Saturday, July 16, 2011

In Defense of Holden Caulfield

If you've have ever been involved in a discussion about The Catcher in the Rye (what book-nerd hasn't?), there is a high chance that you've heard some variant of the phrases  "Holden is the real phony" or "Holden Caulfield needs to harden up". There's even a facebook page dedicated to the fact that "Holden Caulfield is a whiny little bitch". Many people believe that Salinger himself intended Holden to be a dislikable character.

This attitude is often the consensus, accepted with little argument, but I disagree. So I want to stick up for the guy a bit here.

Salinger and his sister
Some of the charges against Holden are true. He judges other people a lot. He complains about people a lot. He feels a lot of angst. But, in my opinion, his good qualities far outweigh his failings.

He is humble and self-deprecating, and he really loves his family brother and sister:
You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life. She's really smart. I mean she's had all A's ever since she started school. As a matter of fact, I'm the only dumb one in the family. My brother D.B.'s a writer and all, and my brother Allie, the one that died, that I told you about, was a wizard. I'm the only really dumb one.
He is achingly empathetic. In the first chapter, he writes a note to his teacher so the teacher won't feel bad about failing him. He dislikes school because of the cliques and the random cruelty. He's outraged at injustice and lack of empathy in the world, and people who loved the book when they still had that goodness in them look back at it later and sneer at him for his naivity and despair.

I actually think that Salinger was trying to make us look with more kindness at adolescents. The thing about adolescents is, they go around all the time saying "the world isn't fair", "everyone is horrible to each other", "everyone's pretending to be someone they aren't", and we say to them, "stop being such a whiny brat and harden up".

Salinger is saying "empathy, compassion, and trust are not attributes to be ashamed of"

The Catcher is a metaphor for saving people from the transition to adulthood. Once you run through the rye and off the cliff and grow up you lose things like naive trust, unconditional love, and an expectation of honesty from others. And society congratulates you - "well done, you grew up, you're now a tough, mature, cynical man like us."

The funniest thing is that people love to say, "I hate Catcher in the Rye, Holden is such a whiny little bitch", because they think that saying this sounds mature, and tough. I think that part of Salinger's idea was that being tough is not always better than being sensitive, and being mature is not always better than being childlike.

1 comment: