Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with “cynical adolescent.” Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. It begins,
“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. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”
His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
I know that most people have strong reactions to this book. It seems to either be adored or abhorred. I somewhat expected to hate it, if I’m perfectly honest. I didn’t expect to feel rather ambivalent about it all though. It’s rare for me to feel totally “meh” about a “classic” novel, because I just tend to have strong opinions.
I didn’t hate Holden though. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with him, but I understood why he was how he was. The trauma of your brother dying, and being sent away to school, taking you away from your baby sister who you love, would be a really horrible thing for any teenager to deal with. It seems Holden’s parents didn’t think too hard about that little issue… and the way Holden puts it, they don’t think about him very much at all. I don’t think that’s entirely true, but he is really alienated from his family, his peers and the adults who are trying to guide him. His bursting into tears whilst under pressure shows that there’s more going on underneath this cynical exterior.
Holden is really the biggest “phony” in the novel, and that’s pretty much the point, or so it seemed to me. He’s extremely hypocritical; for example, swearing in front of his sister, then getting angry that someone wrote swear words on the school wall… as if that’s somehow different. He’s obsessed with innocence, yet he isn’t innocent himself.
I just didn’t really care about what happened all that much, I didn’t care if Holden went home or went to Seattle or whatever. It all just fell flat and I was thrilled to finally reach the end of the book. I don’t think that that’s really the best impression a book could have.
I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, I don’t think I am Holden or that he’s a useless whiner. It is what it is, and that is definitely not the book for me.