"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy." (p173)
When I heard that the St. Luke Book Club in St. Louis was reading Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye I knew that I should take the opportunity and finally pick up this novel and read it. Many Americans are expected to read it during high school, and you would think I would have gotten to it during my undergrad days, but my focus has always been on English Regency and Victorian novels, so I missed Salinger...until now.
I have to say, of all the novels that I have read in the past two semesters, this novel has moved me and impressed me the most. The number one reason is that the character Holden Caulfield, for all his flaws, is an absolutely beautiful soul. This is most apparent in his reflections about his siblings--especially stories about his dead twin brother Allie, and his interaction with his little sister Phoebe. He is not detached from others, or alienated; rather, he's eagerly tied to those around him, and wants to be in relationship with others, although his behavior does not always facilitate this goal. He is a teenager, after all, struggling to be a man while still very much a child.
The above quote is the window into his whole self-perception, which impresses me that the novel takes its title from this passage. See how Holden Caulfield sees the world--a place for children playing freely. It's not a place free of dangers, however; there is a cliff in the image, so Holden isn't being idealistic or romantic--but if the world is imperfect, and does present dangers, he is willing to stand and keep on guard for the sake of others. He will protect them, allowing the playing to continue. It's a powerful image and expression of the vocation to love, the vocation to be a brother to the vulnerable. It says to me, the reader, that this character is truly, at heart, a person grounded in goodness.
Holden is not perfect--but he hasn't made the cardinal mistake of thinking the world is all about him. This is clear by the fact that at the end of the story, he promises to go home. "Not my will, but thine be done,"--in this case, the "thine" refers to his sister. You can be imperfect, the novel proclaims, but for goodness' sake, be in relationship. Grave sin occurs when the ties to others (especially the tie to God) are severed and one says, "Not thine, but my will be done." For me, then, this novel is a testimony to the messiness of our human experience, but the underlying goodness of our natures, and the importance of our staying connected to one another, and putting each other first.
In a way, I see a parallel between this story and Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. Holden, like the younger son of the parable, goes out into the world and is confronted by the lure of adult pleasures--false friends and false sexual encounters; and like the younger son of the parable, the call of the genuine love offered by the family brings him back home and saves him from this "side" of the world.
In short, I highly recommend this short, but powerful novel to any who have not yet read it. I plan on reading To Kill a Mockingbird next.