When I recently ventured to say to an old acquaintance of mine, an academic mandarin who teaches literature at an elite university, that The Catcher in the Rye was a profound work of art, he smiled gregariously as if about to relish a shared ironic joke, then gazed at me with slowly dawning horror when he realized that I was not joking. If I had told him what I really thought, he might well have passed out.
J. D. Salinger’s tale, which to date has sold 65 million copies, making it the highest-selling literary novel of all time after Don Quixote and A Tale of Two Cities, is the most Christian novel ever published. Following the experiences of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield as he travels to and around his native New York City after being expelled from a fancy private school in Pennsylvania, Catcher is a painstakingly allusive and meticulously structured parable of the problem of evil.
The book is not the straightforward coming-of-age story its admirers revere it as. Catcher’s fabled protagonist has not, at the end of the novel, acquired the rudimentary self-knowledge that marks a coming-of-age. In the book’s last paragraph, Holden tells us that “D.B. [his older brother] asked me what I thought about all this stuff I just finished telling you about. I didn’t know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it.” At the book’s conclusion, Holden is—in the conventional sense anyway—right back where he started.
Nor is The Catcher in the Rye, as people have argued, Salinger’s attempt to work his way through the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered after his experiences on the battlefields of Europe during the Second World War. Rather, the book very purposefully, and with great artistic complexity, portrays the tangled effects of trauma—in this case, Holden’s response to his younger brother Allie’s death from leukemia at the age of eleven. There is not a syllable in the book that is not haunted by this tragedy in Holden’s life.
Its eye on the mysterium tremendum, Salinger’s novel is also not the cloying accumulation of adolescent hormonal longueurs on account of which its detractors dismiss it. At times, Holden’s voice seems preternaturally sharp, worldly, and disillusioned. Just before Holden leaves Pencey, the private school he has flunked out of, he goes to visit his aging history teacher, Mr. Spencer. Obsessed with Allie’s death, Holden is oppressed by Mr. Spencer’s bedroom: “there were pills and medicine all over the place, and everything smelled like Vicks Nose Drops.” He’s repelled, he tells us, by “old guys’ legs” and their “bumpy old chests.”
Like the veteran teacher he is, Mr. Spencer lectures Holden on the importance of adapting himself to regulated settings like school. “Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules,” he declares. “Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it,” Holden diplomatically replies, then thinks to himself, “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.” Harry Potter doesn’t have insights like that; Huck Finn doesn’t possess a canny self-possession like that. And when you go back to read the book a second time, and a third, and a fourth, the phrase “the other side” begins to acquire an extra level of meaning, like the language of any parable. The other side. That’s where Allie is.
When trying to make sense of Catcher, we should not think of the current reinterpretation of Freud in light of the contemporary trend of trauma psychology (a trend that underlies today’s fragile selves and has hastened the compression of the myriad forms of social expression into cries of hurt and calls for retribution). Though superficially steeped in Freud, Salinger is mocking therapeutic conceits. Thoroughly immersed in Christian literature, especially Catholic mysticism, he is thinking about the Gospels, specifically John 11:33, when Jesus, standing at the grave of Lazarus, “groaned in the spirit and was troubled.” What Jesus rages against is his greatest adversary: the evil of suffering and death.
The Catcher in the Rye is one long groan of rage, in the midst of sorrow, at the presence of suffering and death. Just as Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov cannot accept a God who allows even one innocent child to suffer, Holden rejects the terms of human life under which his younger brother could die. The book’s epigraph could well have been this line from Waiting for Godot, the groundbreaking play that Samuel Beckett was composing at the same time as Salinger was writing Catcher: “They [humans] give birth astride of a grave.” Holden habitually uses the word “old” to refer to people, as in “old Ackley” or “old Phoebe,” as if, no matter their age or the state of their health, they all had one foot in the grave by virtue of being alive.
His brother’s death consumes Holden, so much so that Salinger gives the deceased brother the name “Allie.” Allie and Allie’s extinction represent the “all” of existence to Holden, who uses the phrase “and all” nearly one hundred times in the book. In its sorrow at the fallen state of humankind, characterized by the primal curse of death, and in its affirmation of unconditional, self-sacrificing love, agape, as the humanly attainable means of triumph over death, J. D. Salinger’s tale follows a Dantesque arc toward the submersion of self in eternity.
The Catcher in the Rye unfolds in the course of three days and two nights, just before Christmas. Holden leaves Pencey and takes a train to Manhattan. There, among other situations, he goes dancing at a hotel nightclub, sees a movie, takes in the Christmas show at Radio City, spends one night in a seedy Times Square hotel, and the second night sleeping on a bench in Grand Central Station. He also visits a former English teacher, but not before sneaking into his parents’ apartment while they are away in order to visit his beloved younger sister, Phoebe. Throughout the novel, he complains, maligns, hurls aspersions with abandon at everyone and everything and, in general, levels an unceasing imprecation at human life. When he is not crying, that is.
On the surface, Holden’s often callow repetitions and his unremitting hostility and self-pity can make for a soporific read. His constant dismissal of people as “phonies” can be grating. He is maddeningly obsessed with where the ducks that inhabit the pond in Central Park go when the water freezes over. “How the hell should I know a stupid thing like that?” answers an irritable taxi driver named Horwitz when Holden asks him. At times you know just how Horwitz feels.
But the whirlpools of connotation that draw the reader below the surface of the simple, repetitive language and events bring the novel’s parable permanently into consciousness. In Catcher, every repetition brings a subtle inflection and accumulation of meaning. For one thing, you begin to notice that Holden applies the word “phony” to certain social types, from Pencey’s headmaster, to a wealthy alumnus donor, to a celebrated piano player in a bar.
A pattern emerges. The “phonies” are people who egotistically puff themselves up at the expense of reality. The piano player, Holden says, is “so good he’s almost corny”—he is all hollow, showy technique—and “he won’t hardly even talk to you unless you’re a big shot or a celebrity or something.” The rich donor, one Mr. Ossenburger, is an undertaker who drives a Cadillac and pretentiously urges Pencey students, as Holden wryly puts it, “to think of Jesus as our buddy and all.” Holden comments, “That killed me. I can just see the phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs.” Even the daughter of vapid Pencey’s headmaster, Holden says, knew “what a phony slob [her father] was.”
Holden has a different attitude toward the headmaster’s daughter, though. He tells us: “I liked her. She had a big nose and her nails were all bitten down and bleedy-looking and she had on those damn falsies that point all over the place, but you felt sort of sorry for her.” That is to say, after Allie’s death, Holden knows that he is living in a mortal world where, as Salinger’s favorite poet Rilke wrote, “one had death within oneself, like fruit does the seed. Children had a small death in themselves and grownups a big one. Women had it in their wombs and men in their chests.” In a world marked by the evil of death, the people most sincere about not concealing their mortality are the most true.
The phonies are people who manipulate their self-presentation in denial of life’s high existential stakes. They are straight out of the Sermon on the Mount, the “hypocrites” who “love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others” and who “disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” This is why Holden hates actors, explaining that “if any actor’s really good, you can always tell he knows he’s good, and that spoils it.” Holden himself is given to acting out his pain, clutching his stomach as if shot, or pretending he is blind. His performances, however, are the sincere expression of his suffering.
As for Holden’s baffling obsession with the ducks, he first tells us that he is consumed with the question while Mr. Spencer is talking to him and trying to urge him back onto the straight and narrow path toward success. “I wondered,” Holden says about the ducks, “if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.” That could well be the question that Holden is asking himself throughout the novel, where he is speaking from the psychiatric ward of a hospital. Will he be taken away and committed for good, or will he fly away into a freedom of the spirit that triumphs over suffering and death?
The concept of “phony” serves another purpose. It is Salinger’s way of defining for the reader the role of art in a human existence wracked by evil. Sincerity about what is at stake in a human life is for Salinger the essence of a true work of art and the sole criterion by which art should be judged. Like Michelangelo and Tolstoy, who both forswore art toward the end of their lives, Salinger suspects the pretense of art itself. Catcher is full of references to serious art, popular and high, from Ring Lardner to Thomas Hardy, Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, and Hemingway, from popular songs to jazz. These artistic figures and examples express themselves with absolute sincerity. Holden’s description of a jazz singer’s style might be read as Salinger’s artistic credo: “It was a very old, terrific record that this colored girl singer, Estelle Fletcher, made about twenty years ago. She sings it very Dixieland and whorehouse, and it doesn’t sound at all mushy. If a white girl was singing it, she’d make it sound cute as hell, but old Estelle Fletcher knew what the hell she was doing. ”
Ars est celare artem goes the old Latin tag: Art consists of the concealment of art. “Very Dixieland and whorehouse” is true to the raw contours of life, just as, in this formulation, being black in America is a truer analogue to “hell” than being white. The antithesis of such authentic art is to play it “cute,” phony and egotistical, which for Holden and his creator is a different kind of hell. The Catcher in the Rye itself, for all its seeming and at times tedious simplicity, defies every cardinal rule of novel writing. It is its own version of “very Dixieland and whorehouse.”
“If you really want to know about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born.” This, the novel’s first sentence, indicates that Holden is telling his story to a psychiatrist, a setting that becomes especially clear by the end of the novel, when Holden refers to the place he is in after “I got sick and all” and mentions “this one psychoanalyst guy they have here.” Because he is telling his story in the course of a psychoanalytic session, however, it is not any kind of conventional story. Like the free association in psychoanalysis, the events Holden narrates reveal dreamlike echoes and patterns that lie behind and beneath the logical and rational structure of a story. They are the raw material of life itself.
Perhaps some kind reader can write in and tell me where Jacques Maritain says that “we must drop living into our dreams again.” I have had that line in my head for decades after reading it in Maritain’s work, but I just can’t find it. Wherever he said that, Maritain may well have been thinking of these lines of Dante’s Paradiso:
Qual è colüi che sognando vede,
che dopo ‘l sogno la passione impressa
rimane, e l’altro a la mente non riede,
cotal son io, ché quasi tutta cessa
mia visïone, e ancor mi distilla
nel core il dolce che nacque da essa.
Or (in my translation):
Just like someone who sees when he is dreaming,
So that afterward the dream-feeling
Stays imprinted on the mind it has emptied,
That was me, as my sight nearly disappeared
While the sweetness of what I had dreamed
Spread into my heart.
In the course of the novel, Holden has dropped living into his dreams. He is not telling us what happened to him. He is telling us the deeper meaning, the imprinted feeling, of what happened to him. The novel’s magnetic staying power lies in the way it draws readers into making sense of the underlying depths of meaning, the way we, day by day, hour by hour, try to make sense of our own lives.
Consider how the seemingly random events Holden relates symbolically echo each other. Early in the novel, he tells us how, as the “manager” of Pencey’s fencing team, he lost the team’s foils on a subway in New York, where the team had gone for a match. We learn that after Allie died, a despairing and enraged Holden put his fist through all the windows in the garage of his family’s country house in Maine. As a result, he confides, he can no longer make a fist with that hand. Finally, a pimp named Maurice, who works as a bellboy in the seamy Times Square hotel where Holden spends one of his two nights in the city, hurts Holden’s genitals after the two of them get into a dispute. In a dream, the three events—lost swords, crippled hand, injured genitals—would be three incarnations of a symbolic castration. In the random free-associating of a child, they could well point to a fear that is at the same time a type of longing.
The dispute between Holden and Maurice is over the amount of money Maurice dishonestly claims Holden owes him for arranging with Holden to bring a young prostitute to Holden’s room. Holden never consummates his encounter with the girl. When he sees the green dress she takes off hanging alone in the closet, the sudden evocation of the greenness of youth corrupted by soulless, instrumental sex saddens him. Earlier in the novel, Holden has told us that his brother, Allie, had written poems in “green ink” all over Allie’s fielder’s mitt. The impression of innocence lost, first by death and then by corruption, is unmistakable.
Holden is greatly agitated by a classmate at Pencey, a handsome, callous jock whose sexual prowess is legendary. Holden becomes nearly hysterical when the other boy tells him that he has a date that night with a girl, Jane, whom Holden holds dear. In free-associative, dreamlike style, Holden gives the boy the name Stradlater: He is obsessed with the possibility that the boy might “straddle” Jane “later.” In the event, Holden gets into a physical fight with Stradlater, who ends up giving Holden a bloody nose and literally straddling him on the floor—yet another image of Holden’s sexual impotence.
Holden’s free associations return, again and again, to the question of his impaired sexual capacity. On the same trip to New York as manager of the fencing team, he bought himself “this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks.” In fact he bought it, he tells us, “just after I noticed I’d lost all the goddam foils.”When a classmate tells Holden that the hat looks like a “deer shooting hat,” Holden snaps back—disturbingly, reading the novel in 2023—“Like hell it is . . . This is a people shooting hat . . . I shoot people in this hat.” The hat and the aggressive fantasy are Holden’s way of reasserting his masculinity after losing the fencing blades.
Holden boasts at one point that he is “horny.” That is empty sexual bravado. Holden is too conscious of the fragile mortality of girls to have sex with them. (These days, he would be the very antithesis of the “toxic” male.) “The thing is, most of the time when you’re coming pretty close to doing it with a girl . . . she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. . . . The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them.”
Tortured by Allie’s passing, which reveals the inescapable ubiquity of death, Holden is on some unconscious (or “preconscious,” as Maritain calls it) level identifying the very act of sex, the sole means of human reproduction, as the source of the problem of evil. Without sexual intercourse, there would be no life, and without life, there would be no death: no dead Allie, and no bereaved, hurt, angry, confused Holden Caulfield. It begins to dawn on the reader that Holden’s evocations of emasculation do not evoke dread; they are expressions of a longing to be free from the urge to have sex and reproduce. What is this boy’s real name, anyway? He clearly wants to remain in the protective caul that covers an embryo and not be tossed from the womb into the raging amniotic waters of mortality. He has not merely told us his name. He is signaling his nature, and his destiny.
In 1941, fourteen years after his conversion (and just as Salinger was preparing to write Catcher), T. S. Eliot published his masterpiece, Four Quartets, in which these lines appear:
. . . After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. . . .
Beyond the despairing futility of endless cycles of birth and death, Holden is searching for a still point, a changeless place that is impervious to suffering and extinction. This is why, midway through the novel, he finds consolation in the idea of visiting the Museum of Natural History, where the dioramas showing an Eskimo ice-fishing remain permanently the same, no different from how they were when he visited the museum as a young child. “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish. . . .”
Salinger can’t simply—in the manner of a novel with distinct characters, lucid ideas, and a coherent structure—lead the reader to that still point by putting Holden through his conventional literary paces. That would be too artistically sophisticated, too self-consciously masterful—it would be phony. Instead he wants to make readers absorb Holden’s spiritual journey by experiencing it themselves the way a person might come to a profound awareness of meaning. You don’t read TheCatcher in the Rye. You figure it out as it comes at you, the way you try to make sense of life as it comes at you.
“Words move,” as Eliot put it, “but that which is only living / Can only die.” Watch, for instance, the way the word “horse” moves through the novel. We first encounter it in the advertisement that Pencey has taken out in various magazines, an ad, as Holden sardonically says, “always showing some hot-shot guy on a horse jumping over a fence.” “Horsing around” is used to indicate a spirit of joking and play. We then find it more often used as a euphemism for sex, as in “when I’m horsing around with a girl.” Later, Holden claims that he’d choose a horse over a car, strangely saying that “I’d rather have a goddam horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.” The image goes from fashionable to playful to sexual, eventually summing up the human condition as a whole.
“Horse” returns to its sexual connotation in the chapter where Holden visits his former English teacher, Mr. Antolini, who is portrayed as being in a mariage blanc, and who, Salinger strongly hints, is secretly gay. Mr. Antolini, trying to talk Holden out of the depressive rage that has impelled him to flunk out of Pencey, cautions him, “You’re riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall,” and again, warns of “this fall I think you’re riding for.” As Mr. Antolini talks, Holden becomes tired, telling us that “I could’ve slept standing up I was so tired.” And again: “I really could’ve slept standing up.” Horses sleep standing up. At Mr. and Mrs. Antolini’s, Holden has been transformed into a horse, a turn of the inner plot, as it were, that is driven home when Holden, whom Mr. Antolini has invited to spend the night, awakes to find Mr. Antolini sitting next to him and “petting me or patting me on the goddam head.” The implication is that Mr. Antolini desires to seduce Holden into a sexual act with him, in this case allowing him to “ride” Holden.
In the novel’s penultimate chapter, we meet the final incarnation of “horse.” At the carousel in Central Park, Holden watches as his beloved sister Phoebe sits “down on this big, brown, beat-up-looking old horse.” Having gone from emblems of commerce, social life, sex, and sexual depravity, the horse is now stripped of all its worldly connotations; it is stripped, as it were, of its mortal travails. The horse, a symbol of the “all” of human experience, reaches an apogee of spiritual fulfillment in the carousel. The “horse” has become a simple wooden horse, a child’s dream of innocence, changeless and invulnerable to time and death, now transfigured as Holden’s deliverance.
I’ve often marveled at the ethereal earthiness of Salinger’s imagination. He creates the dense network of images and allusions that, as Dante might have said, imprints Catcher permanently on the mind of a reader. Associating sex and sexual reproduction with suffering and death on the one hand, and the protected stillness of the womb with a state of grace on the other, the novel slowly builds toward the carousel-horse epiphany in the most surprising ways.
The title The Catcher in the Rye is an allusion, as we eventually learn, to a line from a Robert Burns poem, a line that Holden tells us he hears a small boy singing as he walks with his family along a Manhattan street: “If a body catch a body coming through the rye.” (Music and dance moving “only in time” are for Holden, as for T. S. Eliot, moments of grace.) Later, when Holden recites the line to his sister, Phoebe, she corrects him: “It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” she cries. Holden says: “She was right, though. It is ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye.’ I didn’t know it then, though.” He continues talking to Phoebe:
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. 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.” Old Phoebe didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, when she said something, all she said was, “Daddy’s going to kill you.” [For flunking out of Pencey.]
Of course, there is nothing crazy about Holden’s vision—it is too profound to be mad. What is crucial to know about the mistake Holden makes when he misapprehends the line from the Burns poem is that the original line describes a casual sexual encounter in a field. By turning “meet a body”—the poem’s euphemism for sexual intercourse—into “catch a body,” Holden renounces eros for agape. The act of catching the falling children transforms sexual desire into an act of self-forgetful love.
As he has ascended from eros to agape, Holden has reversed his phallic fantasy of a predator’s hunting cap, turning it around on his head so that it looks like a baseball catcher’s cap. Far from seeking to hide from the world in his caul, he desires to perform the Christ-like function of caring for all the weak and vulnerable people of the world by catching them—“holding them”—as they hurtle through life toward the “field” of rye, which is reaped by scything, like wheat: the field of death. Daddy no longer performs the evil function of a killer, in Phoebe’s stunning double-entendre, by bringing children into life only for them to die. Daddy is the Father, who sacrifices his son, Allie, so that his other son may save the world.
Make no mistake about it: Salinger created Holden as a Christ-figure. Early on, Holden tells us that one side of his head “is full of millions of gray hairs,” presenting an image of some sort of ageless mortal, both human and divine.
Holden may touchingly claim that he is a “sacrilegious atheist,” but he identifies with Christ. Commenting on a Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall that he attended the year before, he says that “old Jesus probably would’ve puked if He could see it.” In fact Holden has already described himself as about to “puke” in response to one form or another of “phoniness” several times. Holden says that he likes Christ but finds the disciples “annoying.” How tender and intimate for Salinger to cast the Christ-like Holden in the form of a broken-hearted adolescent ultra-sensitive to the slightest social complexity.
Catcher gives up its mysteries upon many readings. Two-thirds into the book, Holden tells us that he visited his brother Allie’s grave several times before he stopped going after being there when it rained. “It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars. That’s what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner—everybody except Allie.” Later Holden describes watching Phoebe on the carousel when it starts to rain:
Boy, it began to rain like a bastard. In buckets, I swear to God. All the parents and mothers and everybody went over and stood right under the roof of the carrousel, so they wouldn’t get soaked to the skin or anything, but I stuck around on the bench for quite a while. I got pretty soaking wet, especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way; but I got soaked anyway, I didn’t care, though. I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could have been there.
What a lovely artistic symmetry the two scenes in the rain make, you first think. But as you absorb the book’s echoes and assonances, you realize that Salinger has burst the boundaries of art. He has answered Holden’s supplication and made certain that God is there. By staying out in the rain and not running for cover like the visitors to the cemetery or parents and mothers at the carousel, Holden allows himself to get soaked, like Allie, whom he has portrayed as being still alive in his grave as the rain falls “on his stomach.” Drenched, he incarnates his dead brother’s spirit.
The rain is no longer the emblem of despair that it was when it rained on Allie’s grave—and as rain always is in the work of Salinger’s friend, Hemingway. Now the rain is baptismal, not fatal like the flood of amniotic mortality that accompanies birth. The rain is holy water that anoints Holden in the truth—“if you want to know the truth”—of Christ’s love for humankind. (It’s Christmas in the novel, after all.) In a fusion of the human and divine, Holden’s loving vision of catching the falling children is what finally reconciles him to birth’s biological sentence of doom and allows him to triumph over death.
And the vehicle for Holden’s new life is his sister Phoebe, who like her namesake, Phoebus Apollo, the god of light and healing, enlightens and mends Holden’s broken mind. But unlike the god, worshipped by pagans who believed that history was a futile merry-go-round of birth and death without redemption or release, Phoebe has conferred on Holden the truth of eternal life as she traces the circle of life in saecula saeculorum on the carousel horse. It is fitting that her coat should be blue, a color that Holden associates with sadness throughout the novel, but that in this transformative moment symbolizes an empyreal joy.
“I sort of miss everybody I told about,” Holden says in the novel’s final lines. “I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” “You start missing everybody”—even the people who most injured you. To put it another way: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Perhaps the reason that, nearly seventy-five years after it was first published, The Catcher in the Rye remains a global phenomenon that doesn’t just magnetize readers but transforms them and stays with them for their entire lives is a simple one. Salinger’s novel points us toward the answer to humanity’s deepest desire.
Lee Siegel is the author of seven books and a contributing editor of City Journal.
Image by Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.