Experience is the greatest enemy of meaning and significance. When I first read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye during my late teens, I was absolutely captivated by the novel’s passive anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. I felt his loneliness, his distaste towards all of the “phoniness” present in the world, and his constant state of utter helplessness in an uncaring world. It had been a couple of years since I’ve last read the text, and I must say that revisiting the text was a difficult and heart-breaking experience… not only because the content of the text is charged, but also because I realized that I was no longer able to connect with Holden in the exact way that I used to. As I re-read the first half of the novel, I was disturbed to see that I was perceiving Holden as an annoying, whiny, and repetitive character. I found myself rolling my eyes and at times even groaning as I encountered some of his thoughts and actions.
I thought the text had lost its magic. Many people are unable to see what’s magical about this text. The New York Times posted an interesting article titled Get a Life, Holden Caulfield, which discusses how contemporary teens are unable to connect to Holden’s character in the way that older generations of readers were able to. And while my dislike for Holden was intense during the initial half of my re-reading, this dislike began to mellow down as the novel reached its conclusion. I began to realize how much hurt Holden was facing. I began to look back and think about how I also was a whiny teenager, and how I believed that there wasn’t a single soul in the world that could understand me. I remember how I had attitude problems, how I went through phases of intense depression. I was Holden Caulfield, and now I’m a different person. This thought hit me hard, to the point that I was unable to write an analysis of the novel after reading it. I was stunned. I had to sit down, think carefully, and digest the novel before writing about it. And even though my gut reaction was to bash on the novel, after careful thought and consideration, I truly believe this novel is great for three reasons: 1) It manages to encapsulate teenage angst and anger in a way that stirs strong and polarizing emotions within its readers; 2) COUNTLESS (and great) contemporary novels have been inspired by Salinger’s novel (including but not limited to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You); 3) It is one of the few novels that’s successfully able to tell the coming-of-age tale of a sensitive male protagonist.
Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an interesting case within the literary world, for although it was written with an adult audience in mind, it became very popular among teenage and young adult readers. Since its publication, there have been numerous attempts to censor or ban the book from schools and libraries, and it is currently on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics, due mostly to its use of “profanity” and sexuality. Some even go as far as to classify Catcher as a precursor to the young adult book market. I believe this has to do a lot with why it was so easy for me to connect with the novel as a teen, and why it was very challenging to achieve this connection as an adult. However, during my re-reading of the book, not only did I notice/understand many aspects of the novel that I was oblivious to as a teen, but I also noticed that the book has many interesting points of discussion that are worth exploring, especially when considering how influential this novel was to the genre of young adult fiction.
What interested me the most of my re-reading was Holden Caulfield’s sexuality. Now, let me make it clear: there is no clear indication on whether this character is gay. On the contrary, the character makes it very explicit that he is interested in women, as can be seen in the following passage:
She was around forty-five, I guess, but she was very good-looking. Women kill me. They really do. I don’t mean I’m oversexed or anything like that–although I am quite sexy. I just like them, I mean. (70) [The term sexy means “sexual” in this passage].
Holden does not engage in sexual behavior with any male character (or any character for that matter) during the development of the novel. The character does express some hesitation when “fooling around” with female characters, but I don’t believe that this is a clear indicator of gayness, but rather, of overall sexual frustration and anxiety fueled by depression and loneliness. Nevertheless, I do think that it is possible to conduct a queer reading of Holden not based on his actions, but on his thoughts and opinions regarding other men and “flits” (a slang word for gay men back in the 1950s). There are many instances in the novel in which Holden thinks about people or events in a way that facilitates a queer or gay reading:
- Holden notices (and seems to appreciate) Stradlater’s physical appearance: “He went out of the room with his toilet kit and towel under his arm. No shirt on or anything. He always walked around in his bare torso because he thought he had a damn good build. He did, too. I have to admit it” (34). Holden also points out that Stradlater has “gorgeous locks” (42).
- There is a prolonged mental dialogue in which Holden discusses “flits,” focusing on his friend Luce, who knew “who every flit and lesbian in the United States was” (186). Luce used to tell Holden how some men are married and don’t even know that they are flits, instilling a fear in Holden that he might one day “turn into a flit or something” (186).
- There is the infamous scene in which Mr. Antolini caresses Holden’s hair while he is sleeping, causing Holden to have an anxiety attack induced by gay panic. Holden later debates whether or not Mr. Antolini “was making a flitty pass” (253) at him, but it doesn’t change the fact that he was unable to withstand the teacher’s demonstration of affection.
The Antolini episode in particular left me with a lot of questions, especially when focusing on Holden’s reaction towards the teacher’s caress. The following passage expresses the thoughts that were going through Holden’s mind as he was escaping Mr. Antolini’s apartment:
Boy, was I shaking like a madman. I was sweating, too. When something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it. (251)
This passage is really ambiguous to me. Is Holden referring to the fact that he’s received sexual advances from men in the past, or is he referring to the fact that he’s sexual advances from adults since he was a kid? It is possible that Holden is referring to past traumas that are affecting his current behavior as a teenager? I think an interpretation of this passage is difficult not only because of its ambiguity, but also because of its unstable use of language. What exactly does Holden mean by “perverty” or “that kind of stuff”? It is referring to gay behavior or sexually “deviant” behavior? Keep in mind that earlier in the novel, as he is looking out from his hotel window and watching a man dress in woman’s clothes, and a man and woman squirting water from their mouths at each other, he states that “the hotel was lousy with perverts” (81), which complicates a direct correlation of perversion with gayness.
What do you think about any of the ideas expressed above? What do you think about Holden being a queer-coded character, or at least as a character that can facilitate a queer interpretation? How do Holden’s views contest the notion of binary oppositions? Notice that we have an ostensibly straight character who is able to express some degree of attraction towards the same sex, while also demonstrating a fear of the possibility of being gay. This simultaneously complicates and perpetuates what it means to be a heterosexual teenage male, especially one who is sensitive, confused, and who is trying to comply with the demands and expectations of society.
In due course, re-reading this novel left me with many questions and doubts. And, although I was disliking the novel at first, towards the end, I rediscovered what made the novel great in the first place. It is an honest and unabashed depiction of a teenager’s pain. It is a depiction of a time in our lives when we all feel like the world is against us, and when we think we have all the answers. It is a time where everything and everyone seems “phony,” but we are unable to recognize our own inherent phoniness. It is a novel that posits questions that we are still unable to answer. It is a novel that continues to push us to ask questions… even if it is a question as simple as “why do I love or hate this novel?”. Thus, the text does not lack “magic” in any way… I’m just encountering a different type of magic when compared to the one I first encountered as a child. If we can move beyond the text’s apparent simplicity, repetition, and phoniness, we may find that it is truly a complex and thought-provoking read.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print. (Hardcover edition)