Jerome David Salinger’s debut novel is a classic of the coming-of-age genre and an elegy to teenage alienation. Its protagonist is sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, the second of four children belonging to a wealthy New York family. Intelligent, cultured and attractive, there is, nonetheless, something that makes young Holden feel uneasy about his life. The short novel recounts the few days he spends in the big city after being suspended from boarding school.
Nothing much actually happens in the novel. However, it is precisely in this nothingness that the protagonist wages an inner war between the man he is to become, and the child he still is. On one hand, he can’t stand the “phonies” around him of his own age, but neither can he stand the hypocrisy of adults.
“If anybody wanted to tell me something, they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life.”
"Si querían decirme algo, tendrían que escribirlo en un papel y ponérmelo delante de las narices. Con el tiempo se hartarían de hacer eso y ya no tendría que hablar con nadie el resto de mi vida".
A confused boy full of contradictions, in his interior monologue he reflects on themes such as violence, death and suicide, sex and the value of truth as currencies of common use in adult society. The Catcher in the Rye can be regarded as an existentialist novel, the result of the collapse of ideals after World War Two and the rise of fierce capitalism.
“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.”
"Ciertas cosas deberían seguir siendo como son. Deberías poder meterlas en una de esas vitrinas de cristal y dejarlas en paz. Sé que es imposible, pero de todos modos es una pena".
THE TEEN IS BORN
In his protagonist, Salinger personifies an apparently new and difficult stage of life between childhood and maturity, which emerged in the second half of the 20th century in Western society. It introduces the archetype of the adolescent male in emotional transition, in search of his place in a world he may not want to belong to. A teacher at school tells the young man to play by the rules, but Holden knows the rules are rigged.
“«Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules.»
«Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it.»
Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it’s a game, all right — I’ll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren’t any hot-shots, then what’s a game about it? Nothing. No game.”
"—La vida es una partida, muchacho. La vida es una partida que uno juega de acuerdo con las reglas.
—Sí, señor. Ya lo sé. Ya lo sé.
De partida, un cuerno. Menuda partida. Si te toca del lado de los que cortan el bacalao, desde luego que es una partida, lo reconozco. Pero como te toque en el otro lado, donde no hay ningún pez gordo, ¿qué tiene eso de partida? Nada. De partida, nada".
Salinger’s iconic character became a universal symbol of teenage discontent, inspiring movies of the 1950s, such as East of Eden starring James Dean. However, the book was also cited as an inspiration for degenerate, and even murderous behaviour. Mark David Chapman thought he read in the nihilism of the book a reason to kill John Lennon in 1980, and even blamed it for his actions. As such, even decades after its publication, The Catcher in the Rye remains a controversial book allegedly loaded with homicidal symbolism. Take this reflection, for example:
“If you’re supposed to sock somebody in the jaw, and you sort of feel like doing it, you should do it. I’m just no good at it, though. I’d rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an ax than sock him in the jaw. I hate fist fights. I don’t mind getting hit so much — although I’m not crazy about it, naturally — but what scares me most in a fist fight is the guy’s face. I can’t stand looking at the other guy’s face, is my trouble.”
"Si tienes que atizar a alguien un puñetazo en la mandíbula y te apetece hacerlo, debes hacerlo. Pero yo no sirvo para esas cosas. Preferiría tirar a un tío por la ventana o cortarle la cabeza con un hacha a atizarle un puñetazo en la mandíbula. Odio las peleas a puñetazos. No me importa mucho que me peguen— aunque tampoco me vuelve loco, claro —, pero lo que más me asusta de las peleas a puñetazos es ver la cara del otro tío".
However, while the protagonist does state early in the novel that he puts on a red deerstalker hat to “shoot people”, violence is used in the book as a means to show the anger and despair of the character, and not suggest it as an effective solution. More recent interpretations have focused on Salinger’s book as an expression of the trauma of the Second World War (in which the author fought), of a toxic masculine culture, and of male depression. Its greatest achievement, however, remains that it is the first nuanced portrait of adolescence made in literature.
“In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. […] If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard.”
"En primer lugar, porque soy una especie de ateo. Jesús me cae bien y todo eso, pero el resto de la Biblia no me gusta mucho. Los discípulos, por ejemplo. Si quieren saber la verdad, me fastidian muchísimo […] Si quieren saber la verdad, el tío que más me gusta de la Biblia, además de Jesús, es ese lunático que vivía entre las tumbas y se hacía heridas con las piedras. Ese pobre desgraciado me cae diez veces mejor que los discípulos".
In 1965 Salinger isolated himself in a cabin in Cornish (New Hampshire), building a halo of mystery around his work which totalled three short novels plus a collection of stories. Rumour has it that Salinger, before his death in 2010, amassed thousands of pages of writing belonging to manuscripts that never saw the light of day. It’s possible he believed, as one of his characters from his 1961 novel Franny and Zooey did, that, “an artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s”.