The Catcher in the Rye has truly earned it’s place among great classic works. J. D. Salinger created a literary piece that was completely unique. The entire novel was written in the first person view of the 17-year-old, Holden Caulfield. The majority of the story is compiled of Holden’s rudimentary monologue of ‘complexly simple’ thoughts, the rest utilizing his relay of previous dialogue. That and the use of unique punctuation, digressing explanations, and complex characterization, transformed the simple plot into the complex literary classic.
The novel’s dialogue and monologue alike, manage to relay the feel of natural speaking such as:
“I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean.”
The contractions; you’d and can’t – since they are common in everyday language – establish a very common and simple tone. Stress on the first syllable of “different,” reinforces the tone by demonstrating how typically they speak, just as in reality. He uses dashes for pauses and signaling associative digressions. Instead of signaling pauses, commas are used mostly where mechanically required, for instance:
“So all of a sudden, I ran like a madman across the street – I damn near got myself killed doing it, if you want to know the truth – and went in this stationary store and bought a pad and pencil.”
Holden Caulfield creates a thought provoking point of view. On the surface many of his thought patterns seem unrelated and straying from the topic. His association of topic with digression is used almost constantly throughout the novel. However, realizing that these digressions are very relevant and even crucial to the topic allow the reader to gain true insight to the character. His statements about his sister’s intelligence, followed by explanations of how well she listens, reveals Holden’s associations of intelligence with being quiet and observant. Another example would be his tension around the nuns. Even though he enjoyed the conversation, he worried about being asked if he was Catholic. He stated they “…would have liked it better if he were Catholic.” This gives insight to his discomfort with being judged morally, and to his association of people of morals looking down on those who don’t share them.
In Holden’s descriptions and thoughts, Salinger accomplished the most unique aspect of the story’s point-of-view. Instead of using the popular – however overrated – style of well refined thoughts and flowery descriptions, Salinger describes things as they are perceived upon a first impression. Naturally the human mind does not instantly process first encounters or experiences into drawn out rhetorical metaphors. We must think about them first, relate and compare them to past experiences, then form associations. This is based on Jean Piaget theory of assimilating new situations, accommodating them with previous knowledge, then forming generalizations for understanding, called schemas. [Houghton-Mifflin Psychology, pgs. 49-50] That is exactly how Salinger describes Holden’s thoughts. Holden, like us all, has difficulty explaining things until they have been thought through. For instance, Holden observes Stradlater’s grooming and his looks. Then he compares it to the way guys look in yearbooks, and what parents say about them. Last he concludes, through comparison, that Stradlater is the kind of guy that your parents ask about. He states: “I’ve had that experience quite frequently.”
In the more descriptive writings of other authors, it is difficult to relate to the complex associations. The majority of thought inspired by these works can sometimes be just to figure out the point. However, Salinger expresses the thought patterns of Holden in the same inherent ways that all humans think, and through that, relays a strong tone of realism and active thought. Despite the lack of dazzling rhetoric, Salinger’s descriptions are no less intricate. They inspire a more natural style of analyzation that most can relate to easily. A more logical and linear path, relating to typical primal human thought, is followed instead of abstract reasoning and artistic representation.
Finally, the elements previously discussed, and a few independent ones, will be used to examine the characterization of Holden Caulfield. Such as how Caulfield’s tendency toward constant introspection and analyzing of his world, his digression of topics, and the nature in which he speaks, gives us clues to his character.
His level of intelligence is in no way reflected by his lack of knowledge on trivial issues. He is adept at reasoning the things around him. Almost all of the insight Caulfield spoke of were things that would not have been taught to him. Such as repeatedly displaying understanding of human nature, pretensions, and thought processes. However, despite his intuition, he applies his often cynical and pessimistic reasoning to almost everything. This fact illustrates ignorance and a level of immaturity. This is obvious in his inquiry about the ducks, thoughts concerning women, obscene graffiti, and always getting a “pukey cab.”
Since the fact that his mental health was brought up often with his thoughts of being crazy, with statements like “I’m crazy, swear to God, I am…” and references of psychological hospitalization in the beginning and end, a psychological approach will be used to explain his manner. Holden demonstrates tendencies associated with both OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and bipolar Disorder, consisting of swings between manic and depressive states.
OCD is characterized by obsessive thoughts and their motivation of compulsive acts to relieve the stress of the obsession. [Houghton Mifflin Psychology, pg. 539] It is quite obvious that Holden is very obsessed with detail. He also demonstrates a common symptom of OCD, counting. At Grand Central Station, he mentions repeatedly counting floor squares. Small details trouble him endlessly. Once he becomes so obsessed with type of luggage that his roomate has that he hides his own under the bed.
Bipolar Disorder, the more severe of the two, is the most apparent in Caulfield. He displays an amazing amount of symptoms of this Disorder. He suffers symptoms such as: little need to sleep, difficulty remaining on topic discussions (jumping from subject to subject), bursting with ideas and insight, irritation with people who rationalize with them, excessive spending of money, impaired decision making (instances of people going to live on the streets), cynicism, and paranoia. The mania will give way to severe depression, in some cases, in a matter of hours.
The examples of the previous symptoms are demonstrated in Caulfield’s monologuos thoughts and dialogue. The instances of his jumping from topic to topic, and his insight and ideas, have already been discussed. Holden comments on his “little need for sleep” often like after the clubs close he says, “I wasn’t sleepy or anything.” A great amount of irritation is shown toward Sally when she points out flaws in his plans of running away. He becomes belligerent and tells her, “you give me a royal pain in the ass.” In the beginning he comments on his abundant supply of money, but by the end he is forced to borrow from his sister. He frequently pays for peoples meals and drinks, donated money to nuns, and offered anyone a drink “on him”. A textbook example of his impaired decision making was his plans to run away, pretend to be mute, and build a cabin in the woods. His cynicism is constant as he repeatedly generalizes everyone on the basis of dress, status, and looks. The thoughts of always getting a pukey cab and obscene words being everywhere are prime cases of paranoia. Then in his swing to depression, he comments on people making him depressed, his feelings of being “lousy,” and once expressed thoughts of suicide. When he spoke of people coming to New York to get up early, he voiced his wish to jump out of the hotel window.
Holden Caulfield, being afflicted with such handicaps, was doomed to fail in school, and his breakdown inevitable. Living in a time when clinical psychology would not come for a few years, Holden was forced to cope with this on his own. There was no one to go to for help, so his wish for it manifested itself into the one thing he would like. So in his subconscious wishes for control and help he said:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where their going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
The children represent all of his problems running rampid in his game of life that “old Spencer” told him of in the beginning. The absence of “big” people portray no one being in charge, and him the lone “big” person, express him as being souly in control. The playing in the rye field next to a crazy cliff would depict his nearness to his fall, while being oblivious to the danger. His one wish is to able to prevent this, to be in control. Then after establishing his wishes he considers it impossible by expressing thoughts of it’s craziness. He is resolved that he cannot be in control, but it is all he wants.
In a world before alternatives to his painful lifestyle, what can Holden do but blindly play the game in the rye field, right beside his cliff of sanity.
“But life is a game boy. Life is a game that one must play by the rules.”
3rd edition Psychology (Bernstein-Stewart, Roy, Srull, & Wickens) Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, Massachusetts 1994