I read a review recently which criticized this classic work simply on the basis that the language was that of the Forties, and times have changed. If a reader is unable to get over this point, and the book was first published in 1951 with sections from earlier years, then it is unlikely that they will be capable of appreciating the main thread of the entire work. Salinger has written from the perspective of a young man, beset by many troubles, who is unable to come to terms with his own life, with society, with the education system which, he seems to feel, has failed him in many ways. It is, from the main character’s point of view, a very one-sided, lamenting tale filled with worries, with missed expectations, with mental anguish and hopelessness.
It is a work which is still very relevant in our times, if the reader is able to understand everything that has been packed into the text.
Photo Credit: madamepsychosis – Creative Commons
We are confronted with a young man who has failed in college and faces the prospect of returning to his home, his family, with little hope for the future. He has failed before, and we gain the impression very quickly that he knows he will fail again. He has no real interest in society, in the world around him, but has an inner vision of what he wishes to do, where he wishes to be, but not how he can achieve it.
He is a young man lost in memories of better times, of possibilities, of grand ideas. His mind constantly wanders, digressions within the story as he recalls people and places, events which have impressed him, mainly from his childhood and formative years. He is comfortable around younger children and avoids, with few exceptions, conversation with his peers who are, to his way of thinking, boring, shallow or arrogant. We gain the impression that he hates much of society, or the society he has been forced to grow up in, to spend his college years with, and would love to return to an ideal which, perhaps, has never existed.
We follow the wandering thoughts and memories of a man on the brink, overwhelmed by events he cannot understand, surrounded by people who cannot help him, by people who see the chance of taking advantage of his problems for their own ends. We see a man who other people do not want to understand, who cannot see that he has mental problems and that he is completely out of his depth in society. And it makes no difference whether the language used is from the Forties or from our own times: the story is as fresh today as it was over fifty years ago.
That The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most banned books in the United States is understandable: it has been objected to, removed from bookshelves by those who cannot read beyond the words on a page, who cannot see the anguish, the pain, the complete lack of hope a young man feels. People who cannot understand that a seemingly normal young man from a good family, attending a good college, can have problems far beyond those they have experienced themselves. It is a work well worth reading just to delve into the mind of someone faced with insurmountable mental problems, with depression, with hyper-activity who cannot keep his ideas running along one straight track but has to digress, explore, worry and justify.
The more astute reader will understand long before the final passages exactly what this character is talking about as he relates his life and memories, but the closing lines are still an eye-opener, and a warning to society. In modern times it could almost be suggested that this man is one who is working towards a complete breakdown which, with the right tools, could cost the lives of countless others through an act of violent hopelessness.
Published by Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978 0 316 76948 8
- Viktoria Michaelis.