Beyond The Catcher in the Rye

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is still a classic after more than sixty years because the novel answers the questions of human psychological needs.

By Larry Vosovic

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hand reaching for book

Let us begin with the title that Salinger borrowed from the Robert Burns poem, “Comin’ thro the Rie.” Burns describes Jenny, a young maiden, coming through the rie (a stream, not a field of rye) to meet and kiss someone on the other side. “Jenny’s all wat poor body/ Jenny’s seldom dry/ if a body kiss a body/ need a body cry./ She draigelet a her petticoatie/ comin’ thro the rie.”

  • Why is it Jenny who is coming through the stream to meet and reach out for a relationship?
  • Why is she the one taking the risk and jumping feet first into the stream?
  • Why is she the one making the commitment? 

Introduce Psychology

Once we look at the source of the title of Salinger’s novel, we can then apply these same motives to Holden Caulfield. We notice that it is he who reaches out for a relationship with everyone he meets. But his approach to Stradlater, Ackley, Mr. Spencer, Jane, and even Mrs. Morrow, is met with hostility, indifference, lectures, and questions. No surprise that he ends up in a California institution two hundred pages later.

This risk and commitment cycle reflects the human need to reach out for relationships that resounds, knowingly or unknowingly, in the reader’s psyche. People want to be with people, and for more than six decades, readers around the world have identified with Holden’s need, and dread, and angst about the world around him.

How, then, do we teach our children the self-esteem to be the initiator in relationships? How do we teach them resiliency when met with callousness? 

Introduce Music

Leonard Cohen, in his song “Suzanne” says of the children, “…they are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever….”  This level of loneliness is one of the main reasons that we follow Holden through the streets of New York, hoping he will find happiness—hoping that he won’t act on his thought of simply escaping to a cabin in the woods where no one would be allowed to do anything phony. We are traveling the same emotionally hostile streets.

ABBA, the Swedish rock group, sings “…I have a dream…I cross the stream…” looking for love and purpose in our lives like Jenny from Burns’ poem and Holden in his picaresque novel.

In the musical, Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom sings to Christine, “…come with me…I will take you to where you have never been before…”  He beckons her to greatness, all she needs is to risk and commit to her chosen craft. But rather than risk failure, she turns her back on the spirit of the opera and chooses her purposeless, mediocre boyfriend. Interestingly, rather than going forward, they trudge back through the water in the caverns below the opera house. The flowing river, a metaphor for life itself, beckons us to get involved and commit to a well-lived life with purpose and relationships.

Introduce Archetypes

This dilemma of risking, committing and coping, with the subsequent failure in many cases, is what speaks to every reader. The will to be resilient and to try, try again seems to be lost on most of us as we are pulled toward the sloth and settle for less than we dreamed to be.

Garth Brooks’, “The River” talks about the winding river “…never knowing where it flows….” This fear of the unknown keeps us playing it safe.

When Holden discusses his dream with his sister Phoebe, he says, “All I want to do is to protect children who are playing in a field of rye and I keep them from falling off the cliff”—the cliff of the inevitability of growing up and becoming part of the imperfect world. Holden sees himself as a “catcher” in the rye and unlike Jenny in Burns’ poem, who is a “meeter” or “kisser” in the stream of life. Holden wants to keep the children un-scarred from their bouts with life and relationships while Jenny wants to meet them head on.

This is the archetype that is the core of Salinger’s work, the universal question that every child taking his first step has to ask himself, “Should I wade into the stream, cross, commit, and take the risk that this will lead to a better life, or do I simply play it safe and stay on the bank?” The inner resolve that builds the resiliency that allows one to continue to risk and commit and to not settle for less can be supported and nurtured with love and reinforcement of one’s self worth.

Introduce the Big Picture

If that support is not forthcoming from the world around us, then we can seek a system of autonomy where we self-evaluate and self-correct and self-congratulate and try again, knowing that the life we carve for ourselves will be filled with moments when we have to take the leap of faith into the stream and continue through, for that is the choice we make and for which we are personally responsible.