It is in the voice of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, that the novel has both its greatest strength and its greatest liability. Reviewers generally encourage people to read it before their teens are out, lest they find Holden to be utterly insufferable. I’ve heard more than one critic describe the disappointment of returning to him to middle age and find themselves put off by the ramblings of this sarcastic iconoclast. Typical among his reflections is the following, when one of his dates is interrupted by one of Sally’s acquaintances, the lady he is accompanying: “You should’ve seen the way they said hello. You’d have thought they hadn’t seen in each other in twenty years. You’d have thought that they’d taken baths in the same bathtub or something when they were little kids. Old buddyroos. It was nauseating.”
Holden is represented as being constantly disagreeable and irritated but there is a certain degree of slippage in the recording of his disdain. The novel is narrated in retrospect, therefore his perceived sullenness may be a genuine reflection of his sentiments in the moment just as well as it may be an overflowing of angsty emotion recollected in tranquillity. While he narrates the later stages of his date, the reader can perceive the interweaving of two very different emotions simultaneously. First, his apparently sincere expression of the desire to elope with his date, Sally: (“’No kidding,’ I said. ‘I have about a hundred and eighty bucks in the bank. I can take it out when it opens in the morning, and then I could go down and get this guys car. No kidding.”) Also present is Holden’s incredulity that he had expressed the idea at all: “The terrible part, though, is that I meant it when I asked her. That’s the terrible part. I swear to God I’m a madman.”
Of course, it is nothing new to point out h0w Caulfield’s monologue proceeds by means of elisions and concealments just as much as through the plain statement of his uncompromising opinions. The novel begins with the narrator’s self-censorship, an invocation to silence, that he will refuse to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” It’s a fun reversal of the conventional mechanisms of the novel as a genre and indicative of a kind of no-nonsense paring back of detail that one often wishes for when reading novels such as David Copperfield.
The Catcher in the Rye is often held up as one of those novels essential to the American canon and indicative of, dealing in national stereotypes, its capacity to embody a no-nonsense, straightforward narrative voice. In many ways it sets the tone of what was to come in the rest of the century (ignoring the maximalist works of Thomas Pynchon), such as in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. While appreciating this aspect of The Catcher in the Rye, one should likewise me attuned to the more tentative and subtle modulations of Holden’s voice.