The Catcher in the Rye

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The Catcher in the Rye: Understanding the Basics

The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of Holden Caulfield, a seventeen year-old boy growing up in the 1950s who has been expelled from prep school. Holden is nervous about telling his parents that he has been expelled, so he decides to visit New York City before going home for Christmas vacation. He recounts his less-than-wholesome adventures in the city, obsesses over how “phony” people are, and finds himself in a constant state of loneliness in this classic novel by J.D. Salinger.

Here are some recommended sources to build a basic understanding of The Catcher in the Rye:

Haugrud Reiff, Raychel. J.D. Salinger: the Catcher in the Rye and Other Works. Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2008.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown, 1951.

The Catcher in the Rye: J.D. Salinger and his Controversial Novel

Since its publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has spurred controversy and discussion. Everything from the author himself to the actual subject matter of the novel has intrigued and sparked debate among teachers and students alike. For example, J.D. Salinger was a very private man, and was careful not to share many intimate details of his life prior to his death in 2010. There were and are many who speculate that Catcher was based on the author’s personal life and experiences. Furthermore, when Salinger published Catcher, it attracted quickly gained both criticism and success. The novel often made its way onto banned-books lists, due to its inclusion of inappropriate language, sexual situations, and violent content, as well as behavior deemed unethical for the time on the part of the main character.

To learn more about J.D. Salinger and the controversies related to The Catcher in the Rye, check out these sources:

“J.D. Salinger Biography.” 21 Oct. 2011, 

The Catcher in the Rye: Historical Background and Literary Comparisons

So what exactly was happening in the early 1950s that was making Holden Caulfield so depressed? What was going on within J.D. Salinger’s personal life that inspired him to create this character? In order to understand the context of the novel, it is important to note that it was published just after Salinger returned home from serving in the armed forces in World War II. The United States was evolving in many ways, and so was Salinger. Parallels can easily be drawn between the author’s post-war perspective and Holden Caulfield’s negative and surly attitude. In addition to understanding the historical context of The Catcher in the Rye, it is helpful to compare the novel to other literary works.

To find historical background and literary comparisons for The Catcher in the Rye, check out:

Rowe, Joyce. “Holden Caulfield and American Protest.” J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, edited by Harold Bloom. Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2000, pp. 105-18.
“The Catcher in the Rye: Background Info.” Oct. 2011, 

The Catcher in the Rye: Character Analysis

Whether you find Holden Caulfield incredibly annoying or totally awesome, you would probably agree that he is undergoing some kind of major psychological change in the novel. Holden is neurotic, attempting to come to terms with the tragedies and disturbances he has been subject to during his lifetime. He is also losing his innocence as he tries very hard to become a member of the adult community. Additionally, he narrates the story from a psychiatric hospital, which has lead many psychologists to formally analyze this notable literary character.

For a deeper analysis of Holden Caulfield:

Bryan, James. “The Psychological Structure of The Catcher in the Rye.” JSTOR. Oct. 2011, 
Shaw, Peter. “Love and Death in The Catcher in the Rye.” New Essays on The Catcher in the Rye, Cambridge UP, 1991, pp. 97-114.

The Catcher in the Rye: Word Choice and Social Criticisms 

Holden Caulfield, the story’s protagonist, constantly criticizes the society in which he lives. He consistently uses the word “phony” to describe the majority of people in the world around him, and he indiscriminately comments on different types of mental illness, madness, and insanity that he is suffering from. How does this word choice (in addition to his rather frequent profanity) affect the story being told? Is this a reflection of society as a whole during the 1950s, or is it a commentary on a generation of adolescents growing up during this time period? Holden’s word choice speaks volumes and impacts the overall tone of the novel, as well as individuals’ interpretations of the work as a whole.

For further research into the language in The Catcher in the Rye, you should read:

Costello, Donald P. “The Language of ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'” American Speech vol. 34, no. 3,  1959, pp. 172-81. JSTOR, 

The Catcher in the Rye: “Comin’ Thro the Rye”

The title of the novel is based on a poem by Robert Burns called “Comin’ Thro the Rye”. Holden remembers the words to the poem incorrectly; instead of “catching” someone in the rye, Burns writes about “meeting” someone in the rye, changing the meaning and potential interpretation of the poem significantly. Perhaps both interpretations are a reflection of Holden as a character or the society in which he lives.

To read the poem and start your analysis, check out:

Burns, Robert. Comin’ Thro the Rye. 1782. Poem.
Castronovo, David. “Holden Caulfield’s Legacy.” New England Review vol. 22, no. 2, 2001, pp. 180-86. JSTOR,
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