Catcher in the Rye


Holden as Novelist

By Eugene McNamara

In THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, what is the narrator's point of view toward life, tradition, art? This writer, a member of the English Department, University of Windsor(Ontario), examines Holden's role in the novel.

More critical and popular attention has been given to THE CATCHER IN THE RYE than to any other American novel of the past twenty-five years. The reasons for this intense popularity are too various and far-reaching to treat here. But the mystique of adolescence, the Cold War jitters, the Frontier Tradition, the vernacular tradition (Hemingway's famous statement that "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN," is evidence of this), and the BUILDUNGSROMAN tradition of the novel as a literary form are certainly all valid reasons for the lavish praise and attention given to the CATCHER IN THE RYE, and all have been admirably investigated.1

One aspect of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE has not, however, been examined closely enough. This aspect is centered in the character of its narrator, Holden Caulfield. It is his whole complex set of attitudes towards and assumptions about the universe he exists in. In his role as the narrator of his own story, he selects and shapes the experiences into a fictional form. Therefore, these attitudes and assumptions about the nature of his world direct the fictional intention of the novel which is made up out of what happened to him and what he thinks about it. Holden is, when seen in this light, not only the main character but the novelist himself.

When seen in conjunction with another story about a boy trying to find cartitude in his world, these attitudes and assumptions become more evident. Both stories referred to here are about essentially abandoned boys who go through a series of maturing adventures in a violent and hypocritical adult society. Both boys narrate their own stories. But here the parallel ends, and more striking contracts become evident. The

The novel which I wish to contrast to THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is Charles Dickens' DAVID COPPERFIELD. Holden himself in his first words, calls our attention to this novel. He explicitly informs his audience that this story will not be like David Copperfield's:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.2

It is in these words that Holden begins. In rejecting the tradition which DAVID COPPERFIELD stands for, he actually proclaims his own tradition of the novel. It would be fruitful to look at the opening lines of Dickens' novel to pin down just what the earlier tradition was.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believed) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock begin to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.3

David wants to satisfy a curiosity which he assumes exists before he tells his story. He assumes that his audience will want to know who the hero is and what his credentials are. Where he came from, who his family were, all the temporal and geographical data which can be given and which would be relevant is demanded by the audience. David Copperfield's world is one of ordered time and fixed space, and his temporary disjunction from that world is one which he feels keenly. As he complains in and earlier chapter about his solitary state and harsh treatment at the hands of the Murdstones:

And now I fell into a state of neglect, which I cannot look back upon without compassion and fell at once into a solitary condition -- apart from all friendly notice, apart from the society of all other boys of my own age, apart from all companionship but my own spiritless thoughts -- which seems to cast its gloom upon this paper as I write.4

David plays two roles here: one is the friendless waif of that unhappy past, and the other is the sympathetic adult looking back on that miserable youth from the secure comfort of his present world. This double view affords a degree of comfort to the audience as well. No matter how dire the circumstances of David's early life, no matter how desperate his tribulations, the continuing interplay of the narrator's looking back and remembering and setting it down now in a genteel and pleasant present time tells the audience that, unpleasant as that past was, it is over now and all well.

David, as narrator, operates from the present, which is a fixed point in time. David, as actor in the narration, operates constantly to move towards the conditions of that present time. David as actor, wants security and acceptance. His first words posit an interest in history and family tradition, in the relation of a family anecdote about his birth, which he carefully chronicles in specific time. Behind his array of carefully ordered facts lies the assumption that the audience shares his interests and aspirations. They are interested in the outcome of his story and they are interested in him.

As two focal points, the opening lines of both DAVID COPPERFIELD and THE CATCHER IN RYE view us insights into the worlds of both novels. Yet we must remind ourselves that one is understood in terms of the other. Every new novel is a response to an earlier one. PASTILA calls forth JOSEPH ANDREWS, UTOPIA calls forth 1984. But, with each new novel the response to, or parody of, an earlier novel becomes more complex as it extends the spatial tradition of the novel. Hence Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES is a parody in response, not only to Ballantyne's CORAL ISLAND but to ROBINSON CRUSOE as well. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE inherits and answers DAVID COPPERFIELD and ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and DON QUIXOTE. The title itself alludes to a distortion in the tradition. The twist of "kiss" into "catch" from the Robert Burns' line "if a body kiss a body" indicates a corresponding disjunction in Holden's world. People might kiss in the world of Robert Burns. In Holden's world there is no kissing. There is not even a coldly dispassionate "catcher." There is no territory to light out for, no wise and tender Jim as comrade for Holden. There is only Mr. Antolini, the mentor who turns out to be a catcher who wants Holden for his own purposes.

Or does he? By the time that Holden has come to Mr. Antolini, he has experienced a series of betrayals in the adult world. Perhaps he can no longer distinguish between reality and appearance.

Holden, unlike David Copperfield, cannot assume that his audience is at all interested in him or his story. The words, " If your really wants to hear about it," begin the novel in a tone of wry discomfort and uncertainty. Holden is afraid of committing the capital sin of boring someone, of imposing on the sacred privacy and isolation of contemporary life. He cannot assume even a basic human interest in another human being on the part of his audience. David Copperfield could assume this, and could also assume in interest in family history. Time existed for David. Space existed. Adult society might present a cruel and hypocritical face now and then, but entrance into adult society and success within it were still David's primary concern. Holden stands with no credentials, not even sure anyone is listening.

Holden's adventures for them a significant pattern growing out of this initially shaky narrator's stance. It is a pattern of disappointing discoveries. He too, as David does, begins in the present, looking back over the events which have led up to now. His first rejection, or disappointment in the adult world is his brother's defection from art. D.B., Holden's brother, has gone from the making of literature to the making of Hollywood movies, which Holden constantly excoriates but which form the conceptual matrix of his own experiences. Constantly, he translates his actions into the formal stereotypes of the movies. It is a way of giving meaning to his disordered experiences and frustrations is a way of creating, through fantasy, a psychological distance between himself and those frustrations.5

"If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies," Holden declares. This Hollywood world, with all its sham and pretense, is the world which Holden's brother has chosen. D. B., author of THE SECRET GOLDFISH, a " terrific book of short stories," has become a "prostitute" in Holden's eyes. This initial failureon the part of Holden's adult world is followed by at least seven other significant failures in that world. Most are adult failures, most are defects of charity, and each is a significant violation or distortion of a role played by certain conventional, or stock, characters in such earlier novels as DAVID COPPERFIELD. D. B.'s failure for example, might be compared to David's mother's marriage to Murdstone. Both D. B. and Clara are close relations who disappoint and fail the boys because of economic necessity. Other parallels might be worked out, but the main interest in each case would be in seeing how different the figures in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE are from the corresponding figures and situations in DAVID COPPERFIELD.

Holden's second disappointment is the betrayal of charity by Spencer, his history teacher. Spencer's violation of Holden's charitable act (visiting the sick) is carried out in terms of his role-stereotype as teacher. He lectures to Holden on his failure in History and gives him advice. Throughout the book, Holden receives much advice from adults. Advice, in Holden's world, is the counterfeit of love.

Holden is deficient in a sense of history. He is, in this sense, the American Innocent of the Frontier, scornful of traditions and social credentials. But his frontier is gone. There is no territory to light out for, and the ducks in Central Park have no refuge to fly to in the winter. Holden's uncommitted stance, his quixotic pose, in a world grown much more rigid than David Copperfield's ever was, makes his position even more shaky. At the outset of the novel, Holden stands up on a hill, next to a Revolutionary War cannon, having lost the fencing team's equipment, removed in both space and interest from the football game. He thus sets himself firmly in the role of the isolate, of the Ishmael. David's complaint about having been "apart from the society of all other boys of my own age," when set next to Holden's deliberate disaffiliation, throws Holden's attitudes into sharper relief.

Holden's next disappointment is one associated with his own age group. Stradlater's violation of Holden's memory of Jane is, as Spencer's betrayal was, a failure of charity. Stradlater's interest in Jane, when compared to Holden's memory of her as a person, is a selfish interest. To Stradlater, Jane is an object, not an individual. Holden's violent reaction is a helpless attempt to keep his memory of her intact and innocent. Unconsciously, Holden wants to keep her from entering the world of Spencer and Stradlater, a world of sham and self.

Following these initial disappointments, Holden encounters, in turn, the three girls in the hotel ballroom, violate his simple hospitality. Maurice the bell-boy procurer, and Sunny the teenage prostitute, perpetuate the worn-out sexual hoax which is part of American sexual-initiation mythology. Then Sally, the American Dream girl, turns out to be as shallow and as phony as the adult world Holden moves in.

All of these failures build up to the ambiguous question of the ultimate betrayal in Mr. Antolini's living room.6 The result of the combined and concentrated disappointments has been to disorient the boy spiritually even as he has been disoriented physically. He can no longer distinguish the phony from the real. Holden's retreats into his sister Phoebe's world, her ride on the carousel and his collapse are all the result of these disappointments. The novel ends with D. B. began, asking questions, and Holden confessing that he "misses" everybody and that he is sorry that he never told anyone his story. Telling his story has given his experiences a structure. Telling the story has fixed his past in a form and shape. In order to tell it, he had to assume both an audience, disinterested as it might be, and a posture for himself as narrator. For a character who disclaims family tradition, history, a sense of time, and a revulsion for the adult world which surrounds him, to strike a posture is to place himself in a fixed position, will novel to attack. Yet Holden has told the story. He has, in effect, written a novel.

It is this almost unseen aspect of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE that invites closer scrutiny. Holden, in taking the role of narrator, posits an interest in the novel as a literary art form. Holden makes the novel, and in that act of making impresses a form on the chaos of his world. His rejection of DAVID COPPERFIELD was not a rejection of the novel form as such nor of fiction in general. Immediately after rejecting DAVID COPPERFIELD he alludes to his brother's collection of short stories, THE SECRET GOLDFISH, in tones of admiration. Later on in the story, his praise is reserved for the artful or those who do things well, in addition to his admiration of those who love without concern for self-esteem.

His rejection of DAVID COPPERFIELD was in terms of the assumptions implied in that novel's form by its narrator. The notion that time is fixed and rigid, that family credentials matter and that adult society with all its flaws is a desirable goal for the uninitiated young boy are all disclaimed, either explicitly or implicitly by Holden.

It is otherwise with literature, with art, with making. Holden's assumptions about art imply a desire for order, for permanence, for stability. This might explain his attraction to, yet revulsion for the movies. A film moves and changes each second. It is so close to reality that our apprehension of it as an art form frequently crosses over into the belief that the film is real and that our everyday experiences are not. The necessity of knowing through art is inadequately satisfied by the movies for our time. Holden's choice is for the novel.

For all his wry embarrassment, Holden will force himself to tell us about his experiences. Art still matters, even if many people in his world no longer think that individual persons matter. Art is a way of bridging the gap between isolated people, a way of impressing meaning on what seems to be the meaningless flux of history and time. Even if people are not caught, art, literature, the novel -- all catch the moment and fix it in time and space. Holden's setting down of all this for us, if we really want to hear about it, is an act of faith and an act of commitment.

1Ronald M. Fiene, "J.D. Salinger: A Bibliography," Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 4 (Winter, 1963), pp. 109-149 (Listed are some 1500 items in twenty languages).

2THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (New York: Signet Books, 1953), p.7. The original trade edition, published by Little, Brown in 1951, is now very scarce. The Signet edition has gone through 23 printings as of late 1962. Random house has a hardcover edition (1958) in its Modern Library series.

3The Personal History and Experience of David Copperfield (New York: A.L. Burt[n.d.]), p.1.

4Ibid, p.149.

5See also Bernard S. Oldser "The Movies in the Rye," College English, 23 (Dec.1961), pp.209-215.

6See also Peter J. Seng, "The Fallen Idol: The Mature World of Holden Caulfield," College English, 23 (Dec.1961), pp.203-209, for a fuller discussion of this ambiguity.