These days our way of portraying things is so deeply defined by visual narratives on T.V and in the movies that we can hardly imagine a world without images, in fact I’d argue that we have a bad habit of seeing books as cheaply made movies, where words do nothing but create visual narratives in our heads.
Often what passes for book criticism is “I couldn’t picture that guy” or “I didn’t like that part” – that is we’ve left language so far behind that often we judge our stories based solely on a book’s actions. But in this image drenched world we often struggle to appreciate books where the quality arises not just from plot, but also from the language itself.
Holden Caulifield, the main character in J.D Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, knew this – as he too lived in an image driven world. On the first page of the book he calls his brother a prostitute for abandoning book writing for Hollywood, and says “If there’s one thing I hate, it’d the movies.” The novel often acts in direct opposition to film, for example when Holden says “I don’t remember if he knocked me out or not. It’s pretty hard to knock a guy out. Except in the goddamn movies.”
The Catcher in the Rye is the story of Holden Caulifield ‘s expulsion from Pensy Prep and his journey back home to N.Y.C, where he bums around for a few days, trying to get somebody to listen to him, and meaningfully respond to his fears about becoming an adult. Holden by the way has grown six inches in the last year and half of his head is covered in grey hairs – both impending signs of adulthood.
In this novel he is so obsessed with, and protective of innocence that he can’t even throw a snowball at a car, because it “looked so nice and white”. He tries and asks many people in the city about his problems during the novel, and nothing else much happens. No heavy action scenes, no real voilene and no sex scenes – as Holden is probably the first person in the world to pay a prostitute not to have sex with him.
What Holden really wants is not money or sex or anything, he wants to stop time. As he says when thinking about the natural history museum, “The best thing though, about that museum, is that everything always stayed right where it was.” Holden wants to be a protector of innocence, a catcher in the rye, but he also wants to stay innocent himself.
This is innocence is explained through sex – a possible sexual advance from an adult at the end of the novel Holden says “This sort of thing has happened about twenty times since I was a kid.” From that alone we see why the adult world seems so phoney to Holden, as the only adult who pays attention to him in the entire novel is one with alternate motives.
So he just wants to stop time to keep himself and the people he cares about away from that phoney world. Holden time back, if you will.
We see other strategies of using language as the weight of the book, more so with Holden’s subtle and safe protection, particularly the way he refers to himself throughout the novel. He refers to himself as “pretty run down” Ackley is “sort of a nasty guy”, he “sort of gives his sister a kiss”, in fact according to Google, the phrase “sort of” is used 179 times.
A main reason this novel has survived, even after 60 years, without images is because Holden’s voice as a narrator still sounds authentic, due to the unique grammar usage and word choice – not plot.
In a biographical letter, JD Salinger wrote “for me the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal extremely discriminating attitude towards his reader –listener. He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique.”
After Stradlater, a student at Pensey Prep, asks the expelled Holden to write a composition for him because he quote “doesn’t know where to put the commas”, Holden writes (INSERT PICTURE) “That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if you’re good at writing compositions and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong spot. He was a little bit like Ackley, that way.”
You see what Holden did there? He put a comma in the wrong spot. Their shouldn’t technically be a comma before that way, but it sounds right.
But Holden greatest gift as a narrator is that all these techniques that are used to create distance between him and us only make us involved more as we feel compelled to emphasise with him – especially when his defences finally break down.
An example of this is when he is talking about his brother Ali’s baseball glove. He writes “He had poems written all over the fingers and pockets and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up to bat. He’s dead now.
The gut punch of those last three words is brilliant, a present tense sentence in a past tense novel. We go from imagining a kid in the grass reading poetry to know that this kid is dead. Not that he died, but he is dead now. This technique is so effective because it uses language to remind us that the dead don’t stop being dead. That they remain dead, and that’s how they haunt us.
Another example is the use of the word ‘Listen’. “Listen, do you feel like playing canasta?” Holden asks Ackley . Ackley doesn’t. He says “Listen, Loius, you’re one of those intellectual guys, I’m in a terrific – AND THEN LOIUS CUTS HIM OFF – NOT EVEN ABLE TO LISTEN TO THE END OF THE SENTENCE.
But at the end of the novel, Holden says to Phoebe “Listen, do you wanna go for a walk?” Holden finally gets listened to. Well they start off walking on opposite sides of the street, but he does get listened to. Holden watches as his little sister goes round and around on the merry-go-round.
And moments later we feel something welling up inside of us as Holden writes “I felt so damn happy. The way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling I was so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why, it’s just she kept going around and around in her blue coat and all. God I wish you could’ve been there.”
Some say that Holden never changes throughout the novel, but he does right at the end. The boy who wants nothing to change becomes so damn happy when he sees his little sister go around and around.
When Holden stops thinking of time as a line to corrupt adulthood but instead imagines it as a circle where one goes around and around in a journey to and from innocence that lasts throughout life, he can finally be so damn happy.
Yes, Holden never really gets anywhere, and nothing much happens, it just keeps going around and around. But that doesn’t mean nothing ever changes.

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