A Beautiful Reciprocal Relationship
While studying abroad in Madrid to immerse myself in Spanish, naturally, I decided to take a Postmodern America English literature class.
As crazy as that sounds, I was excited to take a class where everyone else would speak English as their second language. I would seem smart as hell and I wouldn't feel slightly insecure about my very obvious American accent. Additionally, I'd already read a few of the books. So, with the study abroad mentality of "I'm in Spain to learn about Spain through experiences, not classroom lectures," I chose this class for its perceived easiness, excited to use it as a respite from constant Spanish.
Under these unique circumstances, I looked forward to reading The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Even though I'd read it before and hated it, I was optimistic to read it again with more mature eyes. Plus, when I tired of reading novel after novel in Spanish, translating every eighth word, I could turn to my English book as a sort of homework-dessert.
I first read The Catcher in the Rye on a plane when I was 14 years old. I’d been complaining that I would be bored on the flight with nothing to do, so my mom walked me to the airport bookstore. I immediately felt at home, as I did in all bookstores, and walked up to the cashier juggling 6 books and one Twix bar, preparing to beg to the best of my abilities for each item. However, when I arrived, my mom carried her own small, navy blue book, and quickly informed me that she had already purchased it for me, and that, no, I could not also have the chocolate bar. My disappointment evaporated when my mom told me that this classic, The Catcher in the Rye, was her favorite book in high school. The book snob in me loved the idea that I would be reading a classic and the soon-to-be high schooler was excited that I could soon say things like "one of my favorite books in high school." Additionally, I was about to go to boarding school, so the story itself seemed very relevant. Needless to say, my expectations were high, while my ability to relate to the book was low. I spent the entire plane ride forcing myself to read it, willing myself to like it. But, ultimately, I resolved that I hated whiny little Holden, who doesn’t appreciate his privileged lifestyle, never applies himself in school, and doesn’t seem to try anything to set things right.
Holden’s constant complaining annoyed me. I felt really bad for him that his brother died, but, beyond that, I couldn’t understand why he constantly complains about everyone even though he isn’t a wonderful guy himself. He wants to catch up with an old friend and love interest, Jane, one of the few people he actually cares about, but he keeps avoiding her, explaining that he “wasn’t in the mood.” However, later on, he has no issues calling up random high school friends and ex-flings, and asking each of his cab drivers, as well as a classmate’s mom, to get a drink. I couldn’t understand how he could complain about feeling lonely, when he puts so little energy into the relationships he does care about—ignoring Jane’s presence downstairs, lying to leave his teacher Mr. Spencer’s house, and dismissing his young sister Phoebe’s attempts to join him on his journey out west— and all of his energy into forcing fake friendships with strangers and old acquaintances.
Holden’s indifference towards doing well in school especially infuriated me. He clearly has natural intelligence and wit, yet he refuses to even put in the minimal amount of effort that would allow him to pass.
“Do you have any particular qualms about leaving Pencey?” Mr. Spencer asks Holden.
“Oh, I have a few qualms, all right. Sure. . . but not too many,” he replies.
I wanted to jump into the book and slap Holden in the face. No qualms? You are flunking out of your third school, and you only have a few qualms?! Maybe it was my own disciplined academic experience or my type-A personality, but I simply could not understand how underperforming in school wasn’t giving Holden every freaking qualm in the entire world.
Only now, have I begun to realize that school (surprisingly!) isn’t the most important thing in the world. While I still don’t condone Holden’s apathy towards it, I can better understand how, with serious depression, loneliness, and loss in his life, he sees little importance in it compared to the existential crisis he faces. Some silly test on the Egyptians surely holds no significance to someone who struggles to find significance anywhere in the world.
Holden’s desperate search for meaning seems ironic in light of his unremitting refusal to be honest with anyone, even himself. The first time I read the book, what angered me most was that I felt like Holden was the phoniest phony of them all. However, in reflection, Holden lies in a different way than the adults. His juvenile phoniness stems more from the relatable emotions of fear, discomfort, confusion, or boredom. He lies as a defense mechanism against awkward encounters with prostitutes with whom he doesn’t want to have sex and teachers from whom he doesn’t want to be lectured. He lies to get sympathy from other boys’ mothers and to feel a sense of control in his life that otherwise escapes him. He lies to find humor in sad situations, whether he is sitting alone in a bar, dancing with “dopey” girls, or heading on a train to nowhere in order to waste three days before facing the reality that he’s just been kicked out of yet another school. Furthermore, he lies to help himself work through difficult circumstance, like when he pretends to be suffering from a gunshot wound in order to process the fact that he was just beat up and robbed by a prostitute and pimp.
These lies, while often unnecessary and immature, are very different from the phoniness of the adult world. Holden characterizes adult phoniness through misaligned values and obsession with appearing smart, put together, well-liked or rich. Holden talks about lawyers and how he could never be a lawyer because he wouldn’t know if he were trying to be successful in order to help people or in order to get congratulated. His discussion of lawyers has an extra level of meaning, because lawyers are supposed to be the people that protect citizens through the law and the truth, when in reality the people who are often protected are clients who can pay the most to find the lawyers who can lie the best. This is the exact inauthenticity of the adult world that Holden particularly hates. He also criticizes students in his boys’ schools who prioritize appearance and don’t let kids into their rooms or their clubs if they are pimply or dopey. This same criticism is his main reason for hating his old headmaster Mr. Haas. Holden can’t stand how Mr. Haas would talk to many of the parents for up to half an hour, but if any kid had funny looking parents, he would simply shake their hand and move on.
Holden’s desire to escape the adult world was my final point of contention with him the first time I read this book. As a 14-year-old about to begin high school, the only thing I wanted in the world was to grow up–start high school, get my driver’s license, have a boyfriend, wear make-up, maybe even go to a party or two. Grown-ups had freedom, they had respect, they had power. They didn’t still get kid menus at restaurants even though they were 14, not 12, and they certainly didn’t have to wear braces. From where I stood, being a grown-up looked perfect, and I simply couldn’t relate to Holden as he desperately clings to what remains of his childhood through his pointless and random horseplay, wild childhood fantasies of running away, and a constant tendency to get kicked out of school.
However, reading The Catcher in the Rye six years later, these moments were the moments I connected with the most. My favorite passage in the novel is from a moment when Holden reflects on his time at the museum during school field trips:
The best thing, though, in the museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers[sic] would still be drinking out of that water hold, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and the squaw with the naked bosom would still be wearing that same blanket. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or the kid that was your partner in line the last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with the gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I felt like it.
I thought about how old Phoebe going to that museum on Saturdays the way I used to. I thought how she’d see the same stuff and she’d be different every time she saw it. It didn’t exactly depress me to think about, but it didn’t make me gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.
Reading this scene, I finally connected to Holden. Maybe it was that I had felt precisely this way at certain times and I just wasn’t able to articulate it; maybe it was that I had cried at my high school graduation, wishing that I could stay on that safe campus with my best friends forever; maybe it was that now I am a year away from graduating college and starting to feel that way again; or maybe it was something so small—that I knew exactly what he was referring to when he mentioned the puddles with the gasoline rainbows. Regardless, I understood Holden’s fears. I understood what it feels like to reflect on a time, and wish you could go back to exactly that time, to exactly how it was before it all changed. Growing up comes with loss. Some losses are distant, but wide-scale. You suddenly feel like there are more plane crashes, shootings and terrorist attacks going on in the world; or maybe you’re just old enough to start hearing about them. Some are personal, seemingly insignificant on the grand scheme of things, but sting all the same. High school classmates move all over the world, parents suddenly aren’t just a holler away, your sister’s friend, your classmate’s parent, or the girl from one of your extracurriculars die in unexplainable accidents, and the person that promised they would always be there no matter what hurts you and turns into a stranger. Suddenly, whenever you see something amazing happen, you want to put it into your own glass box, so that you can return to it at any moment because you are terrified of the way that the memory will fade.
The Catcher in the Rye is my own type of museum exhibit. The words on the pages don’t change. The ducks still fly south. Holden says “that killed me” and “it was full of phonies” the exact same number of times. Allie still dies, and Phoebe still rides the carousel at the end. But I am different—six years, two schools, one broken heart, three cities, two languages, seven best friends, four jobs, two dogs, eight countries and hundreds of books different. Now, I am one step closer to the phony world of adults, and I, too, do not know what will happen next in my life. “I mean how do you know what you’re going to do until you do it?” says Holden Caulfield.
I guess we’ll see. –Casey Lane
Casey Lane ’18 is an English Literature and Spanish major with a minor in Business at Washington University in St. Louis.
Catcher in the Rye
Written by J. D. Salinger
Published by Little, Brown and Company