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Saturday, September 26, 2009

All I can say is, don't see it if you don't want to puke all over yourself.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
We've moved to a year somewhere around 1945, and our main character is Holden Caulfield, who I think is about 16 years old. Maybe 17. He's just been kicked out of Pencey Prep School for Boys, in Agerstown, PA, for flunking all his subjects but English. We learn throughout the book that he is most likely failing because he has lingering depression from his brother Allie's death. Allie had leukemia, and passed on a few years before the book starts. Holden decides to leave Pencey early (Christmas break starts on Wednesday, it's Saturday night, I think, when the book begins). He figures his parents won't get the letter saying he was kicked out until at least Tuesday, and he wants to have an adventure. He goes to New York City, his hometown. He sees a few acquaintances, stays in a hotel, orders a prostitute on a whim (it goes terribly), leaves the hotel, and goes on a date with a semi-obnoxious ex-girlfriend. The date goes sour, he ditches the girl, and he sneaks into his house at night to visit his littler sister Phoebe, who is about 9 years old, I think. He hides from his parents in Phoebe's closet, Phoebe gives him her Christmas money to fund his adventure, and he calls an old teacher, who lets him spend the night. Holden seems happy at his teacher's house, but freaks out when he wakes up in the middle of the night and his male teacher is patting him on the head. He leaves in a hurry and sleeps on a public bench. Holden finally decides to hitch hike out west, but when he tries to drop off a note to Phoebe saying goodbye, she tries to come with him. This stops him from going, and in the last chapter, we find out that Holden is "sick" and being treated in some kind of hospital. He talks about returning to school, but isn't too hopeful about not failing out again.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I started reading Franny and Zooey, Caulfield's only other famous work, just before I started this blog. I didn't finish it, because I found the plot to be lacking a driving force. I noticed quite a few interesting similarities between that book and this one, though, and I'll start this post by mentioning them here. If you don't mind.

Both books feature the same family structure: two parents, three sons, and one daughter. Both books deal with the loss of one of the children, a son, and the repercussions of this loss. And in each book, the death of that sibling is a quiet driving force for the main character's actions. Maybe it's not really that quiet, but it felt subtle to me.

All right, on to random comments, as I eat my cream cheese-stuffed french toast and hash browns. I don't even really like french toast that much. I just like to drown my hash browns in syrup.

- Holden talks about his brother Allie's death, and he says that when it happened, he smashed all the windows in his garage. Holden points out that, though he now can't make a fist with that hand, fist-making is really only crucial for surgeons and violinists. I thought this was funny, considering that my sister Diana could potentially be both of those things.

- Holden loves his red hunting hat with ear flaps that he buys in New York City with the Pencey fencing team. I think the hat is adorably interwoven in the story (haha. get it? woven?) It made me want to knit myself a red hat. Maybe I will.

- Holden wants to know what happens to the ducks in Central Park in wintertime, but no one can tell him. One taxi cab driver tells him that he doesn't know what happens to the ducks, but the fish stay in the pond, frozen in the ice. Holden doesn't seem to believe this, but I know it's true, seeing as how we had that fish pond growing up and I watched the fish keep on living under the ice each winter. Right, mom? Except for that last winter, when they all died mysteriously. Oops!

- Holden cries when the pimp, Maurice, and the prostitute, Sunny come to fetch more money from him for the sex he didn't have. He gets punched by Maurice in the stomach, but I liked this moment because it felt like Holden was crying not because he was hurt, but because he was angry at being cheated out of money. It felt very vulnerable and childish to me.

- Sorry I forgot to mention this earlier, but the title of today's post is in reference to a movie that Holden and Sally (his ex-gf) went to see. I thought it was a very Holden comment, so I chose it for the title.

- When Holden is in a bar (he manages to get cocktails "on account of his gray hairs, and his height") he pretends he's been shot in the gut. He keeps pretending for several hours. I don't know if I've ever imagined quite that scenario, before, but I've certainly imagined some random scenarios, so I can identify, Holden.

- In what I thought was one of the most poignant moments in this novel, Holden talks about going to see Allie's grave. He went with his family only a few times, and twice, he said, it rained. It rained right on Allie's stomach. This image makes me want to cry it feels so real.

- Phoebe tells her mother that she said her prayers in the bathroom, at one point. This reminded me of when I used to tell my mom (after long car trips, and after my dad had carried me to my lovely bottom bunk bed) that I had already been to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. And someone (ahem. Diana, little miss top bunk) used to rat me out, and tell mom I hadn't. I know it's just because you care about my dental health, Diana. And everyone knows you used to beat me up because you still slept with a night light and I didn't like it. And I guess I did get your mouth washed out with soap. Twice. Ahem. Sorry.

- When Holden spends the night with his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, and his teacher pats him on the head in the middle of the night, Holden launches into this mania, worried that his teacher is a "flit" and a pervert. Later on, when Holden has cooled down, he realizes that his teacher might not be a pervert, and even if he is a "flit" (a gay man) that might not be such a bad thing. I thought this was pretty forward-thinking for 1945. Thanks, Salinger.

- Holden sees inappropriate phrases written on his sister Phoebe's school, and later on in the museum, and it upsets him. He tries to erase the first "f*** you" that he sees on the school wall, but when he sees it in the museum, he despairs, and says that ultimately there will always be someone to write "f*** you", and that it will probably be written on his tombstone. I think it's true that people write nasty things, Holden, but I don't think anyone would write that on your tombstone. I'll erase it if they do.

- I counted the number of references to "depression" or "being depressed" Holden made in the book. Guesses? 37 is the answer. 37 separate references to feeling depressed, or things that happen that make him depressed. And yet, I was somehow still totally surprised that Holden ended up being treated for mental illness in the end of the book. I guess I just don't have that much faith in the quality of mental health options in 1945. As someone who suffers from depression, and had helpful discussions with mental health professionals, and unhelpful discussions, I appreciate Holden's plight, and I hope that things go well for him after the end of this book.

Last comment. In reference to the title of the book, Holden says the only thing he can see himself doing in life is summed up in a Robert Burns poem. It turns out he's misquoting it (it's "if a body meet a body coming through the rye", not "if a body catch a body coming through the rye") but he sees himself in a field of rye with a bunch of little kids. The children are playing ball, and they're standing right near the edge of a cliff. He says he's the only "big one" around. "What I have to do," he says, is "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 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 think Holden wants to be the catcher because he knows he's running off a cliff, and he doesn't know if there's anyone there to catch him. We all need a catcher in the rye, Holden. I think that's a perfectly respectable career choice. In fact, I've spent the last two and half years being a catcher in the rye, now that I think of it.

I'm off to Middle Earth.


  1. good post, even if it villifies me a little. ;) my favorite part about reading your posts on these classics is that you bring up things i felt intuitively about the novels but couldn't really understand at the age when i was reading them. this, i suppose, can only hold for a certain number of the books, but so far it's an accurate statement. also, i don't feel like rereading a lot of these, so it's very helpful of you to remind me of some salient points that i can then bring up in conversation to make myself seem astute.

  2. correction: "vilify" has only one "l".

  3. Dear Meredith,

    I love reading your posts. Good luck with getting through the list, but if anyone can, you can! I'm happy to see Love in the Time of Cholera on the list, I re-read it every year. Well, I don't have anything interesting to say, just "hi" and happy reading!

    By the way, Diana, as a cousin who witnessed certain bunkbed fights, I think Meredith was rather kind to you in her post!

  4. how's LOTR going, my precious? i miss you.