I somehow managed to make it through school without having to read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Frankly, I’m kind of grateful for that. When I was in high school we read The Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace back to back. Fed up with wretched teenage boys, I asked my teacher when we were going to stop reading all the dude books. He countered by assigning To Kill a Mockingbird. As you might imagine, I enjoyed that a lot more. Still, I miss discussing books–even the ones I don’t like. So I decided to start my own one-woman book club.
I ventured onto the web in search of a few questions to discuss.
The Catcher in the Rye centers on a young man—can women relate to this novel, too? What about Holden is gender-specific, and what is common to all teenagers?
Teen angst isn’t gender specific. Angela Chase from My So-Called Life is basically my generation’s Holden Caulfield. But as my boyfriend, who works with people with mental illness says, men hate everyone else and women hate themselves. Holden thinks everyone else is the problem, and turns his anger outward. If this book was written about a teenage girl we would likely have been dealing with an eating disorder or self-harming.
How much can we trust Holden’s descriptions of other people? Is Ackley really as pimply and disgusting as we’re told he is? Is Phoebe really so smart and wonderful?
No. Long before I read this book, I knew Holden Caulfield was one of the original unreliable narrators.
What is up with the women in this book. Or, more accurately, why are there no women in this book except a prostitute and a fourth-grader?
Whoever wrote this is forgetting about Sally Hayes… but Salinger certainly isn’t the first writer to have a f-ed up attitude toward women. In this case, I think it’s reflective of how Holden sees women–and maybe women in general. You can be phony, you can be a cherubic little kid, or you can be a prostitute. There is no one who is just a happy, well adjusted, and likable.
But there is also the Madonna-Whore complex that afflicts to much of the world–including Holden. He’s incapable of having a normal relationship with a girl because he can only see them as pure innocence, or prostitutes. (And frankly, he doesn’t interact with them all that well.)
Does Holden seem to think that he’s feeling new feelings? (Or does Salinger?) In other words—is he just expressing something that teenagers have always felt, or are these feelings of boredom, indifference, and anxiety particular to his time period?
Every teen thinks they invented angst. But there is something about the post-war era that seems especially plagued with the feelings of boredom, indifference, and anxiety. It didn’t become known as the age of anxiety for no reason.
How many stories have we seen about bored ’50s housewives? Mad Men is an entire television series devoted to post-war anxiety.
In the end, existential angst isn’t really my thing. The “life is futile” mentality bothers me. It always has. It doesn’t matter why we’re here, we just are. And people are imperfect, that’s not news. But reading this book sure made me glad not to be a teenager anymore.
P.S. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this book would make anyone want to kill John Lennon.