Rebellion, self reflection against the status quo..
By Esther Duckworth: Literature Columnist
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has gone down in history as one of the most accurate depictions of teen angst ever seen in literature. After being expelled from school, Holden Caulfield goes on a random trip around New York City, spending money whilst reminiscing about people and places.
He is often irritated, taking rash actions and labelling many of those he encounters as ‘phoney’. Nonetheless, another spectrum of emotions is shown through Holden’s whims and memories as he roams, and we soon learn that his contempt for others is matched by his self-loathing as he he grapples with his hormonal urges.
Many readers past and present have praised Salinger for his gritty description of teen rebellion, claiming the book is extremely relatable; however, we must question whether the book resonates with today’s teens in the same way it has with older readers. Does The Catcher in the Rye simply capture the emotions of a normal teenage boy, or is Holden in fact a product of post-war America and mental illness?
The juxtaposition of Holden’s immaturity (seen in phrases such as ‘sex is something I really don’t understand too hot’) with his curious worldly wisdom (seen in vague statements like ‘people are always ruining things for you’) seems to capture the feeling of being a teenager for the reader. In the awkward stages of adolescence, the world seems brutal and unfair, which we see in the exchange with the sex worker at the hotel. His palpable awkwardness and embarrassment during the transaction is evident; ‘I felt much more depressed than sexy’. The urge to prove yourself versus a sense of frustration is completely timeless; no matter the era, Salinger knows that these emotions are something that every teen will feel at some point.
“is its main influence in fact mental illness rather than teen angst?“
Today, the word ‘phoney’ can have a similar meaning to Holden’s. He uses it to accuse others of putting on a facade and being fake, a source of frustration for children today. For example, when Sally Hayes begins talking to another boy at the theatre, he says ‘It was the phoniest conversation you ever heard in your life’. The direct address to the reader makes his anger evident, and shows his contempt for those who attempt to impress others by putting on a show. In the age of fake news and image over substance, there is a desperation within youth today for fundamental truth. Lies within politics and the monarchy, such as the 2018 Windrush scandal or Prince Andrew’s dealings with Jeffrey Epstein, undermine our trust in powerful figures and lead to an ongoing suspicion of our supposed superiors. This is reminiscent of Holden’s constant wariness of everyone around him, stretching even to his kind history teacher Mr. Spencer, whose language he cannot help criticising- he says ‘Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s a phoney. I could puke every time I hear it’.
The Catcher in the Rye can also be seen as relatable in a more sinister sense; it has influenced high profile killings. The most famous of these is the murder of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman, who was found at the scene reading aloud from the book after shooting Lennon four times in the back. Chapman modelled his life after Holden’s and later claimed Holden himself would have killed Lennon as he was a ‘phoney’. The fact that the book has impacted him to the extent of murder suggests that people do strongly align themselves with it, and the message of the book does not exclusively resonate with teenagers. A prevalent theme in the book is the desire to rebel against the norm – people such as Chapman clearly interpret this in a more radical way.
People have claimed The Catcher in the Rye is, at its core, a product of Salinger’s own mental illness after fighting in the Second World War; this would differentiate it from the typical ‘teen rebellion’ view most people take. After the war, Salinger checked himself into a mental hospital and suffered from PTSD; some readers have diagnosed Holden with the same condition, perhaps due to the death of his little brother Allie. We could argue that because of this, the relevance of the book dissipates; is its main influence in fact mental illness rather than teen angst? He says, when asked by his little sister to name something he likes a lot, ‘I like Allie’. The only thing he can think of that doesn’t make him angry in some way is his dead brother. This points to Holden’s unresolved grief, and further evidence of his mental condition can be seen by his location at the beginning of the story. He seems to be in some kind of hospital or sanatorium, saying he ‘had to come out here and take it easy’.
It can be argued that it is much more easy to be rebellious today, as the world is far more accepting of teenage emotions and the need to be different. In 1950s America, Holden’s situation is rare, in that he is cut adrift from adult influence in his nighttime city jaunts – in reality, it would have been very unusual for children to be as independent as he was. Holden most closely fits with the stereotype of the 1950s ‘greaser’, aching to be different from his parents and from normal society in general; this is something many contemporary readers would have empathised with. However, today’s age of social media presents a stark contrast to post-war America for young people. As children become more aware of their social, economic and political standing in the world, platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok are able to educate them and allow them to see and evaluate other peoples’ point of view, for better or worse. This has fostered a growing culture of acceptance and made young people more comfortable in their identities, and the ability to use social media to share opinions has lessened the need for rebellion in the conventional sense.
In conclusion, despite the obvious importance of context in understanding Holden’s character, The Catcher in the Rye is still relatable in the age of social media and mental health crisis. His journey to breakdown is brilliantly narrated, and the setting of 1950s New York City simply adds depth to his vulgar language and frustrated attitude. Today’s youth will still be able to read The Catcher in the Rye and resonate with the gritty realism and isolation of teenage years.
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