I somehow escaped reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school, the age when most people read this novel for the first time. Over the years, I have had many people, males especially, tell me how they loved this book and connected to the main character, Holden Caulfield. I read it for the first time last summer and to be honest, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Nothing significant really happens in the story and Holden spends the majority of the novel complaining about everyone and everything. Not exactly my cup of tea. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but I certainly did not experience the connection with Holden so many others did. I’m not sure if that had more to do with my age, or my personality. I have always had very little patience for people who refuse to help themselves, and Holden seemed to fall into that category, which left me little sympathy for him.
I decided to give the book another chance and reread it, as my 10th grade students prepared to study it for the first time. While it still is not a favorite of mine, I do have to say that I find myself having a lot more compassion for Holden after my subsequent reading. I think Holden is a lonely boy. A boy who suffered greatly after the death of his brother and feels abandoned by his parents after they send him away to boarding school after boarding school. I think that he desperately wants to connect with someone, but doesn’t know how and fears being judged. He looks for connection in anyone who will give him the time of day, while at the same time keeping people at a distance. Holden hides behind the pretense that he can’t stand “phonies” when he himself is one of the phoniest people in the novel. He looks for faults in others, but refuses to truly recognize them in himself.
The only real connection he has is with his sister, Phoebe, who is a child. Holden is still a child in many ways and talks about how he desperately wants to protect innocence of the children he sees, but I think it is his innocence that he wants to protect. He is on the cusp of adulthood, but instead of looking forward to the future, Holden wants to freeze time. He was clearly deeply affected by the death of his brother and his failure to protect his innocence.
So in the end, I have a new appreciation for The Catcher in the Rye, but you still won’t find it at the top of my favorite books list. Perhaps this might have been different had I read it as an adolescent, but I still think I would have been impatient with Holden. Maybe future re-readings of the novel will continue to change my perspective.