With the end of World War II and the beginning of the 1950s America
saw a time of prosperity and success. It is also around this time that J.D Salinger,
a young writer, publishes a novel which will soon make history. With the publication of “The Catcher
in the Rye” in the summer of 1951, America was introduced to Holden Caulfield,
a character who would continue to remain in the American psyche for over half a
Holden was the voice of a new generation who did not seem to
have the same values, attitudes or mindset as their parents. Through his
actions Holden attacks various aspects of the 50’s.
Holden’s dissent to the conformity he sees in the world
around him is evident from the opening lines of the novel: “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 hemorrhages apiece if I tell you my whole goddam autobiography or
anything.” (Holden, Page 1)
This passage grabs the reader’s attention for several
reasons. J.D. Salinger sets a “rebellious” tone for the entire piece
by opening his novel with the protagonist making a change on the writing style
of one of the most respected authors of the twentieth century. Additionally, it
calls into question the values of 1950s America and what people generally view
to be important.
Another evidence of his “rebelliousness”, lives in the fact
that he often uses the word “goddam”, which is, in its own way, an
act of disobedience against polite society.
“I was the goddam manager of the fencing team.” (Holden, Page
There are many other traits that demonstrate Holden’s
“rebelliousness” and nonconformity; He actively despises many of the people he
encounters and never hesitates to let them know exactly what he dislikes about
He often uses the word “Phonies”, which is a word he uses to
characterize the language of insincere people or to indicate fake actions. Holden
first mention of this word is in chapter 1 with Mr. Spencer. In this case the
use of the word “Phony” comes from the fact that Mr. Spencer used the word
“Grand” to describe his parents.
Besides making himself the complete opposite of a 1950’s
teenage stereotype, Holden also calls himself a liar, the statement: “I’m
the most terrific liar you ever saw” (Holden, Page 9) begs the question as
to whether Holden not only lies to other people, but also to himself.
In fact, when Mr. Spencer asks him: “Do you feel
absolutely no concern for your future, boy?” (Spencer, Page 8)
Holden replies saying: “Oh, I feel some concern for my
future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do.” I thought about it for a minute.
“But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess”. (Holden, page 8)
I believe that Holden telling Mr. Spencer that he is not too
worried about his future is, in reality, a lie. Holden lies to himself because,
pretending to not care, was easier than actually doing something about his
future and dealing with how he really felt.
Another reason why he
might tell lies is to avoid confrontations and avoid to be judged; one example
of it is when he lies to Mr. Spencer about where he was going to avoid getting
a lecture from him.
“I could feel a
terrific lecture coming on. I didn’t mind the idea so much, but I didn’t feel
like being lectured to and smell Vicks Nose Drops and look at old Spencer in
his pajamas and bathrobe all at the same time. I really didn’t.” (Holden, Page 8)
“I have quite a bit
of equipment at the gym I have to get to take home with me. I really do.”
(Holden, Page 8)
He is also taking the time he needs to figure out how he is going
to say good bye to Pencey. He feels very conflicted about his departure. Not
only Holden lies to his teacher but he is also avoiding telling his parents
about his expulsion. He wants to put it off because he knows it will lead to disappointment.
Overall I believe that by writing “The Catcher in the Rye”, J.
D. Salinger main goal was to write about the real issues in America that he
felt were covered up by a society consumed with image and material goals. His
sometimes unconventional subject matter made him a threat for some and a much
needed voice for others.
At the end of the novel, Holden finally finds that telling
lies doesn’t take anywhere because the true meaning comes from continually
searching for the next little joy in life, which he realizes while watching his
sister ride the carousel, reaching each time for the golden ring no matter how
many times she missed it, laughing hysterically each time. Eventually he comes
to the understanding that it isn’t the ring that matters, what matters is the
ride and the joy his sister feels while riding the carousel each time. In the
same way, in order to live life fully, Holden realizes that he has to reach for
accomplishments in order to feel fulfilled, but ultimately the true fulfillment
is in the process, not the results.
Thanks to J.D. Salinger’s novel (and maybe to Holden finally
coming to the realization that isn’t the result that matters but the process) throughout
the 1950s and into the 1960s, the rebellion of youth began to gradually be more
spoken about and increasingly organized.
Salinger’s identification of a collective youth experience
and rebellion can be attributed to his desire to address it in his writing in a
way that he felt was honest and necessary.