So why is he so dissatisfied? Holden himself cannot explain this, for, firstly, he does not analyse himself, and is possibly incapable of doing so; and secondly, neither is he very articulate. His general sense of dissatisfaction is something he feels, but which he cannot understand, or express in words even if he could. So it is up to us, as readers, to try to look beyond his natural inarticulacy. One word he uses frequently is “phoney”. He doesn’t explain what he mans by this, but we can see that he tends to apply this word to describe what he regards (although he would possibly be unable to articulate it thus) as emotional shallowness, or insincerity. And this he sees all around him. People say things, do things, not because they feel it, but simply because that is the form, as it were, simply because this is what everyone does. What appears to dissatisfy him is a lack of feeling, a lack of emotional depth in peoples’ day-to-day lives. But why seems it so particular with him? However, as with Prince Hamlet (in this if little else), he knows not “seems”: for Holden, it is. It is the seeming in others that he deplores.
And the reason for this, though not immediately apparent, emerges slowly over the course of the novel, and takes centre stage in the climactic passage towards the end, where he meets with his sister Phoebe: Holden is still in grieving for the death of his brother Allie, and he cannot understand why the rest of the world isn’t also in grieving with him. How can people – even his own parents – carry on with their lives as before after something so momentous as this? How can they all go inside to take shelter from the rain immediately after his funeral?
This, I think, is at the heart of the matter. The novel is not about teenage angst, or rebellion, or about the difficulties of coming to age: it’s about a sensitive young lad who cannot articulate his grief, nor understand how the rest of the world, his own parents included, could fail to grieve as he does, could carry on living when his own life seems to have come to a halt. And considered as such, it strikes me as a very poignant novel, and not deserving the opprobrium so frequently heaped upon it these days.
I read The Catcher in the Rye in eleventh-grade English class. It didn’t make a deep impression on me, and I’ve rarely thought about it since. In fact, I don’t even remember Holden having a dead brother named Allie, but my faith in Himradi’s honesty is such that I’m willing to accept that he did, and that this isn’t just some prank to see how many people have actually read the book before offering opinions on it.
For as long as I can remember, though, conversation about the book has resided on some meta-level of significance, in which people pronounce on its cultural importance rather than its merits as a story. I have an isolated memory of the actress Christina Ricci in a magazine interview back in the mid-to-late ’90s expressing the “contrary” opinion that despite her teacher’s best efforts to convince her of the novel’s “voice of a generation” significance, she found it overrated and thought Holden was whiny and boring. I put “contrary” in scare quotes because, as is so often the case with rebels who refuse to accept that they are the new establishment, I’ve rarely if ever heard a different opinion since. I doubt if any teacher in the last thirty years has tried to present the book as the ne plus ultra of teen angst, but for some reason, people are still invested in rebelling against it as such (when they’re not seeing it as coded Marxist propaganda, that is).
It’s another humbling reminder that sometimes, the most radical thing we can do is to quietly pay attention to avoid missing what’s right in front of us. Too much conversation is simply about changing the subject to something else, to everything else, to nothing at all.
August 14, 2019 @ 1:07 pm
Interesting – I didn’t remember that either. I was thinking recently that maybe my son should read it. I read it at about his age too but have never revisited it. I had a college professor who, as a young man in a strict Dutch Reformed community somewhere in the Midwest, was expelled from his high school for reading Catcher in the Rye.
August 14, 2019 @ 9:03 pm
Expelled! And to think, all his teachers had to do was assign it to the class, and it would have instantly become lame and boring. You would think authority figures would have caught on to this by now, and would hasten to put their imprimatur upon anything they want the kids to avoid.
August 14, 2019 @ 3:01 pm
Thank you for quoting me. And I do agree with you: many seem to come to books with prior expectations, and, instead of judging the content for themselves based on what is in the book, they judge it in terms of those expectations.
On the matter of Allie’s death, here is a passage from Holden’s scene with his sister that I find particularly poignant. She has accused him of hating everything, and has challenged him to name one thing he likes:
“You can’t even think of one thing.”
“Yes, I can. Yes, I can.”
“Well, do it, then.”
“I like Allie,” I said. “And I like doing what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff, and–”
“Allie’s dead–You always say that! If somebody’s dead and everything, and in Heaven, then it isn’t really–”
“I know he’s dead! Don’t you think I know that? I can still like him, though, can’t I? Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them, for God’s sake–“
August 14, 2019 @ 9:07 pm
Thanks for raising the property value of this place by stopping in and commenting, Himadri. You’re right, that certainly makes the book much more poignant, and interesting, than a story of angst and inchoate rebelliousness. I wonder why so many have seemingly chosen to ignore that perspective?