Societal and Individual Interdependency in Salinger's Catcher in the Rye

Societal and Individual Interdependency in Salinger's Catcher in the Rye

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In a perfect world, everyone would be happy with the way they are and everyone would accept the differences of others. Unfortunately, the world we live in is not perfect and not everyone accepts who they are . Is there a reason why people cannot be content with their lives or with the differences of other people? The answer is yes, and the reason for the discontent is society. With society telling the masses what is, and is not acceptable, it is no wonder that people seem “lost”, and are desperately searching out their place in the sun. This search for identity seems to be the case in JD Salinger’s novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Through settings in the novel and symbolism, Salinger illustrates that while the main character, Holden Caulfield, needs the support of the environment around him, the environment also needs Holden as a person. Holden Caulfield is out of place in any environment in which he is placed. At Pencey, his school, Holden gets excluded from the activities of his classmates. At the very beginning of the novel, Holden becomes expelled because his grades are not up to Pencey’s standards and also because he does not feel like he belongs there. Holden separates himself from his classmates for the most part by not becoming involved in the school. Although Holden is the equipment manager of the fencing team, he distances himself from his companions by losing the equipment, showing that he does not fit in, and he really does not want to. As he reflects back on his final day at Pencey he says: “ They kicked me out. ...I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself at all. They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself...but I didn’t do it” (Salinger 4). The school is throwing Holden out because he is not what they want to represent to potential students. They want to show examples of fine, upstanding young men, instead of giving off the image of the failing, confused young man. Salinger uses Pencey as a mock society of some sorts. Holden does not fit in at Pencey, and he most definitely does not fit in as seen in the later settings of the novel. A second example of Holden’s isolation from his classmates can also be seen when he stands alone on the top of the hill during the “big game”.

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During the football game Holden perches himself above the football field where he can hear the cheering, but he cannot see the crowd. Holden says that he hears the yelling because “practically the whole school except me was there” (Salinger 2). Holden’s isolation from his classmates may be his own doing to some extent, however there is another force at work here. The high standards of good grades and involvement in other activities separate Holden from the rest of his school. Holden never really makes the effort to fit in at Pencey because he knows that it is just a made up society, and that it, like the other settings in the novel is just another place that he does not belong. The Pencey setting in the novel rejects Holden because of his mistake of letting his grades slip. Just as Holden’s school casts him out for being different and not making the grade, society casts him out because he is different. After Holden leaves his school, he travels to New York City. Holden is again singled out and stumbles across the feeling that he does bit belong there either. When Holden is on his way up to his hotel room in New York , the elevator operator offers him a prostitute for five dollars and Holden accepts. The next day, Maurice, the elevator boy comes after Holden, saying he did not pay enough for the services. After a scuffle, where Holden gets hurt, Holden leaves the hotel he is staying in. Holden feels that he cannot go back to that same hotel, but he will not go and search for another one. He says, “I had no place to go. It was only Sunday and I couldn’t go home till Wednesday- or Tuesday at the soonest. And I certainly didn’t feel like going to another hotel and getting my brains beat out”(Salinger 106-107). Holden feels as though he cannot go back and he is very reluctant to go forward and find another room for fear that the same thing would happen to him again. Holden is again unable to make a decision. He does not want to move on, because he does not know where he is moving on to, and he cannot go back home because he does not belong there at the moment. This particular situation with the pimp shows how society needs Holden because he is so vulnerable. His innocence makes Holden easy to step on and take advantage of, and a society usually needs people to crush for its leaders to thrive. The affect that society has on Holden is apparent when Holden purchases the ugly, red hunting hat . Throughout the novel, Holden wears it because he thinks that it is stylish and chic. Unfortunately for Holden, the hat is not stylish, nor chic. It is an ugly hat that makes Holden stick out like a sore thumb. One cannot deny the importance of the red hat. “...and then I put on this hat that I ‘d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks”, (Salinger 17). First of all, the color, red is one that you would wear in the country while hunting and trying to stay out of harm’s way. The red hat is Holden’s way of saying ‘look at me!’. He is like no one else, given the fact that he is wearing that hat and it proves that he does not belong in his present environment. Holden later comments on his hat when his little sister Phoebe is wearing it. He observes that “you could see that hat about ten miles away”(Salinger 205), however, Holden is clueless as to exactly how much that hat makes him stand out, even when he sees it on his little sister. He does not understand the brand that society has put on him through that red hat. Society’s affect on Holden becomes illustrated through the red hat by way of a brand or mark. The hat is something that Holden bought for himself, yet in the end it became a mark of society on Holden because the peculiarity of the hat separated him from others. The most important symbol in the novel The Catcher in the Rye is most likely the symbol that gives the book its title. Holden’s fascination with the Robert Burns poem “ If a Body Meet a Body”, spurs this dream of his future occupation. First of all, Holden hears the song being sung by a little boy whose parents are completely ignoring him. The child is walking next to the curb in a straight line singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye”. Holden enjoys hearing the song and watching the little boy : “ He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept on walking next to the curb and singing “If a body catch a body coming through the rye” (Salinger 115). Holden hears this little child walking along and singing, not caring what anyone thinks of him. It comforts him because this little child is a representation of Holden. The boy is being ignored, and yet he keeps going along singing like there was nothing wrong. Holden wishes that he could go along just like that little boy, but instead he has to grow up and face the world. The child is also a symbol, because it represents this innocence that Holden wishes to hold on to, but he cannot manage to hang on as hard as he tries. The child also signifies Holden in the fact that his parents are like the child’s: completely unaware of their youngster, even when he faces dangers of speeding cars. Holden sees this child as lost, like himself but he realizes that the child may have a chance. At the very end of the novel, Holden is having a conversation with his little sister, Phoebe, about the song that he heard the little boy singing. Holden then proceeds to talk about what he wishes he could do all day long : “You know what I’d like to be?” I said.... “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all...What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff....I have to come out from somewhere and catch them . I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.” (Salinger 172-173) Holden finally states what he wants to do with the rest of his life. To everyone else it sounds crazy, but Holden dreams of catching little kids before they fall off of a cliff. The rye field that Holden sees all of these children playing in is the playground of childhood. The children playing in the rye field cannot see over the rye and into what looms in their future. To make sure that none of the children have to face what Holden did, he will catch them so that they do not have to go through the transition all alone. Holden Caulfield wants to catch kids before they fall off into the oblivion that he has been faced with in his transition to adulthood. The little boy that he saw walking in the street was one of the ones that he could have saved had he been able to. Holden wishes that someone would have saved him from falling off that cliff, and so now he dreams of saving others from the isolation and indecision that he had to face. Salinger is trying to show the reader that Holden wants to save the innocence of other children because he was forced to surrender his. He makes a point of Holden’s innocence being so dear to him, which is exactly what society is trying to take away from Holden. Through the use of setting, and symbolism, J. D. Salinger shows the reader that Holden , needs the support of the environment around him, and the environment also needs Holden as a person. He comes from a generation that cannot find their identity: one that leaves people with so little choice that they become angry and bitter, and cannot figure out their place in the world. Holden’s lack of guidance by his parents leaves him to be guided by the environment that he lives in. He cannot fit in, because society is not a good teacher, and Holden becomes mixed up in his values and his ways. Society mandates that people be what society thinks, but this is not the case. Holden Caulfield, in trying to do what society thinks best, ends up a victim of indecision. The society that is creating Holden is ever changing, and whenever Holden thinks he is figuring everything out, he becomes lost again. The novel distinctly portrays the society Holden lives in as controlling him, however, Holden just does not belong to that society. He cannot go forward and he cannot go back, he is stuck in the middle, feeling very lost. In this novel, JD Salinger is moderately effective at portraying the nature of societal and individual interdependency. While Salinger is highly effective when portraying the interdependency between and individual and their environment, he is not very effective when portraying the dependency in symbols. While Salinger’s symbols send messages to the reader, his settings show the actual conflicts between a person and his environment, and the effects that both the individual and the society have on each other.
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