I belong to a book club where most members are over 50. Someone suggested we re-read a classic that we’d read as a young person, to see how our view of it has changed. We chose Catcher in the Rye. It has been an interesting journey, starting and ending with fragility.
When I first met Holden Caulfield, I was a college freshman. I thought he was a potty-mouthed loser. He flunked out of one fancy private school after another. Only sixteen, he smoked and drank and tried to pass for an adult. He had no friends his own age. I didn’t like him and couldn’t figure out why on earth my professor assigned this reading.
Now I know. Holden’s cursing, which then shocked me, now seems tame. I now notice his parents are physically and emotionally distanced. They don’t mind his smoking and drinking because it’s a firm part of their lifestyle and, if anything, they seem to encourage it.
Now I understand the tough-guy language is a screen to hide Holden’s sensitivity and vulnerability. (Do tattoos and piercings serve that purpose today?)
Then, I thought he disliked everyone else, calling them “phonies.” Now I recognize he has an uncanny knack of seeing another’s “false self,” but simultaneously piercing through it with compassion to the pain it’s designed to hide.
Holden has more trouble seeing his own inner kindness and courage. He believes he’s a coward because he doesn’t like to fight. But in fact he stands up to bullies even when he takes a beating for it. He defends acne-covered misfit Ackly. He confronts his popular, sophisticated roommate, Stradlater, who brags about seducing a girl Holden admires. He dances with a pretty “older” woman who is graceful, but then also invites her clumsy, unattractive friends to dance so they won’t feel left out.
Holden seems to be completely himself only when with his ten-year-old sister Phoebe.
When I was young, I’d have said this book was about a teenage boy killing time for a couple of days on his own in New York, to avoid going home and confronting his disappointed parents who would learn he’s been expelled. I don’t recall noticing that he seems to be telling his story to a therapist in an institution. This doesn’t become explicit until the very end, although there are strong hints of depression and maybe even suicidal thoughts. As the story ends, Holden expects to return home soon and then, it’s implied, to another private school.
Now I understand why Catcher in the Rye continues to be assigned to young people and to sell millions of copies. But it may be more appropriate for readers with a lifetime of experience. It’s really about our universal longing for human connections – and how our egos and defenses get in the way.