Connecting to Caulfield

By Mike Fox

One opinion that I’ve heard repeated ad nauseam is the idea that requiring someone to read a book dampens their opinion of it. So of course, we go through high school being forced to read a number of fantastic books, but because we had to do some asinine assignment while reading them, our enjoyment of the literature bottoms out. This seems to ruin Shakespeare and a score of American classics for so many people. One book though seems to be the exception to this.

“The Catcher in the Rye” is a book that each generation seems to adopt as its own, connecting with protagonist Holden Caulfield’s frustration and rage at both his parent’s generation and the mass of “phonies” that he sees everywhere. The idea that “no one seems to understand” has never been so universally put down to paper. With these core beliefs, Caulfield goes through an emotionally trying three days in New York City where extreme examples of otherwise ordinary occurrences pushes him to the edge and a mental breakdown.

J.D. Salinger, the author who was a synonym for recluse, died Wednesday. He wrote a score of other short stories and has supposedly uncountable unpublished writings since the beginning of his into-reclusiveness back in 1965, but there’s no doubt “The Catcher in the Rye” will stand, as it has for the past several decades, as his main contribution to our literature.

Back when I read the book, I understood it for it basic themes, but found my connection with Caulfield (by all arguments a complete basket case) lacking. However, and probably fitting, I went through my own adventure in New York City last weekend.

Caulfield’s experience starts after his expulsion from private school. When he returns home to the city, he decides to stay at a rundown hotel and chase after girls instead of returning to his parent’s apartment like any normal person would.

Like Caulfield, I made my decision rather impulsively, buying a $72 bus ticket to meet up with a close friend visiting from far away to participate in a community service event that helped count homeless people in the city. The service was a fantastic part of the experience, but I truly went because I was chasing emotions that I felt for my friend.

Caulfield passes his time reflecting on the role he sees himself playing in society. He desires to be a defender of the helpless and protector of innocence, symbolized by the reoccurring image he has of being a metaphorical “catcher in the rye” in which he protects children playing in a field from running off a cliff. Slowly, over his trip, he realizes so much in life is out of his control and slips deeper into depression.

I myself like to imagine playing some sort of defender role in society, but I realized while counting in an industrial part of the Bronx and finding few people at all in the course of four hours, that you can’t always play some grand and exciting role, often you only contribute a small part.

Towards the end of the book, he relays his idea to move out west and start a new life with his sister, the one person that he genuinely connects with. But eventually he scraps his plan to move altogether. The book ends with him taking her to the park where he watches her ride a carousel.

At the end of my trip, I took a chance and shared my emotions with my friend only to find them rebuffed due to the vast distance that normally separates us. At this point Caulfield one upped me, because I found myself unable to compromise my emotions with my desires and possibly hurt a relationship with someone in the process.

Sometimes in life, we have to take those crazy chances on seemingly insane and impulsive adventures. The emotions that we feel on them help lead us on a path to discovery and the ability to reconcile our mistakes with the direction that life is progressing in.

Caulfield’s character ends the  book in a sanatorium where he is learning how to cope with his feelings of alienation in the world. Some interpretations say this is a positive note; others view it as him losing his individuality and becoming one of the very phonies that he despises.

Having gone through my own fool-hardy trip and coming to some realizations, I see it simply as Caulfield learning to deal with life. It’s possible to maintain one’s individuality and authenticity without raging against the world. As long as you feel emotions, you can maintain who you are. Maybe Caulfield was a phony himself for the way he judged others.

Thank you, J.D. Salinger. You may have only written a few books, but the depth of what you gave the world still persists. As long as one feels emotion, they’ll never be a phony.

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]