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The Overrated Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye is probably the most frequently taught book in American high schools and colleges in the second half of the twentieth century. I am not too sure, though, if the novel deserves the position it has held for so long.
The book sees the narrator, Holden Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old boy from New York City, tell the story of three days in his life. The whole narrative is a kind of therapeutic coming-to-terms-with-the-past story, since Holden obviously tells it from a psychiatric institution. It is the adult world that has made him a "madman," as he often characterizes himself. He just cannot relate to anyone except for his kid sister Phoebe. Everything and all other people seem "phony" to him. He flunks out of three boarding schools in a row, the latest of them Pencey Prep, which is also where the first part of the story takes place.
One Saturday night, after some last experiences with his history teacher "Old Spencer," his roommate Stradlater and the boy next door, Robert Ackley, Holden decides to leave Pencey four days early for Christmas break. He knows that he cannot return and that his parents will get a letter about his suspension on Wednesday. He spends the night and the following two days wandering around New York in a kind of aimless quest: He stays at a cheap hotel for one night, goes to two night clubs, dances with older women, often talks and thinks about sex, even has a callgirl come up to his room, but cannot get himself to perform the act. Finally, he gets beaten up by the callgirl's pimp. The next day, he talks with some nuns about literature and has a date with his former girlfriend Sally Woodruff. They go to a theater show and ice-skating together. When he asks her to run away with him, she gets mad and they part. He is "depressed," thinks about and even talks to his dead brother Allie a lot and finally sneaks into his parents' apartment at night to talk to his sister. He tells her about his dream to be a "catcher in the rye," and that he wants to run away. He then leaves to meet his former teacher, Mr. Antolini. They have a good talk, but Holden leaves in a hurry when his host makes a sexual advance on him.
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In my opinion, Holden's story is a little too predictable, and there is no real human development in him. It is not clear if the adult world really is as negative as Holden sees it, or if he himself is a disturbed character. It is amazing how timeless The Catcher in the Rye is, however. Even though it was written around 1950, it talks openly about sex and other issues important to adolescents. The whole action could just as well take place in the 1980s or 90s. The prose is strong and the characters are rather round. Still, I do not find Holden Caulfield highly convincing as the prototype of the troubled youngster confronting the adult world of school and established society. There are similar stories such as A Separate Peace or The Outsiders that offer more suspense and more interesting plots. The Catcher in the Rye is a good read, and high school students would probably enjoy it more than other classic books, but the human factors remain pale. There are better stories of people finding themselves and coming to terms with the world around them, which Holden actually does not manage.