Interpreting Catcher in the Rye: The one big mistake people make.

The One Big Mistake People Make About Catcher in the Rye

The One Big Mistake People Make About Catcher in the Rye

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 12 2013 11:05 AM

He’s Not Holden!

The one big mistake people make about Salinger and Catcher in the Rye.

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I am not the first to point these out, of course. They have been obvious to just every intelligent reader and critic. But it’s worth reiterating them, since the movie, and book, and even some commentators on both seem to be getting things confused.

1) First, if you haven’t recognized how totally over-the-top Holden’s condemnation of everyone but himself (and some nuns) for being phony is (and if so you are humor-deprived you can’t see how even Holden makes fun of himself for his ridiculous over-the-topness) you will find, two-thirds of the way through the book, an absolutely key passage in a scene with Holden’s former teacher, Mr. Antolini.

Yes, the scene has its ambiguities, but sometimes an ambiguous character can be seen speaking an unambiguous truth. Or at the very least offering an alternate perspective, from outside rather than inside the protagonist’s head. So when Antolini tells Holden he’s “riding for a terrible, terrible fall,” it’s not just the advice of some judgmental phony adult. It’s sharp-eyed and empathetic, and extremely sagacious about what’s wrong with Holden’s simplistic black-and-white hate-the-phonies attitude. Antolini nails precisely where the “fall” is going to land Holden:


“It could be the kind [of fall] where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everyone who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college. Then again, you may pick up just enough education to hate people who say, ‘It’s a secret between he and I’.”

Exactly! This is the corrective or at least conflicting point of view to the reader's natural tendency to identify with such a charming voice as Holden's. In Franny and Zooey, a similar (if more sentimentalized and religiously didactic) perspective rescues Franny (another Holden type who hates insensitive people a bit too much) from her oversensitive nervous breakdown. The advice Seymour gave to the lesser Glasses: to always think of “the Fat Lady”—the anonymous prole listener to the Glass family radio quiz show out in the sticks—as Jesus Himself. Stop thinking you’re better than everyone.

2) Then there’s the point of view of Phoebe, Holden’s idolized younger sister. She doesn’t join his pity party. She’s truly a wise child who sees he’s suffering but has little patience with his self-righteous fecklessness and lack of concern for how it will affect those who love him. She’s the one to whom Holden tells his grand “catcher in the rye” fantasy. The one he gins up from misquoting the Robert Burns poem "If a body catch a body comin' through the rye." About how he imagined himself in a field full of kids playing near "some crazy cliff" where his job was to catch them before they fell off. (The fall he was heading for, you could say.)

Phoebe responds with acerbic impatience to this fantasy of chivalrous grandiosity by drily correcting the quotation he derives it from. (It's "If a body meet a body," not "catch.") She’s not buying it. Neither is Salinger. If Salinger seems to weight the point of view of any character in the book it’s not Holden, it’s Phoebe.

3) Similarly, the fact that Salinger called the book The Catcher in the Rye does not mean he endorses Holden’s fantasy. No matter how Mark David Chapman read it, the book is not meant to be taken as advice on how to hate phonies and save all the innocents in the world from terrible, terrible people like John Lennon.

4) There’s also the fact that Holden is undergoing a nervous breakdown (he writes the book from some rehab-like facility) and that his emotional life has not recovered from the loss of his little brother Allie to childhood cancer. And so his point of view on the world derives from (justifiably) disordered thinking. One shouldn’t take him as a guru. Indeed, if I had one criticism to make of Catcher, which is otherwise a work of art exquisitely poised between romantic affirmation and realistic critique of Holden, it is that this dead-child MacGuffin is a kind of over-obvious literary thumb on the scales that is really unnecessary, makes it too much a sob story. The reader should be able to glean that this is if not an unreliable narrator, an unstable narrator, even without that detail.

5) Did I mention humor? Let me mention it again. What makes the book so great, what makes Holden’s self-pity tolerable, even enjoyable in a way, is just how funny he can be about himself as much as or more than about others. He’s almost always onto his own game. Which suggests (since as I’ve tried to point out Holden isn’t real) we can attribute this sense of humor to J.D. Salinger. It’s something purely delightful and something often frightfully absent in later Glass stories no matter how much he strains. It’s also something sadly missing from the new Salinger book and film. But it was there once and you have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at it.

I should say that—setting some reservations about the cinematic hyping of the melodrama, and that mistake about Catcher aside—I like Shane Salerno’s obsessiveness, I don’t find it offensive that he cared that much about a writer he loved. And one must pay tribute to his doggedness and perseverance—and its payoff. He found the answer (if, as I hope, his sources are right) to the question we all have; will there be more Salinger work? And some of the new stuff, including a counterintelligence officer’s diary and a World War II thriller, sounds truly intriguing.

And a great relief! It almost sounds as if Salinger found a way to escape the Glass family trap (the trapped family Glass?) by writing explicitly about his wartime experiences.

And I will say there is one revelation overlooked by most reviewers that I loved about the new Salinger book. When I was in high school I wrote a super earnest column in my high school newspaper protesting the cancellation of a now long-forgotten sitcom called “It’s a Man’s World” after only a handful of episodes. I wasn’t sure why it struck me but it was about three kids living on a houseboat with their father and it was funny in a subtle way. It wasn’t like other sitcoms.

Then I discovered in the new Salinger book—an example of some of the great reporting to be found there—that the creator of that series, Peter Tewksbury, was influenced and obsessed by Salinger, sent him several reels of the show, showed up at his house, and even got invited in by Salinger, who liked the show so much he agreed to work on a film script with Tewksbury. (This tale refutes the legend that Salinger had an iron-clad opposition to any film version of his stories since the early fiasco of My Foolish Heart, a silly film adaptation of the “Uncle Wiggly” story.)

Indeed the Tewksbury project got as far as casting. That’s right: Salinger was ready to allow a film to be made of one of his most beautiful short stories, “For Esmé With Love and Squalor,” to be directed by Tewksbury. They had a script! Mainly Salinger’s own words. The only hitch was that Salinger wanted to be the one to cast Esmé. And Tewksbury—in what I feel is a heartbreaking mistake—decided he couldn’t work with Salinger’s choice.

This, it seems to me, is the great reveal of the book, the road not taken. It seems tragically foolish for Tewksbury not to have gone ahead, rolled the dice, taken the chance. Who knows, could have been a disaster, but could have portended something wonderful. I could have told you that from my high school newspaper editorial. I was 17.