Surveying Salinger with Dialogue and Disillusionment

Find creative ways to teach Salinger's stories by focusing on dialogue, cultural context, and characterization.

By Elijah Ammen


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Even though J. D. Salinger lived to be ninety-one, passing away in 2010, we know very little about him since his last published work in 1965. The author was notoriously reclusive, and reluctant to share information with fans or the press. However, this could change soon, with PBS landing the rights to a documentary on the life of Salinger, and with a biography on the way.

Salinger is best known for his first work--the classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. The controversial and often banned book has become synonymous with teenage angst and the transition into adulthood. Salinger also released three other collections of short stories and novellas that are not as well known, but provide keen insight into Salinger's personality.


Salinger Communicates Emotions through Dialogue

A significant part of Salinger's appeal lay in his ability to write dialogue and first-person narration that communicated complex emotions in the way that people actually talk. His characters, from Holden Caulfield to Buddy Glass, put into words the feelings that we all have--the loneliness, the frustration, and the confusion that arises from the complexity of life.

Part of that was Salinger's use of slang and vernacular, particularly in The Catcher in the Rye. By using colloquialisms, Salinger believably represents a teenager in the fifties. In order for your classes to fully grasp the significance of Salinger's writing, make sure to help them analyze patterns of speech and compare them to our modern-day vernacular.

Salinger Acquaints His Readers with American Culture 

Because of some of the mature content addressed in The Catcher in the Rye, it has often ended up on the list of banned books throughout the past few decades, which has served the dual purpose of exaggerating the amount of mature content, and increased teenage interest through the added allure of a banned book.

Most of Salinger's work is set in the 1950s, as well as being published between 1951-65. Music and entertainment are reoccuring themes, from Holden's critiques of jazz bands to Zooey's acting career, and the involvement of Seymour Glass and all the other Glass children in a popular radio quiz show. It's important that students have adequate background knowledge in fifties culture so they can understand the choices of the characters in the stories.

One of his best known short stories, "For Esme--With Love and Squalor" focuses on a soldier dealing with the horrors of war. This is potentially drawn from Salinger's experience in WWII, tours of concentration camps, and subsequent hospitalization for combat stress reaction. The fifties were marked with rebellion and disillusionment, and many of Salinger's stories are honest reactions to the challenges of that time period.

Salinger Artfully Develops Characters

Salinger tends to keep his stories focused on the growth of one or two characters and closely following their emotional journey. While The Catcher in the Rye is the journey of Holden Caulfield, Franny and Zooey examines the existential crisis of a brother and sister in their twenties, and "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction" trace the backstory of Seymour Glass, who committed suicide in Salinger's previous short story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."

Many of these stories deal with how the individual is supposed to act within society--a subject that meshes well with a study of American transcendentalists, particularly Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau. Using these historical reference points provides a helpful interdisciplinary connection that grounds Salinger in the uniquely American adaptation of Eastern concepts such as Zen, meditation, and karma.

Three of Salinger's novellas are narrated by Buddy Glass, the brother of Seymour, Franny, and Zooey. Buddy Glass seems in many ways to be modeled after Salinger: a reclusive writer with experience in WWII who refuses to publish most of his writing. If your classes read "Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction," it would be helpful to have them look at the historical facts of Salinger's life, and infer how much of Buddy's character as a narrator might be drawn from Salinger. The New York Times obituary for Salinger has a succinct summary and analysis of Salinger's life and works that would help in this comparison. 

While it is impossible to say with authority what parts of his stories are rooted in his personal beliefs and experiences, there is room to infer connections, which deepen and enrich the stories, which in turn give us an honest glimpse into 50s post-war culture and the disillusionment that accompanied that decade.

Salinger Resources from Lesson Planet:

Catcher in the Rye Character Map:

Model a character map to help your classes track the characters and their relationships in Salinger's novel, as well as any other stories.

Universal Themes in The Catcher in the Rye:

A graphic organizer to identify and find textual evidence for different themes in The Catcher in the Rye.

Novel Comprehension Packet:

A standard student packet for tracking the elements of a novel, but with links out to information directly related to The Catcher in the Rye.

Resource Packet:

An incredible compilation of lessons and resources analyzing the characters in The Catcher in the Rye and the controversy around the book. Includes WebQuests, websites, lesson plans, student work, and much more.