The Catcher in the Rye has been charged with three major failings: excessive and unrealistic use of foul language; its obsession with a character whose anxiety and alienation are not objectively valid; and social criticism so unrelenting, so evident of distaste for the modern world, that it borders on misanthropy, the hatred of humankind itself.
The response to such charges depends not on sociological, political, or even philosophical grounds. Rather, the subtle structure and crucial episodes and symbols demand that the novel be evaluated as a work of literary art. Within the complex history of modern literature, Holden Caulfield is one of many rebels. This literature of protest against society often purposefully satirizes conventional values. If it offends readers, forces them to look at reality from what the critic Kenneth Burke has called a “perspective by incongruity,” it does so to disturb and shock the audience to look again at the world. The Catcher in the Rye dramatizes how easily modern man, in Holden’s eyes at least, accepts a vulgar environment characterized by graffiti, urban decay, fake behavior, and a culture that glorifies the trivial while remaining insensitive to human needs.
While Holden rejects the trivial and sees swearing as inconsequential, he is profoundly hurt by the death of his brother Allie and the accidental death of a school friend, James Castle, whom no one even wants to touch after he falls off a school building. In the novel’s most famous passage, Holden explains that what he most wants to do is catch little children playing in a field of rye to prevent them from falling off a cliff: “I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.” Symbolically, he may also be pleading with his readers to regain a love of goodness and beauty.
Such ambition, to be a protector of all, is crazy to a cynical world of “adults” who adapt and adjust to the cruelty, big and small, that people often perpetrate on one another. Holden Caulfield is a conscious literary invention, a character who readers are meant to see as similar to Henry David Thoreau’s persona at Walden (1854), Jay Gatsby, and Huck Finn. These eccentric figures were misunderstood, criticized for their “alienation” from contemporary America, or seen as social misfits. But their symbolic rebellion is meant to force readers to see from new perspectives the ideals of American humanism and respect for individuals, and the necessity to strive for a more perfect social reality. Huck and Holden are romantics, idealists, and moralists like Thoreau and Fitzgerald’s heroes. Holden Caulfield belongs in their company, and Salinger’s book is deservedly a classic of American literature.