“the existential angst of adolescence”
I hardly know how to start to write a review of The Catcher in the Rye. Published in 1951, it’s a book so famous surely anyone who is interested in reading books with teen protagonists will already have read it. I expect people to know who I’m talking about when I reference Holden Caulfield. My own copy of the book doesn’t even have a blurb or a cover illustration – readers are expected to know what they are picking up.
But no list of Classic YA could possibly be without The Catcher in the Rye, so here goes:
16-year-old Holden Caulfield has been asked to leave his expensive New England boarding school. He hasn’t done anything shocking. He simply skips lessons and doesn’t apply himself. He mopes about at school, irritating and being irritated by the people who surround him, counting the days until he’ll have to go home and reveal that he’s failed at yet another school. He sets off into New York trying to distract himself until the moment when he’ll have to face the wrath of his parents. Here he reaches out to old friends, teachers, bartenders, taxi drivers and a prostitute, but each time it seems people want something from him and he feels that each person he interacts with is, in his words, ‘phony’ or fake. In contrast with this, from the reader’s perspective, Holden could not be more honest. We see the story from deep down inside his head, how he feels about what’s going on, reflections on his own behaviour, the people around him, events from the past triggered by what’s going on.
People who don’t like the book often complain the Holden is just a whiner, but for me, The Catcher in the Rye captures the very essence of what it is to be an adolescent. Holden aspires to things that are part of the adult world like drinking and smoking and sex and he feels trapped by the things imposed on him by the educational establishment and his parents. He is almost entirely self-focused, analysing his own behaviour and struggling to see anything from anyone else’s perspective. The light for Holden comes in thinking about childhood, the pure joy of his relationship with his dead brother Allie and his observations of his younger sister Phoebe. It’s Phoebe who will save; she catches him when he’s falling by showing him she needs to be caught.
It’s entirely possible that I love The Catcher in the Rye because it was a book that fell into my lap at a time in my life when I needed to read a book like this. There weren’t so very many books that focused on the existential angst of adolescence around back then, while today there are shelves full. Though surely none so pure, so heartfelt as Holden Caulfield’s angst.
Read it. See what you think.
More to Read!
There are a few other works by Salinger, though he was a notorious recluse who published nothing between 1965 and his death in 2010. I’ve found interesting to read The Catcher in the Rye alongside S E Hinton’s The Outsiders (published 15 years later) which I’m going to review later in the month.