In 1971, my last year in high school, I ended up in special English class of one with a reading list that needed my parent’s permission.
Some of the books on that list were: Franny & Zooey, Catcher in the Rye, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Lord of the Flies, Bless the Beast & the Children, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings…. pretty sophisticated stuff for a 17-year-old by the standards of the day.
But actually not too sophisticated at all. Adults like to perpetuate the myth of their own wisdom by underestimating the adolescent’s ability to think symbolically. Catcher In The Rye is a perfect example, both in the story itself, and in the book’s history as the number-one most banned book in schools, even to this day.
I confess that even now, I relate to Holden Caulfield. But it’s clear that most people miss Salinger’s message entirely. Caulfield is alienated—that much any half-wit can see. But what alienates him is missed entirely. The key to his depression is how absolutely normal ‘phony-ness’ is in the world around him. He goes into detail to describe what he thinks phony-ness is—the utter lack of compassion for others — among his schoolmates, among the movie-makers in Hollywood, among his parents’ generation, who seem to value all the wrong things.
What Holden values is so utterly simple that it is easy to miss. It is all embodied in his dead little brother, Allie who was sweet, kind, and interested in those around him. Allie was pure love. Holden prefers being with those his loves in such unadorned situations like hanging out with his little sister to just about any other activity in life. He longs for a genuine, authentic exchange between people—one that overlooks pimples and shyness because it recognizes the true value of the person. Their real heroism, integrity and courage.
When he describes the grisly taunting that led to James Castle jumping to his death rather than admitting to being a coward, it becomes clear that Holden sees what no one else wants to see — that if we bend to the tyranny of bullies of our society, we die. When no one at Pencer will go close to Castle’s burst and bloody remains, they accuse themselves of being his murderers. When Mr. Antolini appears on the scene and checks for a pulse, then covers Castle’s gory body with his own coat to carry it inside, Holden is deeply touched. Antolini’s lack of concern for his expensive coat in lieu of covering Castle’s very intimate and private viscera splattered all over the steps and sidewalk, strikes Holden as the response that should be normal. The fact that it is the exception in our society rather than the rule is what depresses and alienates Holden. And he is absolutely correct to be depressed. It is an appropriate response to Man’s inhumanity towards Man.
Holden doesn’t want to be part of that world and as he realizes that there is no escaping it, he begins to retreat behind his fantasies and can only be brought to his senses when he sees how the consequences of this choice are affecting his little sister.
The fact that Holden’s style of resistance is passive may bother people who need things spelled out for them. But what other choice does a 16-year-old have who is prematurely enlightened by the death of his little brother?
In the real shoes of someone who has had a loved one prematurely snatched out of their lives, the overwhelming sensation is “This does not make sense…” The griever cannot stop asking, why? why? why? The powerlessness, the unfairness, the utter lack of logic that one feels after the sudden death of a loved one is totally alienating. But it doesn’t feel like those expectations are misplaced, but rather that there is something very wrong with the world. It is like getting a pair of glasses for the first time in your life.
The fact that within our society, there is no acknowledgment of how utterly unfair, incorrect, inhuman, and wrong it is to lose a loved one, makes the shock of the loss even worse. Not only do you feel like half of a person, but everyone around you is talking to you as if nothing is wrong. It’s sheer crazy-making. Plain and simple. And Holden’s only form of defiance, of protest, is to passively not participate. He lives in a world where his opinions and preferences do not count to the decision-makers of his life. Like all children, he has a limited number of responses available to him to get his point across. Flunking out of prep school sends the message loud and clear.
What is the societal “normal” versus what should be the norm? Salinger constantly revisits this theme in his work — Franny & Zooey explores the same territory — and his subsequent withdrawal from the public world after his disastrous and disappointing brush with success, are really the quintessential leitmotif of his oeuvre:
What passes for insanity in our culture is often a sane reaction to an insane thing.
Reposted for Mr. Rapson‘s AP English students.
Copyright © 2009 Stephanie Ericsson All Rights Reserved