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The Jaded Eye… Catching Up With “The Catcher in the Rye”

Is there relevance in a book written 66 years ago in today’s society that is so wrapped up in itself? That’s the question I asked myself when re-reading and digesting The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger.

The book’s main character, 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, lets it be known he is undergoing treatment in a mental hospital or institution. The stigma of mental illness in the 1950s was greater than it is now. But the book came under greater scrutiny for profanity levels and was actually banned in some schools for questionable content.

That included, “sexual scenes, moral issues, excessive violence, and anything dealing with the occult.” No matter. Within two weeks of release, Salinger’s novel reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

The book might have been intended for adults, but since then has been popular with adolescent readers for its themes of teenage angst and desolation. By the way, more than 65 million copies have been sold!

This was “required reading” for me in tenth grade. In class, we discussed the complex issues of what this book brought upon us — lost innocence, identity crisis, seeking belonging, loss and connection. There were parts I didn’t comprehend then, but I do now. That’s part of why you go back to an “old read.” It can become an “old friend.”

Lots and lots to absorb in each delicate chapter. How Holden gets expelled from school due to poor work ethic. How he confronts his roommate about sleeping with his ex-girlfriend. How he gets fed up with school (Pencey Prep) and catches a train to NYC.

There are tidbits strewn here and there throughout the book you must pick up on. Why is Holden so determined on finding out when and if the ducks in Central Park migrate during the winter? Is he comparing them to humans who jump from school to school or job to job? Or relationship to relationship?

When Holden summons a prostitute (named Sunny, but not sure if she had a sunny disposition) he pays the proper amount, but only decides to talk to her. Her pimp comes back and demands more money and punches him in the stomach.

Why do I even mention this? Because I told you the book was controversial in our country. Adolescents aren’t supposed to solicit “women of the night.” Remember what our mothers told us. You never know what you might catch.

Phoebe, Holden’s 10-year-old sister, is the only person he seems to be able to communicate his true feelings with. Perhaps because children (like animals) don’t prejudge. It’s here where Holden reveals a fantasy; he sees himself as a sole guardian of children playing in a huge rye field on the edge of a cliff. His job is to “catch” the children if they come close to falling into oblivion.

Thus, to be a “catcher in the rye.” To save their innocence from an evil, unworthy world that he has already experienced and has been exposed to.

Holden later visits an old English teacher who offers advice on life and gives him a place to stay overnight. After what Holden feels is a homosexual advance, he leaves confused and uncertain (again) and wanders the big apple on his own.

He thinks about heading west and being a recluse (I thought Death Valley had some merit in my youth) and taking his young sister, who is willing to go with him.

Later in the book he mentions “getting sick” and living in an institution in California near his brother. So, did my English teacher assign us this book to show Holden didn’t mature at all from start to finish? Or because he says he wants to go back to school and this shows optimism, putting alienation and obstacles behind him?

When I spoke in detail to Alice Frye, my teacher, we compared whether or not Holden became an adult through his meandering and his actions, or did he merely just think like one but not carry it out? Was he confined by his age?

At the end of the book, Holden decides not to take Phoebe with him, and instead takes her to a zoo to ride a carousel in the rain. This makes them both happy. He talks about grabbing the “golden ring” and how it’s good for kids to try to attain it.

I found symbolism in this. By grabbing the “golden ring,” do we give up all in what’s left behind? Does the attainment of the brass circle clasped tight in our fingers ruin things for us? For if we don’t get it, we keep enjoying the ride and the chase. Youth is a continual carousel. Giving it up means ups and downs that aren’t fun anymore — adulthood.

Holden admired children more than adults because they still hold onto innocence, kindness and generosity. Falling off the cliff? Grabbing the ring? It’s to signify a free fall into the trenches of adulthood.

I remember at one point in the book Holden gets upset when he sees the f-word scrawled on the wall of his sister’s school. He removes it, but knows it will be back over and over again and he can’t do anything about it.

Is this any different from a parent or guardian watching what a child might see on the Internet or cell phone these days?

In this way, I answered my own question on whether or not this powerful book contained worthy power for today’s reader. All of us seem to be “catchers in the rye” for heroin addicts who stray near the edge. And since this book was written, “15 is the new 20” regarding age. Adolescents, armed with 24/7 technology still long to belong. Mental illness prevails society at high levels.

Salinger knew what many of us didn’t. That is, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And, as for the ducks in Central Park? Without migration in life, things can get pretty stagnant.

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