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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013
J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye is a novel that encapsulates teenage life and the ways in which today’s youth struggle throughout adolescent life. Teenage angst and loneliness run deep throughout this novel, with the novel’s main protagonist Holden Caulfield posing as an icon for teenage rebellious attitude. The novel was originally intended for the adult audience but quickly became popular with teenagers as it deals with many ideas that they face. Salinger’s literary work is widely celebrated as a novel which perfectly reveals issues of innocence and problems of identity that today’s adolescents face.
There are several key themes in Salinger’s work and they play a major part for the protagonist of the story, the themes expressed allowing the reader to deeply understand what the characters are going through and serving to portray the individual motivations and values that the characters hold.
One of the predominant themes in The Catcher In The Rye is that of a childlike innocence. For the most part, Holden sees innocence as a value that is true to his being and a quality that he wants to instill in the youth. Holden struggles when growing up and sees adulthood as a cruel transition process, not wanting to grow up himself. It is debatable whether Holden’s attitude has changed by the end of the novel, on the one hand, he may have accepted that adolescence is just a phase, but many critiques of the novel imply that he has not matured in any way. Whatever the case may be, all the characters that Holden likes represent innocent people and Holden thinks of them as innocent in their own way. As an example, he doesn’t regard Jane Gallagher as a mature woman but as a girl that he spent many a time playing with. Holden also prides himself on the fact that he and Jane haven’t had any sexual relations and maintains her innocence in this way. Holden wants to protect children’s innocence throughout – you can see his despair when he confronts Jane about having possibly been sexually active and it bothers him deeply.
As a clear adolescent, Holden rejects ideas of growing up. Symbols of death serve as reminders of this theme, e.g. his parents getting sick, his time in the natural history museum, and the death of his younger brother Allie. Themes of death run deep within the novel as Holden is confronted with death throughout, i.e. the death of his innocence through the transition from adolescent to adult. Biological change from child to adult is the type of death that Holden is trying to resist and it is frustrating for him to have to deal with this. He wishes that time could stand still in the sense that things could remain the way they are for the foreseeable future, especially when something patently beautiful is occurring. Unfortunately for Holden, this is not a possibility and so his character in a way dies as his frustration brews into eventual madness towards the end of the novel where his anxieties have manifested. Salinger’s work also reveals existential fears relating to death as Holden ponders what it will be like when he eventually ceases to exist and this frightens him deeply. The theme of death helps articulate the adolescent struggles that Holden’s character is going through and personifies the changes that all humans face. Salinger uses Holden’s character and his narration to make a point about the death of innocence and childhood in particular but also about “death” in the sense of transition from one idea to another.
It is clear that Holden is using alienation as a coping strategy to deal with the world around him. He protects himself with alienation because he feels excluded and not part of the reality, constantly trying to find his place in the world. Holden wears an esoteric hunting hat to display his individualism around others and uses alienation in a similar way to prove to others that he is superior to those around him. Holden clutches to his alienation in the same way that he clutches to his hat, as a source of his stability. The character acts in a cynical and alienating manner because the world around him is confusing and often overwhelming.
Transition and Growing Up
The adult world is one that clearly scares Holden and he deals with this through his critique of the adult world as being one full of “phoniness”, a term suggesting an inadequate and hypocritical world. He uses this term and has this view because it is clear that he does not want to accept the idea that growing up is a part of life. His lack of understanding of the world around him is due to a lack of acknowledgment of his deep-rooted fears of change. Holden’s world is far too complex for him and this is devastating – he would prefer a world of simplicity and innocence. Holden creates a fantasy world around him which is explained with his notion of the “catcher in the rye”, imagining a field of rye where children are free to roam around, which is also inconveniently placed near the edge of a cliff. As children move towards the end, he will be there to save them from falling over to their death. This death is a clear metaphor for transition into adulthood and it is clear that Holden is not ready to understand growing up.
Thematic Significance and Conclusion
The key themes of this story of teenage angst help paint a picture of the adolescent world in reality. It is unsurprising that many readers of this novel have felt a connection between the protagonist and their adolescent struggles, especially with the themes that have underlined the story throughout. Salinger’s use of themes paints a vivid picture of themes that are universal in everyday adolescent life which is one of the main reasons why this novel has a wide reputation as a classic piece of literature.