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Compelling themes and protaganist make ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ a classic

By Kimberly Roland
On April 19, 2012

The best literature is timeless and relatable, but a little bit of sex and violence doesn’t hurt either.

The 1951 novel “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger might seem out of place amongst the polished new titles at the local bookstore but it probably reads better than most of them.

During an era of sexual revolution and youth rebellion in the ‘70s, the novel was placed on a number of banned book lists.

Despite the initial resistance, this beloved classic has consistently proven itself and makes thousands of reading lists every year. It has been published in virtually every major language and is commonly taught in high schools and colleges throughout the world.

The opening of the novel finds anti-hero Holden Caulfield hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and he recounts the events which led to his situation.

The 17-year old narrator talks about being kicked out of another prep school and his decision to spend a few days in New York City instead of returning home. Over the course of two days, he encounters dangerous and friendly characters and his experiences challenge his ideas about life.

The storyline is one which grabs readers’ attention because Caulfield exhibits and exposes the emotions that many people choose to brush under the carpet.

Throughout the pages, the reader experiences Caulfield’s search for closure, placement and peace.

One could feel remorse and pity for Caulfield’s situation – wealth and a good last name went far for Caulfield, but those things don’t provide emotional stability or happiness.

Caulfield’s attempts to connect with other people over the course of the novel forces him to choose between two competing impulses – interact with other people as an adult or retreat from them like a child. This conflict fuels much of the story’s action.

Despite the jaded and raw narrative, readers all over have been able to identify with the story’s protagonist.

The story is told entirely in first person from Caulfield’s point of view. From the beginning, the reader can infer Caulfield is a talkative and straight edge kind of guy; he tells it like it is.

Salinger captures the cynical parts of life and makes Caulfield’s dilemmas and discoveries connect with all dimensions of age. Whether the reader is 15 or 75, the struggle of finding happiness and placement in the world will always be a topic which appeals to readers.

The story is loaded with symbolism and motifs, including life and death, which is addressed through the death of Caulfield’s younger brother:

“I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it.”

Even though the Caulfield’s appear veneer, Caulfield’s anger and confusion proves to them just how broken the family really is.

Perhaps the story’s most prominent motif is Caulfield’s perceptions of reality and illusion. His difficulty in separating the two makes for multiple thought-provoking scenes.

Salinger shows this in several sections, such as Caulfield’s observation about statues at a museum.

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move … Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.”

If you are looking for a page turning book filled with timeless realities of growing up and being understood, be sure to re-read or begin this beloved American classic.

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