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The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye is a realistic fiction novel written by J. D. Salinger and published in 1951. It was intended to be for adults, but adolescents read it as well. Generations of young men were influenced by the book. It was included as the best one hundred English books since 1923 on the Times magazine. This novel is not only thought of a classic by many, but also myself: it is the best book I’ve ever encountered.
The Catcher in the Rye does not possess a continuous plot, but rather, it is made up of brief stories that occur as during Holden Caufield’s transitions from his school, Pencey Prep, back home to New York City ( on 71st street in Manhattan) for the Christmas vacation. The time of transition was extremely short, about three or four days, but Holden managed to demonstrate to us in that short time that there exists a ‘phony’ world and that there is a beauty and simplicity to kids. Holden described himself as a 16 years old adolescent who had a very lousy life: he flunked out of three schools, had no girlfriends, and hated nearly every person around except his brothers and little sister. He had no direction in life; he had no faintest clue of where he would lead himself in this practical world, like a dangling man. However, he did ponder about the world and the many ‘phonies’ that dwell in it.
I view Holden as a controversial person. His resentment was not irrational: the world was indeed corrupt and required patches; it is indeed filled with ‘phonies’. But this is the worldly mechanism. Human beings can’t sit in a circle and sing kumbaya all day, they have complex emotions and sometimes have to lie to maintain friendships. He realized this, and allowed these ‘phonies’ to enter his life, such as Sally Hayes, his former girlfriend, and Stradlater, his roommate at Pencey. He always managed to find some hospitable traits on the ‘phonies’ he saw. However, every time after he visited the ‘phonies’, he regretted to be in touch with them; his logic always reminded him of their ‘phoniness’. For example, he liked his roommate Stradlater, because he was generous and sexy. However, Stradlater’s ego caused by his physical attraction disgusted Holden. Thus, he was constantly at war with himself, but never saw the fault in himself. Instead, he blamed his internal turmoil on the ‘phonies’. In order to prove he was correct, he paid constant attention to the ‘phoniness’ of virtually every person
he comes across. He left the teachers and students at Pencey behind due to their ego and vomited because he couldn’t tolerate the lying actors and Sally Hayes and her acquaintance at the theater he puked due to their forcefulness to begin a conversation to demonstrate their knowledge in people.
Unsurprisingly, he noticed the simplicity in kids and learned to love them. His love for them was best demonstrated via his little sister, Phoebe. He described her as a beautiful and intellectual person. Though he very occasionally became irritated with her, such as when Phoebe insisted to follow him, his love for her and for all kids is almost infinite. He is willing to assist them and enjoys the process, such as when he took the two kids into the mummy room in the art museum. On the contrary, when he told two men the location of the subway, he was greatly annoyed by one of them who kept puffing air onto him. In all, he was indeed, as Mr. Antolini said, a ‘very very strange boy.’
The juxtaposition of the phoniness of adults as opposed to the simplicity of children is a major theme in the Catcher in the Rye. The first half of the book introduced the idea of ‘phony’ to the reader via Holden’s own experience in two different groups: phonies at Pencey and phonies in Holden’s world. The entire school of Pencey Prep was a phony. Stradlater, Mr. Thurmer, Ossenburger, and Mr. Spencer, to some extent, were as well. Sally Hayes, her acquaintance at the theater, the ‘pianist’ at the Wicker Bar, Ernest’s mother, and more were the phonies outside of Pencey. Stradlater was a typical phony because of his irrational ego. He considered himself the best looking and built person, which is far from the truth. The pianist at Wicker Bar was exactly the same as him. Sally Hayes always acted in a grand way, which was itself phony. She also loved some actors, who, in Holden’s mindset, were all phonies due to their desire to be realistic. It seems that, in Holden’s definition, anyone whose actions are untrue are phonies. Then, gradually, the purity of the kids was brought to the reader’s sight via Phoebe. The first impression of Phoebe is that she is a smart and pretty girl, and was critical to Holden’s life, as she brought him happiness that he never got from his teenage peers. Unlike Carl Luce, she was not sharp and unlike the two nuns that Holden met at the sandwich bar near Grand Central Station, she was not that soft. It was a terrific balance that only kids can manage. My understanding is that since kids have been taught the difference between right and wrong but have not been indoctrinated with adult beliefs or trained on pleasantries or white lies, they do not possess a specific view of the world. It is very unfortunate that nature eventually requires most people to lose their childhood purity and break the balance of sharpness and softness that is unique to kids, but this contamination of purity and increasing need to “put on a face” to the rest of the world is necessary in order to survive. Holden is puzzled by this odd human behavior. He cannot comprehend the reason why people accepts the contamination. It is like a thin coating before the person’s heart that he cannot see through, which is somehow frustrating to him. He desires to discuss existential matters with someone and hopes to arrive at what it means to be human; however, that is never possible if the people around him always try to hide something. Kids, however, are clear: he can see what they’re thinking, and thus can open up to them. Deep discussions of human beings require the openness that cannot be reached with socially-trained adults. It is therefore undoubted that Holden wants someone he can truly be in contact with at the mind, not someone who he can only be in contact physically.
Following his conceptions and cognitions of human beings, he desires an occupation that both literally and profoundly cannot be possible: the Catcher in the Rye. From Holden’s description, this ‘occupation’ is similar to a babysitter, only he has a lot of kids to monitor. Ideally, he wants to catch these kids while they still play in a field of rye and remain as he feels that once they hit puberty and start getting integrated into society, they will inevitably become ‘phony’. He wanted to keep the kids in a constant state of balance, where he believes is best for a person’s spirit. I personally believe this idea to be universal. I was discussing the concept of ‘love’ to my friend yesterday, and I related to the title. I told him I would feel sad to see a couple with true love between each other break up, because love is too scarce in this world. Thus, I would try my best to keep that from happening, i.e. catching them before they fall of the cliff. It is natural for a human to try to help another human when they seem to be falling off of a cliff, such as when they clearly need to rehabilitated for overuse of drugs or alcohol, but Holden would like to extend this idea to saving children from being contaminated with the beliefs imposed by our current society.
Following the discussion of the title, I’d like to mention some moments that touched me. The first was when he recalled Jane Gallagher emotionally encountering her ‘booze hound’ stepfather. It was truly moving to see Holden, such a critical person, feel sympathy for a girl. Holden even said that girls are all phonies. I relate a lot to Jane and feel her emotions because I know what it feels like to have a neglectful stepfather. If I was her boyfriend, I’d have cried myself. The second moment was when Holden was dancing with Phoebe. It was another heart-warming moment. I could imagine the graceful motions, accompanied by the rising and falling symphony. In this chaotic world, it is almost impossible to have peace and short moments of love; but, here it is: in this little place called home with his little sister. As we all should know, warmth is not just defined as temperature, but also as an emotion that can be shared. This peaceful moment brought me, as a reader, a moment of warmth even through the cold pages of my book. If there was a most beautiful and life-changing moment, it must be when Holden cried out of the blue after ‘old Phoebe’ lent him eight dollars and sixty-five cents. It was certainly too much for Holden, so he tried rejecting Phoebe’s money. Phoebe gave it to him anyway, because though she knew her brother wasn’t any good student, he wasn’t bad either: at the least she knew Holden loved her more than anyone else. Unexpectedly, Holden was deeply moved by this act. Just like Holden finding her hand in the dark, she was like a lighthouse in the pitch black to Holden, faintly guiding him the way to shore and warmth. The prettiest section was when Phoebe shivered in the night and the piercing wind, refusing to fall asleep until he finished crying. She rewarded love with love. Words themselves are not enough to depict the scene and my emotions.
This book is life-changing and has completely altered my view towards children and the world. The three short pieces of the novel remain etched on my mind, reminding me of the brightness of which humans are capable. Like all fictional characters in the movies, humans can be capable of great evil and good. ‘Phoniness’, to some extent, is evil itself, or, to the least, allows evil to be present. ‘Phoniness’ might assist one in worldly success, but would fail us completely spiritually. Just like Sally Hayes, one would be simply be a walking dead with a ‘phony’ attitude. Even if that person tries to do good, they are still hollow on the inside. Sincerity and innocence, on the contrary, create peace and warmth on the inside that are conducive for good actions. They would shine light into our dim world, proving the presence of warmth. A Chinese author wrote a book called the Golden Line Around the Cloud and Phoebe is that golden line. She rendered Holden’s world brightness and optimism. Her sincerity moved Holden and her simplicity and beauty thawed Holden’s ice-locked heart. If we think of the world as a thick blanket, only the brightest stars will shine and I believe that these stars are the pure souls of children like Phoebe. I myself have been influenced by this twinkling star. Because there is a primary school right below my apartment, children hang out every day and used to annoy me. When it came to children, I never looked at the bright side. However, after reading about Phoebe and those children in the Catcher in the Rye, my opinion changed. Though I still felt somewhat annoyed by their immature behavior, I started to recognize the brighter side of them. Now I hope for a sister that I can be responsible and care for; I want to treasure her as if she is an emerald or ruby. I started to view children, especially pre-teens as truly irreplicable and brittle creatures that we should cherish and befriend. It might not be the case with boys, but girls at these age are cute, just like Phoebe; they are capable of providing that superb warmth that can come from no one else.
Thus, this is my opinions on the Catcher in the Rye. I am grateful that J. D. Salinger had brought these characters to life. They are not only beautiful and honorable, but inspiring and full of grace. Children, just like true love, shall be cherished like gems instead of being forced into worldly conceptions or competition. Holden is one of them that had been surprised by the ‘phony’ and peculiar human behavior, but profoundly shaken by the naivety and innocence of the children. This is a book that never gets boring and is worth reading multiple times.
Finally, let’s imagine sitting on an endless field of rye with no boundaries, staring into the vast firmament: stars floating in air, comets skittering along the skyline, and the River hanging across the universe. Who, in this cloudy world, would prefer to leave?