Criticisms of Catcher in the Rye

Criticisms of Catcher in the Rye

What's the deal with Holden Caulfield?

Holden Caulfield: the poster-child for 1950s teenage angst and suffering, and the centerpiece for modern American high school curricula.


Why is JD Salinger’s best-known character so good at stirring up feelings of affection, despair, dismissiveness, sometimes concurrently, even sixty years after the 1951 Catcher in the Rye release? While many praise Holden’s sardonic and realistic expression of the human condition as a genuine, even self-reflective portrait, others aren’t so taken. The likes of Joan Didion even chided the whininess and faux-relatability of the main character in a 1961 essay, reducing the novel’s significance to a forgettable footnote in pop fiction.

Holden is a complicated and emotionally-burdened figure, and the inspiration for his creation most likely stems from Salinger’s experience as a student of Valley Forge Military Academy, a soldier in the second world war, and as a man who existed permanently fixed on the fringe of the social sphere. Former classmates remember Salinger as reserved, and, when he did speak, sarcastic and intelligent. Sound familiar?


Critics argue that Holden’s truth, if we really want to know about it, comes off as disingenuous, monotonous, and at best, short-lived. Here’s a kid frustrated with social order, the opposing tides of childhood and adulthood, and what it means to grow up; and we aren’t offered more from Holden than when he cries phony at adults who are missing his capital-t Truth. Some feel Salinger’s talents were wasted on a not-so-fully-fleshed character.


Therein lies a point. Maybe the enigma of Holden’s bitter attitude is only uncovered via half-baked, profanity-filled truisms-- a strange, pubescent way to reconcile change within and beyond ourselves. Or maybe it’s in the acceptance that we’re ignorant of these changes and the most legitimate, human reflex is in the surrender to that ignorance. If you want to know the whole truth, Holden laments in the final chapter, I don’t know what to think about it.


It’s easy to read lines like these (there’s quite a few of them) through both skeptical and appreciative lenses. Holden is all of us, some may say, or he is the product of lazy writing. Say what you feel, some critics beg of Salinger’s character, while others admit it would defile the magic of Holden’s withheld disposition.


Holden’s language, for one, stands trial in today’s classroom. Many students find he has lost his relatability because his catchphrases are so very dated. No surprise, then, that Holden comes across as the biggest phony in the book, hogging the spotlight from any other characters that pass through.


Truthfully, my lens fluctuates on every read-through. Sometimes my eyes roll at this rich kid perusing New York on a week free from responsibility. What does he have to complain about? On others, I am caught asking myself that same question, even when my life appears whole, perfect and without its usual stresses.


Before I’m criticized for suggesting we all come out from Holden’s overcoat (or, I suppose in this case, his red hunting hat), consider literature does not exist in a state of rest. There are countless ways to absorb and understand a body of work, and what we bring to Shakespeare’s- or Gogol’s- or Salinger’s- table invariably changes, years after the words are set in stone.


Does that mean there is ever a final say on Holden? Or, more prosaically, why do I sometimes feel cheated finding Holden at the end of his journey having learned, felt, experienced, in summation, nothing; and then on other readings, why do I ride again the carousel as Phoebe does, grabbing for a golden ring that will fling me off the horse, inevitably? Not to disappoint, but there are no concrete answers to any of these questions, though I think there’s an importance in asking them. And there’s an importance in telling so many people about [them]. Whatever the opinion, Holden’s rants aren’t so easy to shake off. They shape a story worth telling--and even if you don’t agree with his takeaways, or lack thereof--they make up a story worth reading.