Mel's Online Book Club: The Catcher In The Rye: Summary Discussion

Posted at 19:32pm on 1st October 2010


Those of you who follow Mels Online Book Club will know that for the real time Readers Group that I lead, I usually compile a list of questions as a prompt. As a result, I have become adept at doing the one thing I was brought up never to do: defacing a book!The issues that are raised in my mind, as I read, now begin life as a series of notes on the back pages and inside cover a practice I can recommend as a means of developing awareness of your take on life, and deepening your pleasure in reading.The book, this month, was littered with notes!


A controversial choice for some of the Book Group members, The Catcher In The Rye, has been translated into almost all of the world's major languages and is reported to have sold around a quarter of a million copies, each year, with total sales of more than sixty-five million.

An iconic study of teenage angst, Catcher was written by American author, Jerome David Salinger, and was first published in serial form in 1945, and as a book in 1951.It is worth noting that Salinger, who died in January this year, subsequently became a recluse, shunning the publicity and adulation showered upon him as a result of his bestseller.


I say this because one of the questions raised by members of my Book Group was whether the book might, in any way, be autobiographical. Its certainly a possibility, I suppose: aspiring authors are urged, at Creative Writing Courses, to write what you know. Salinger, who grew up in Manhattan, where the book is set, would undoubtedly have had first hand knowledge of life in the city. As he was also a mere twenty-six years of age when he wrote it, hed have been close enough to his adolescence to have remembered the sentiments of that era, Id have thought.

However, one member rightly drew attention to the fact that the book merely fitted the genre of kitchen sink drama epitomised in the 1950s by Alan Sillitoes Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and John Osbornes stage play, Look Back In Anger.

I asked the group to mark their impression of the book one-to-ten. Immediately, this divided us into two camps. There were those who disliked everything about it style, story and protagonist - and gave it only three; one woman said she couldnt see any point in it at all! But others, whilst acknowledging the dark, depressing nature of the story, found it a masterpiece of literary insight into a profoundly human condition.


The plot covers a mere two and a half days in the life of a sixteen year old, Holden Caulfield, who has been expelled from a prestigious boys' boarding school for the third time, and vows to run away rather than face the wrath of his father. Bearing in mind that a plot is defined as cause and consequence, its easy as an adult - to see that Caulfield is his own worst enemy and is the cause of many of the ills that befall him.But is it fair to lay this entirely at his door? Or are his wealthy, but (one assumes) emotionally distant parents in some way to blame?

There followed a lively discussion about todays broken society, and the way in which rights and responsibility have become skewed by years of nanny state government.The welfare system, we agreed, strips people of dignity by removing the compulsion for self-determination, as well as the need for self-discipline, and replacing them with a culture of dependency. A rant against the compensation culture that has evolved largely as the result of this, it was thought led into a general discussion on whether governments should put the good of society above the good of the individual, and whether, for instance, drugs should be legalised in order to achieve this.


Holden Caulfield is depicted as a sixteen year old, but I tend to think that this might translate into fourteen, or younger, in todays insouciant society in which rights exceed responsibility in importance.

Salingers skill in handling the language of youth is masterful. Grammatically, it is slovenly: coarse, and punctuated throughout with profanity. Hyperbole is used to great effect. Caulfields stream of consciousness like that of nearly every teenager we have known of - is riddled with overblown phrases. Everybody, always, never. Simple enough words, but the way in which they replace a more reasoned, some people, sometimes, rarely, brings the character to life. People take five hours to get ready,they squeeze pimples, they are sexy bastards, they are phony. I sort of hated old Sally, says Caulfield at one point, after listening to that phony Andover bastard for about ten hours.

Yet behind the bad language and cynicism that would probably have most of us muttering under our breath were we to share a train journey with the Caulfields of this world, there lurks a loveable and vulnerable boy. Without exception we warmed to his very evident love for his little sister old Phoebe; his romantic and protective view of girls in general; his loathing of hypocrisy (everyone and everything is phony); his disdain for social convention, whereby the sole reason for education, he thinks, is so that you can learn enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day . . .

Exploring his own sexuality remains a cerebral exercise for Caulfield and, throughout the course of the book, he never loses his virginity. The only time, in fact, that he comes anywhere close is with a prostitute. But when he expresses a desire to talk, to get to know her, she rapidly walks away. Despite, or perhaps because of this naivety, like many boys of his age (notably our children and grandchildren) he has a dark suspicion of homosexuality and, at one point, whilst staying with his ex-teacher and his wife, appears to mistake natural affection for something subversive and perverted.

His awareness and concern for others nevertheless shines through. His comment on a one-time roommate, for instance. Realising that the other boys background is not as affluent as his own and that this is an issue for the boy, Caulfield hides his own luggage under the bed. His action fails to heal the wound, and eventually he realises that: . . . its really hard to be roommates if your suitcases are much better than theirs . . . you think if theyre intelligent and all . . . that they dont give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. They really do. As a result of this event, Caulfield is later moved to wish he had given more than a ten buck contribution to some nuns he meets, whose suitcases are also inferior to his own!

Caulfields constant analysis of the meaning of life, we decided, is no more than the norm. It is as natural for adolescents to explore and comment on existentialism, as it is for babies to experience their surroundings through their mouths, or toddlers to exert their individualism by throwing a tantrum.

A recent discussion Ive had on Facebook has led me to believe that it is probably the norm throughout life. I wonder, I said to the group, if as we mature we merely learn to wear the masks of convention to hide the angst we experience in our everyday encounters with the world. Are we the 'phonies' Caulfield deplores? Is the reality that the loneliness and fear portrayed by Salingers protagonist is the self-same monster that haunts so many of us at night, and robs us of sleep when the masks are down?


Which brought us neatly back to the point of the story. One or two members of the Book Group prof

Your Comments:

21st June 2012
at 6:24pm
I haven't read Salinger since I exited my own angst-filled peoird. I do remember that I liked Franny and Zooey better than The Catcher in the Rye, and that in those non-believing days I was fascinated by Franny's recitation of the Jesus Prayer as an attempt to release HER angst. Living in an undergraduate environment where Jesus was practically a forbidden name, I had never read anything like that from an intellectual, hip writer like Salinger. I think his writing did have a positive effect on my spiritual journey, as it helped me in a small way to break free of my social conditioning against Christian faith.

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