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The Catcher in the Rye (Il Giovane Holden) by JD Salinger

Jerome David Salinger, (January 1, 1919 NYC — January 27, 2010 New Hampshire), was the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and, like Holden Caulfield, the hero of The Catcher in the Rye, he grew up in New York City, attending public schools and a military academy. After brief periods at New York and Columbia universities, he devoted himself entirely to writing, and his stories began to appear in periodicals in 1940. After his return from service in the U.S. Army (1942–46), his name and writing style became increasingly associated with The New Yorker magazine, which published almost all of his later stories. The reclusive habits of Salinger in his later years made his personal life a matter of speculation among devotees, and his small literary output was a subject of controversy among critics. The last work Salinger published during his lifetime was a novella titled Hapworth 16, 1924, which appeared in The New Yorker in 1965!

The Catcher in the Rye was first published as a series of short stories between 1945-46 in the United States.

The original publication of the novel in 1951 generated great controversy. America was coming into its role as the great geo-political superpower of the twentieth century. In the aftermath of the Second World War, which the Americans entered in its later stages but to decisive effect, America found itself in a period of considerable wealth and prosperity. Equally, this economic growth created an increasing understanding of its own moral identity. This was characterized by a clear sense of family values and social responsibility.

By the 1950s, under the presidency of Harry. S Truman – who authorized the use of the Atomic Bomb and thus cemented the power of the US on the world stage – America had become the first major ‘consumer society’. That is, a society that places great value on material possessions as a representation of their personal happiness.

In turn, Salinger’s presentation of a young man in that society, who is fundamentally disgusted by it, is the antithesis of the prevailing national sentiment of the time.

Furthermore, Holden’s inherent rebelliousness was considered a negative influence on American youth. However, popular culture in America was beginning to focus on the concept of the ‘teenager’. The Catcher in the Rye marks the early beginnings of representations of teenage rebellion in pop-culture. In 1954, James Dean played a rebellious teenager, Jim Stark, in Rebel Without a Cause (Gioventù Bruciata). The film centred on Stark’s defiance of his parents and the education system, in the process making Dean an iconic figure in 1950s culture. Increasingly there was a growing belief that the generation gap in the US was growing; that American youth were disillusioned with the authoritarian outlook of their parents.

The Catcher in the Rye’s place in education has been problematic. Many school authorities banned the book from the curriculum when it was first published. The novel was still banned in some places as late as 1997.

Rise of the Teenager

The Catcher in the Rye can be seen as an example of the rise of teenage rebellion. The concept of the ‘teenager’ was not clearly defined. However, Salinger’s novel deals explicitly with the ‘teenager’ as both a person, and a concept, creating a narrative that essentially centres on Holden’s rebellion against the physical, moral and spiritual world of 1950s America.

During the 1950s, teenage identity began to define itself – this is demonstrated by the rise of ‘rock and roll’ music and teenage fashions which became even more prominent in the 1960s. In film, there was a growing sense of teenage rebellion.

Holden Caulfield is essentially one of the early representations of the ‘teenager’ in modern literature.

Plot Overview

The Catcher in the Rye is narrated from the perspective of a young man called Holden Caulfield who has fallen victim to an undefined psychological illness. Holden does not specify his precise location as he recounts the events leading to his admission to a mental institution. Holden is sixteen at the time of the narrative and he recounts the events that take place between the end of the Autumn term and his return to New York City.

Holden Caulfield & The Quest Towards Redemption

Holden is essentially paralysed by a fear of the unknown. The unknown of which Holden is afraid is adulthood. In The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger essentially places Holden on the inevitable trajectory from adolescence to adulthood. His animosity towards adults throughout the novel is counter pointed by his idealised perception of childhood.

Holden is initially a paradox: he lives a life that is underpinned by relative security created by the wealth of his family; equally, he has been to a number of America’s top educational establishments. Holden’s greatest affection appears to be for his sister Phoebe and his dead brother Allie. Holden not only seeks the innocence of childhood as a comfort to himself, Holden wishes it on those around him who are older. This strange feeling foreshadows Holden’s later revelation to Phoebe that he wants to be ‘the catcher in the rye’; Holden envisages himself as a protector and guardian of youthful innocence, even, it seems, in those older than himself.

"Comin' Thro' the Rye" is a poem written in 1782 by Robert Burns (1759–1796).

The original words of "Comin' thro' the rye" cannot be satisfactorily traced. There are many different versions of the ballad. The song itself, in some form or other, was known long before Burns.

The protagonist, "Jenny", is not further identified, but there has been reference to a "Jenny from Dalry" and a longstanding legend in the Drakemyre suburb of the town of Dalry, North Ayrshire, holds that "comin thro' the rye" describes crossing a ford through the Rye Water at Drakemyre to the north of the town, downstream from Ryefield House and not far from the confluence of the Rye with the River Garnock. When this story appeared in the Glasgow Herald in 1867, it was soon disputed with the assertion that everyone understood the rye to be a field of rye, wet with dew, which also fits better with other stanzas that substitute "wheat" and "grain" for “rye".

Holden misremembers the line of the poem as "if a body catch a body" rather than "if a body meet a body". He keeps picturing children playing in a field of rye near the edge of a cliff, and him catching them when they start to fall off


The key themes in The Catcher in the Rye are all linked to Holden’s experience of the world he inhabits within the novel. There are four key themes that you need to understand:

  • Relationships

  • The Individual and Society

  • The effects of the environment

  • Childhood vs. Adulthood


One of the central causes of Holden’s breakdown at the end of the novel is his feeling of social isolation and dislocation, Holden repeatedly tells us that he feels lonely. Holden tries to counteract his loneliness by befriending other people; however he is constantly confronted by his own awkwardness when such moments arise. These are all elements of the narrative that present the theme of relationships:

  • Adults and Parents

  • Meaningful Conversation

  • Relationships in the past

Use the table and quotations below to help you structure your ideas:

The Individual and Society

America in the 1950s was the first modern ‘consumer society’ in which some sections of the population had considerable wealth and opportunity. One of the key elements of Salinger’s narrative is concerned with how Holden rejects the society that he sees around him. Some of Holden’s most cynical and nihilistic ideas are witnessed when he is commenting on the society to which he belongs.

These are all ideas in the narrative that present the theme of the ‘individual and society’. Compare them with our modern Italian society:

  • Materialism (an obsession with possessions)

  • The values of education

  • Pressure to conform

The Effects of the Environment

Holden experiences three distinct environments throughout the novel: Pencey Prep. (the College), New York City and his family home. Each one has a direct impact on Holden and he tries to escape from each one at different points. This is another of Holden’s many paradoxes: he is constantly claustrophobic – places where he one desired to be, soon become suffocating, and he leaves them before he can become consumed by them.

In Chapter 1, Holden describes the boarding school he attends, Pencey Prep, as a pretentious place that cultivates a false image of sophistication and propriety. Holden scoffs at the school’s advertisements in magazines, which depict “hot-shots” playing polo, claiming that the school does not even have horses, let alone a polo team. For Holden, the ad embodies the fundamental hypocrisy of Pencey Prep. As Holden stands alone on a hill watching the school’s biggest football game of the year from afar, he ridicules his classmates’ fanatical devotion to “Old Pencey” and its traditions. For Holden, the game is a senseless spectacle of “two teams bashing each other all over the place.” He derides other Pencey students who place so much importance on the outcome. Holden’s vantage point from the hilltop in one sense represents how he considers himself superior to the rest of the Pencey community; but his physical separation also shows his alienation and inability to connect with others at the school.

  • What opinion do you have on Private Schools, College and University?

  • Do you think everyone should have the same possibilities?

  • In her book “Il Danno Scolastico”, the Italian writer Paola Mastrocola states: “l’abbassamento degli standard [didattici e valutativi] ha aumentato, non ridotto, le diseguaglianze sociali. “ Do you agree? Why?

Innocence and Childhood

The principle project of Salinger’s novel is to explore the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Salinger subverts the conventions of the ‘bildungsroman’ genre because there is no definite affirmation of Holden’s maturity by the end of the novel. Instead, we are left to interpret the final ending as we choose.

  • Discuss about the opportunities and risks of the transition between adolescence and adulthood.

Language & Style of the Novel

Narrative Style

Salinger writes The Catcher in the Rye from the perspective of a first person narrator – Holden – which invites us into the mind of the protagonist. In turn, our understanding of the novel’s world is discerned primarily from Holden’s own perception of it.

Holden’s Narrative Voice

At the beginning and end of the narrative, Holden uses the second person pronoun ‘you’ to address the reader directly. Consequently, we develop the idea that Salinger wanted the novel to be an intimate communication between Holden and the reader – in the same way that an intimate conversation might be conducted between two friends. Of course, this generates conflicting emotions in the reader because much of Holden’s personality we find contemptible – his cynicism and fatalism are difficult for us to accept in a teenage narrator. Yet, this might have been Salinger’s intention because it allows us access to the tormented mind of his young protagonist.

Holden’s Stock Phrases

In order to make Holden seem like a unique and believable person, Salinger allows him to use certain stock phrases repeatedly throughout the narrative. This use of stock phrases reflects the slang of 1950s America:

goddamn, and all, kills me, phony/phonies, lousy, crumby, though, as hell, get the ax, old, kidding, I mean, depressed, the trouble is, terrific

Salinger’s use of dialogue

Dialogue is a tool that Salinger uses to describe his characters – throughout the novel, you will have noticed that conventional description is minimal: Salinger reveals his characters through what they ‘say’ rather than how they ‘look’.

Syntactical Structure

Salinger’s literary anti-style impacts most obviously on the novel’s sentence structures. The Catcher in the Rye tends toward a simple syntactical structure, which causes the sentences to be much tighter and more direct. T

In the 1950s, literary critic Donald Costello, forecast that:

In the coming decades, The Catcher in the Rye will be studied…as an example of teenage vernacular in the 1950s. The book will be a significant historical record of a type of speech rarely made available in permanent form.

Bildungsroman – Salinger’s novel is part of a tradition of narrative writing that traces back to the 1700s and Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehjahre. The literal translation of the word is ‘novel of formation’, that is a novel that traces the formation of a man from childhood. The Catcher in the Rye is part of this literary tradition; Holden is a teenage boy on the road to adulthood who must first come to terms with himself, his ideals and his fears. However, Salinger deviates somewhat from the generic conventions of the bildungsroman because by the end of the novel, Holden has not reached maturity in the literal sense.

Circular Narrative – The Catcher in the Rye is also a ‘circular narrative’; that is, a narrative which returns to the point of its beginning at the end. In the case of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden is telling, retrospectively, the story of his decline into mental depression from his bed in the psychiatric institution. In Chapter 1 of the novel, Holden begins from this point and when the narrative concludes in Chapter 26, Holden returns to the clinic to end his account.

Holden and Gatsby: A Generation Without A Cause

F. Scott Fitzgerald, once wrote that: ‘Our generation has grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.’ In Fitzgerald’s words we find an interesting subtext that might be applied to The Catcher in the Rye. Although Fitzgerald and Salinger are divided by a generation, there is a sense that the sentiment can be located not just in Fitzgerald’s works, but also Salinger’s. In Fitzgerald’s statement we discern almost a nihilistic view of American society. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye were published within a year of one another – 1950 and 1951 respectively.

The Great Gatsby’s protagonist has an outwardly idyllic life but is destroyed by a tragic yearning for something that even his phenomenal wealth cannot provide. Fitzgerald implies that in a society that lacks a collective cause, which in turn, is the recipient of great privilege, there can only be one outcome: death, destruction and moral corruption.

This sentiment was very often ascribed to writers of the Jazz Age in American culture. However, an interesting point at which to draw comparison with The Catcher in the Rye, is when we reflect on the passages of the novel that place Holden in New York’s Jazz Clubs. Holden describes how the Jazz Clubs are filled with ‘jerks’ and that Ernie, the pianist, is playing ‘something holy’ .


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