I used to think J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was a story one of its kind. And then came along a green monochrome paperback with a very sweet sounding name: The Perks of being a Wallflower. After recovering from the initial shock that some Stephen Chbosky has dared to copy Salinger’s magnum opus, I realized that though the plot isn’t very intense, Perks is no less than a modern classic itself.
Chbosky’s protagonist has an alias – Charlie. Every now and then, and especially in the beginning of the story, one can not help thinking that Charlie is none other than Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. The language, the thought process, and even the description of some of the settings Charlie described in The Perks of being a Wallflower felt like a déjà vu, because Holden had already said it all. Stephen Chbosky regards Salinger as one of his greatest influences, even mentions The Catcher… in his book. The similarities between these two stories are starkly visible. The protagonists in both the books are confused teenagers who believe that people are not what they really showed or seemed. Both the stories are addressed to the reader in first person. Both Charlie and Holden love reading and mention their favorite books and authors throughout their story. And my most favorite: Charlie loves milkshake and Holden is all for malted milk. Oh, and both end up with psychiatrists.
No one can miss the connection between these two twentieth century novels that became a quick success with the adolescents. Yet, there are differences that make the authors and the stories quite distinct. The vocabulary used in The Catcher in the Rye has been talked about as much as the story, if not more. It’s repeatedly misogynist. The book has been banned as well, because of the “offensive” words and phrases embedded into it. Words like “goddamn” and “flit” are the ones so effortlessly used every now and then. And perhaps because the book was banned, it’s been one of the most read books of the century.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, on the other hand, uses as sweet a vocabulary as the title. And though the Salinger-esque tinge can be seen throughout the novel, Perks has its own charm. Charlie’s narration is poetic. His story will make the reader sad in a very sad way. That sounds weird, but really. And when it does, the story makes the reader smile a genuine smile. Frequently criticized and challenged as well, Perks brings to the fore the things that are otherwise whispered behind closed doors. The story addresses the sense of alienation that tugs at the heart of the teens. In addition to this, the story also deals with the issues of having a gay friend, child abuse and the trauma it causes, which is something that the reader finds very hard to digest at the end of the story.
Charlie as a character is loveable from the very first sentence that he writes. His naivete makes the reader laugh a hearty laugh. He has an honest innocence to him, combined with an intense sensitivity and intelligent mind. Through the course of the story, Charlie becomes a response to a collective cry of “nobody understands me”. Charlie’s friend Patrick calls him a Wallflower because, as he says, “You see things. You keep quiet about them. And you understand.” The sensation of being a spectator of life, rather than a participant in it, forms an immediate connection of Charlie with the readers.
Holden, on the other hand, becomes likeable because of completely different reasons. He is a flawed character who is anxious and depressed of the world around him. Nobody is good enough a person for him. But he’s well read and he explains his feelings in such an easy way that you almost feel it with him. He leaves his boarding school and travels alone to reach his home and does it with a conviction that makes the reader feel that he knows what he’s doing. But despite all this, despite the fact that Holden gives us every reason to believe that he has it under control, the reader is still able to recognize that Holden's surface response to a situation hides a much deeper, emotional response. He’s unable to form healthy personal attachments and he’s running away from his life because all the new responsibilities, expectations and uncertainties of adulthood have scared him shitless. He’s afraid of the loss of childhood and the comfort it provided. He’s the guy one might not really like, exploring a period of life that one is glad to have left behind. And although he doesn’t accept it, Holden is full of compassion and love, which comes to the fore when his kid sister becomes the reason for him for not running away. Also when he says that all he really wants to do is to be the Catcher in the Rye:
“… I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."
While the similarities between the stories can’t be denied, yet each story offers a treat to the intellect and the senses; and thus making them both a huge success. So have a good time reading these two books worth spending your time with. And oh, don’t forget to sit down with a pencil or a marker because both the stories are full of quotes which you’d want to note down and remember for a long, long time….