Author: J. D. Salinger
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
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I picked up a copy of J. D. Salinger's 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, not because it had sold over 65 million copies, nor because it was always prominently listed in the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. What caught my attention, however, was the large number of shootings associated with this book. Tell me who wouldn't be curious when Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon, was arrested with his personal copy of the book, in which he had inscribed, "To Holden Caulfield, From Holden Caulfield, This is my statement".
Many books have been written with teenagers as protagonists, but few capture their angst, alienation and rebellion as lucidly and fluently as this book. Holden Caulfield is the teenage protagonist who addresses the readers directly. The first hand narration takes us directly into the agitated mind of the 16 year old. He describes three days in his life right after he was expelled from a prep-school, now making it his third time of being kicked out from a school. The reason he gives for not being able to cope up with his studies is that he is surrounded by "phonies". This is a term very frequently used by Holden to describe superficial and pretentious people. Holden hates phonies. He hates when people talk and act superficially just to satisfy social and cultural norms. This is the reason why some of the critics classify Holden as an anti-hero. He is a social misfit who does not want to be tied down into forced cultural niceties. While he is frustrated at the superficiality of adults, we see him being pretentious and dishonest himself, just like any other adult. This theme of identity crisis runs as an implicit subaltern layer throughout this book, along with other inner conflicts of teenagers.
The conversations between Holden and his younger sister Phoebe are very memorable. Holden feels that only Phoebe understands him. He sees in her the childhood innocence which he does not see in adults. He is saddened by the loss of this innocence in children as they become adults. He wants to make it his duty to preserve this innocence. He wants to be the catcher in the rye who prevents little children playing in the field from falling off the cliff, into the abyss of adulthood.
The Catcher in the Rye employs teenage colloquial speaking style of the 40's, and hence, contains a lot of usages like "that killed me" etc., thus giving the narration a very original voice. The book has been censored multiple times as it contains a lot of profanity and sexuality. Even so, it is a pleasure reading this modern classic. It can identify with all teenagers as it delves truthfully into the topics of angst, identity crisis and freedom. While it recognizes the social shackles of adulthood, it inspires us to face them truthfully. For me, Holden Caulfield is not an anti-hero; he is a quintessential human being.