
In the end, it’s the innocence of little sister Phoebe that saves Holden. He has (yet another) ridiculous plan to move out west and live as a deaf-mute (which, in a way, is kind of what author J.D. Salinger did by withdrawing from publishing and public life after the success of The Catcher in the Rye). When Phoebe agrees to go with him, Holden decides to stay. He never really believed in his crazy plans, he just needed someone else to. The novel closes with Holden saying he spent time in a mental hospital but is feeling much better now, thank you very much.
New York City in the 1950s is as vivid a character as any in this book, and the slang Salinger weaves through the prose makes this a kind of timeless time capsule of the era. The Catcher in the Rye shows the eternal struggle of a young man trying to find a moral center in an immoral world.
Good luck with that, Holden.