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Ellen Gass

Jana Hartley

English 10, period 6

14 May 2018

The Catcher in the Rye and the Misunderstood

Very few books in the history of literature have managed to gain a reputation like The

Catcher in the Rye. The novel itself is still a topic of discussion since its publication in 1951, but

the author too was also a very bizarre character that gained a lot of attention. J.D. Salinger was a

soldier in World War two serving in the counter intelligence corps (CIC) in Europe, and later

married a German woman and brought her back to America (Alsen par 1-2). This experience had

a huge effect on Salinger, having an incredible influence on his work, especially The Catcher in

the Rye. Salinger had a copy of the first 6 chapters of The Catcher in the Rye with him on D-day,

“almost as a talisman to keep him alive,” and continued to work on it throughout the war

(Goodwyn par 5). War is something that affects the lives of everyone it comes in contact with,

and for Salinger to have been this greatly involved it should be no surprise that it affected his

mental health greatly. The Catcher in the Rye may not have been directly about the war, but

Salinger’s mental state had clearly translated into the book. The main character in the novel,

Holden Caulfield, is a very mentally ill teenager and his story is one that many people have

connected with, and one that many don’t understand. Despite its controversy, The Catcher in the

Rye went to 14 different printings within its first year of being published and today has been

translated into 30 different languages (Stern par 1). After getting so much attention, Salinger

became what some called a “recluse” simply because he disliked the fame and only wanted to be

considered a normal human being, rather than a widely known author (Hodgman 3). Despite its
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popularity, only some people seem to truly appreciate Salinger's work, while the others are left

mystified as to what people could possibly like about it. The only people who can understand

The Catcher in the Rye are those who can connect with Holden on an emotional level.

For people to connect with The Catcher in the Rye, they must understand what it is like to

feel alone. Holden, being a 16-year-old boy in a boarding school away from home, tells a story

of isolation. He finds that he is different from others, and has trouble understanding their actions,

often claiming that people are “phony” and criticizing them for their actions (Salinger 12). More

importantly, when he does attempt to reach out to people it never seems to work and only leads

to Holden closing himself off from others even more (Kilicci 76). It is hard to get a good grasp of

what The Catcher in the Rye is about if you do not understand or have never experienced the

feeling of being alone. Holden’s narration in the book is very pessimistic, depressing, and often

considered annoying by those who criticize it because of his poor mental health. One critic

explains, “It’s like reading a diary written by a spoilt, annoying, Emo teenager- self indulgent,

repetitive and likely to leave you wanting to just slap the narrator while saying ‘for God’s sake,

get over yourself’” (Rohrer par 16). Critics would also often claim that reading a book like this

that describes such antisocial behavior and mindsets will affect youth the wrong way. Yet, to

those who do understand or have experienced it themselves, the book is almost reassuring for

them. Psychologists and psychiatrists have actually suggested that literature like The Catcher in

the Rye can “offer the adolescent ‘catharsis’ and thus actually prevent, rather than promote, anti-

social behavior” (Katz 85). It confirms that they are not alone in what they are feeling, that

whatever they are going through is not that abnormal or strange at all, and that being

misunderstood can be seen as a part of the process of growing up. The reader’s connection to

Holden is unimaginably stronger when they too feel misunderstood than readers who have not
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experienced it. In fact, the book is often purposely given to teenagers by adults in the hopes of

reassuring that the kind of thoughts they have that are similar to Holdens are normal for their age

(Rohrer par 23). In the end, “there is no way to circumvent the feeling of being utterly alone and

misunderstood,” and those who do not understand it could not possibly come to understand

Holden and the difficulty of the problems he faces (Dougan par 4). Therefore, it is reasonable to

assume that anyone who does not have these kinds of thoughts will not be able to connect with

Holden or understand why The Catcher in the Rye is praised.

People who get Holden are also likely to have an idealistic mindset. Holden was an

idealist, dreaming of protecting the innocent. He used the metaphor of caching children in a field

of rye before they fall to explain these feelings (Salinger 191). These idealist thoughts may seem

a little bizarre or deranged, but they are actually very prominent in American society. Take all of

the censors of this very book for example. The Catcher in the Rye started getting banned shortly

after being published for its vulgarity, violence, sexual content and concerning moral issues

(“Banned Books - The Catcher in the Rye” par 2-5). Teachers would get complaints from parents

after assigning the book to their classes, describing that they did not want their children reading

“dirty words, filth, and smut” (Katz 44). American society is very wrapped around the idea of

innocence and protection. The very concept of the American dream is an idealistic version of

reality, and American communities feel they need to have the right to what their youth are

exposed to in order to protect them (Haiman par 15-16). However, all children need to grow up

at some point, and often feel like they do not need protection (O’Hara 373). Holden comes to this

very realization when he watches his younger sister, Phoebe, reach for a golden ring above her

on a carousel (Salinger 232). He desperately wants to save her from falling, but accepts that

taking risks is essential for her to grow up. As one student after reading the book states, “I
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learned not to judge people too quickly, or to categorize them the way Holden did” (Wacht 6).

Rather than censoring youth, people should be providing them with the knowledge they need to

be more prepared for the world. Censoring them in the hopes of protecting them will do no good,

while providing them with examples of right and wrong can actually make a difference in how

they see the world, and potentially make it a better place. Being an idealist will give the reader a

better insight into Holden as a character and his actions, but one of the best ways to understand

him would be to have empathy.

In order to really understand Holden, one must also empathize with him and his

problems. On top of feeling alone, a lot of Holden’s mental health issues come from the grief of

his brother Allie who died of leukemia two years prior to the setting of The Catcher in the Rye.

Even after two years, it appears that Holden has yet to process his death properly and because of

this became bitter to the people around him (Kilicci 57). Many people criticize Holden for his

bitterness, but many also just dislike the language used in the book. One parent that was

protesting to have The Catcher in the Rye banned from a school described that “she failed to

understand why it was necessary to use a book which ‘takes the Lord’s name in vain 295 times’”

(Katz 46). All of these people could not understand the book and what Holden was experiencing

because they were too focused on other things, such as the vulgar language and depressing

attitude that Holden has. People that are able to look past those facts were able to empathize with

Holden. In Ernest Jones’ perspective, “It reflects something not at all rich and strange, but what

every sensitive sixteen year old since Rousseau has felt, and of course what each of us is certain

he has felt” (Katz 83). Furthermore, Holden has problems outside of his mental health that

people are easily going to look past if they are too focused on other aspects of the book. Holden

is generally a pretty skinny guy, but he also described in the book that he had grown about six
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and a half inches in one year and “practically got T.B.” (Salinger 7). He also has a mom that is ill

and nervous, and a father that is too busy to properly spend time with his family. Holden has a

lot on his mind, from the death of his brother to his own health. In times like that, it is hard to see

how Holden wouldn’t be critical of others and fall into depression. It is easy to pass Holden off

as an annoying teenager that cannot stop complaining, but it is up to the reader to have a sense of

sympathy and empathy for Holden as the ill teenager that he is.

Only people who know what it is like to feel alone, who dream of a better world, and who

can easily understand others and what they are experiencing will be able to connect with The

Catcher in the Rye on an emotional level. Unfortunately, there is a great disparity between those

who understand The Catcher in the Rye and those who do not. The reader must be able to read

beyond the unusual language and thoughts in order to get anything out of the novel.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, judges, critics and theologians have discussed the effects of The

Catcher in the Rye on the behavior of its readers, and have yet to agree on anything (Katz 82). It

truly depends on the person. Although the actual effects of reading The Catcher in the Rye are

undetermined, research does prove that teenagers are more mature than what people would like

to think, and are definitely capable of handling the sensitive topics that the book covers (“Banned

Books - The Catcher in the Rye” par 7-11). However, all of this should be considered carefully

as the book was never written for an audience of people in the first place (McGrath par 15). The

Catcher in the Rye may be a work of art, or perhaps people are simply over analyzing the words

of a mentally ill man from world war two.


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Works Cited

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uwpress.wisc.edu/books/5662.htm. Accessed 19 April 2018.

“Banned Books - The Catcher in the Rye.” California State University Northridge,

csun.edu/~kjs26872/Banned_Book___The_Catcher_in_the_Rye.html.

Accessed 19 April 2018.

Dougan, Clay, et al. “Teenagers Speak Up on Salinger.” The New York Times, 1 Feb. 2010,

roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/teenagers-speak-up-on-salinger/.

Accessed 19 April 2018.

Goodwyn, Wade. “The Private War Of J.D. Salinger.” NPR Books, 1 Sept. 2013,

npr.org/2013/09/01/217786593/the-private-war-of-j-d-salinger. Accessed 19 April 2018.

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unhmagazine.unh.edu/f10/stephen_hodgman.html. Accessed 19 April 2018.

Katz, John. Controversial Novels and Censorship in the Schools. Unpublished Ed. D.

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McGrath, Charles. “J.D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91.” The New York Times, 28 Jan.

2010, nytimes.com/2010/01/29/books/29salinger.html. Accessed 19 April 2018.

O’Hara, J.D. “No Catcher in the Rye.” Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 370-376. The John Hopkins University

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