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The passage of adolescence has served as the central theme for many
novels, but J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, long a staple in academic
lesson plans, has captured the spirit of this stage of life in hyper-sensitive
form, dramatizing Holden Caulfield's vulgar language and melodramatic
reactions. Written as the autobiographical account of a fictional teenage prep
school student Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye deals with material
that is socially scandalous for the times (Gwynn, 1958). As an emotional,
intelligent, inquisitive, and painfully sensitive young man, Holden puts his
inner world to the test through the sexual mores of his peers and elders, the
teachings of his education, and his own emerging sense of self. Throughout
the years, the language of the story has startled some readers. Salinger's
control of Holden's easy, conversational manner makes the introduction of
these larger themes appear natural and believable. (Bloom, 1990).
At the time of the novel through today, Holden's speech rings true to the
colloquial speech of teenagers. Holden, according to many reviews in the
Chicago Tribune, the New Yorker, and the New York Times, accurately
captures the informal speech of an average intelligent, educated, northeastern
American adolescent (Costello, 1990). Such speech includes both simple
description and cursing. For example, Holden says, "They're nice and all", as
well as "I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or
anything." In the first instance, he uses the term "nice" which oversimplifies
his parents' character, implying he does not wish to disrespect them, yet at
the same time he does not praise them. At best he deems them as "nice and
all." Holden further cuts short his description, but in a more curt manner,
when he states he will not tell his "whole goddam autobiography or anything."
From the start the reader picks up Holden's hostility and unwillingness to
share his views strictly by his use of language (Salzman, 1991).
From the last two examples, another colloquialism can be seen. Holden
has a habit of ending his descriptions with tag phrases such as "and all" or "or
anything." (Salzman, 1991). Not only does Holden speak like this in the
beginning of the novel, but throughout the book, making this pattern a part of
his character. One could imagine Holden frequently ending his sentences
with "and all," realizing it is a character trait since not all teenagers used that
phrase. So the "and all" tag to Holden's speech served to make his speech
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authentic and individual. (Salzman, 1991). Salinger intentionally used such
speech patterns to help individualize Holden, yet to also make him a
believable teenager of the early 1950's.
Another example of how Holden's speech helped define his character
is how he constantly had to confirm any affirmation he made, as if even he
did not quite believe himself. Such reconfirmations include phrases such as
"...if you want to know the truth," or "...it really does." Holden says the first
phrase several times. "I have no wind, if you want to know the truth," "I'm
pacifist, if you want to know the truth," and a variation: "She had a lot of sex
appeal, too, if you really want to know." In each of the above instances,
Holden makes a statement then feels compelled to clarify that is he is not
making it up but is, in fact, telling the truth. These mannerisms may point to
several aspects of his character. For example, Holden is on the verge of
failing out of preparatory school and fears telling his parents. Because he did
not do well in school, Holden may have felt as though no one ever took him
seriously and realized his actions left him with no solid academic standing.
Since Holden is essentially a failure at school with no serious friendships, he
attempts to solidify some communication in asking for approval by stating "if
you want to know the truth." Holden wants people to believe him so he
speeks to seek approval (Costello, 1990). Again, Salinger creates this speech
pattern as believable for a common teenager, yet it also seems to belong
individually to Holden.
The Catcher in the Rye gained much of its notoriety for the language
used in it, particularly the crude words (Gwynn, 1958). Like most colloquial
uses of body parts, accidents of birth, or religious connotations, Holden does
not strictly make use of words in reference to their original meaning. The
word "hell" is a staple of Holden's vocabulary, and he uses it often with both
positive and negative connotations. In one instance, he tells us he had a
"helluva time," when he and Phoebe sneaked away and had a good time
shopping for shoes downtown. Other statements include "pretty as hell,"
"playful as hell," or "hot as hell."
Holden's perception that situations were anything but normal in some
relation to the extremes of the usage of "hell" is applied to both positive and
negative situations. In each use of the word, Holden uses "hell" as a way to
expresses the confusion of adolescence and his own regular use of it
illustrates his own extreme sensitivity as a character (Gwynn, 1958).
As Holden's experiences change, so does his use of crude language.
When he is caught up in his own antics and is enraged, "sonuvabitch" and
"bastard" frequently find their way into his vocabulary. However, when he
addresses the reader as a narrator, Holden rarely, if ever, slips into his
habitual use of swearing (Costello, 1990). "Sonuvabitch" is reserved for his
extreme anger, as when he kept calling Stradlater a "moron sonuvabitch" for
the boy's ostensibly offensive treatment of Jane Gallagher. Again, Holden's
sporadic use of "sonuvabitch" in his angriest moments alerts the reader to the
serious quality of his anger. Salinger carefully crafted such speech patterns to
help us identify Holden's character without lengthy descriptions of such.
Here, the offending words lets the reader know when Holden is most angry
and the types of situations that make him so, thereby offering further insight
into his character, often through the use of a single word.
Holden's regular use of curse words to describe his view of any given
situation leaves the impression his vocabulary is limited, as observed in one
much younger than himself. However, Holden recognizes that he has a
limited vocabulary and uncomprehendingly identifies it himself (Salzman,
1991). He makes use of cursing in an effort to add emphasis to his otherwise
simplistic verbiage. For example, Holden says "That guy Morrow was about
as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat" (Salinger, 1951). The best reference
Holden could think of was "toilet seat," a simple item readily grasped by even
young children. To give this simile more emphasis, Holden, as usual, tosses
in a curse word. Holden makes another toilet-like reference when he says
"He started handling my paper like it was a turd or something," (Salinger,
1951) when referring to his teacher's expressions and body language while
picking up some written work Holden had done. "Turd" is a word a recently
potty-trained child might use instead of a prep school teen. So Holden not
only admits to having a limited vocabulary, but he has a vocabulary seemingly
limited to one even younger than his age.
Holden's regular use of cursing demonstates not only the depth of his
emotion, but signals the reader to the fact that he is caught in the stage where
childhood and approaching maturity collide. He relates poorly to instances
other than those from his early youth, and tries in vain to bridge the gap
between adolescent and adult worlds with his use of profanity. He fails to
notice that his cursing loses much of his intended rebellious impact by his
overuse of the words. Rather than successfully rebelling against school or his
parents, Holden appears sometimes tortured and pathetic, and sometimes just
This superficiality of youth leaves him with little ability to
communicate because he relies so heavily on simple words and thoughts to
express the majority of his feelings. While Holden's teenage angst is
apparent, Salinger carefully crafted Holden's vocabulary to create a character
who is believable.
As Holden's vocabulary and outlook on life demonstrate to us his character as
a fictional persona, the realistic flavor of his vocabulary mixed with emotion
unfailingly ties him with the harsh realities of adolescence and the youth of
Bloom, HB. Major Literary Characters: Holden Caulfield. Chelsea
House Publishers. New York, 1990.
Costello, DP. The Language of the Catcher in the Rye. Holden
Caulfield. Cambridge, New York; Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Gwynn, F. The Fiction of JD Salinger. University of Pittsburg Press.
Salinger, JD. The Catcher in the Rye, Little, Brown and Co. Boston,
Salzman, J. The American Novel: New Essays on the Catcher in the
Rye. Cambridge University Press, 1991.