Cultural Assumption 3:
Social Classes/Conformity

Social class is defined as the way society separated. It depends on social and economic factors, this creates status. Conformity refers to the following of rules set by society. It is behaviour in accordance with what is socially acceptable.

In the 1950s, social class was very important as it had a big impact on the way people lived and how their lives played out. This means it affected their type of education, who they socialised with, how much money they made, what type of job they had, where they lived and even who they married. In the 195os, social class was split into 3 levels:

  • Upper Class- people who owned businesses, lived in big houses and who were quite wealthy.
  • Middle Class- people who worked in office jobs (white collar), lived in nice houses and were quite comfortable with money, however did not have money to waste.
  • Lower Class- people who had blue collar jobs (service stations, bakeries, factories, farmers etc.), lived in small houses, limited of money with none to spare.

The below video is a representation on how social class affected people's lives in 1950s America.

    Social Class & Conformity in
         The Catcher in the Rye

In the novel The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger demonstrates the cultural assumption of social class and conformity through his use of characterisation.

The character he uses to demonstrate this cultural assumption is through many characters in the book, including Phoebe (Holden's little sister), the teachers at Pency (Holden's school), Sally Hayes. Basically most characters in the book are trying to make Holden conform and follow the rules.

When Holden visits his sister she is continually telling him to stop swearing when he is talking to her. '"Don't swear so much"' and '"What? Stop swearing"' (chapter 22). Also when he is on his date with Sally  he brings up the idea of running away. When Sally hears his idea she immediately tells him that that is not what is expected of them and that they must do what is socially acceptable, which is to finish their education then carry out the rest of their lives as they are planned. '"Because you can't, that's all. In the first place, we're both practically children. And did you ever stop to think what you'd do if you didn't get a job when your money ran out? We'd starve to death."' and '"We'll have oodles of time to do those things--all those things. I mean after you go to college and all, and if we should get married and all. There'll be oodles of marvelous places to go to."' (chapter 17).

When Holden visits bars in New York, the waiters are always telling him that he is not allowed to purchase drinks as he is not old enough. This is another way that he is being told to conform. His old school Pencey is also forcing him to conform by expelling him for failing his classes and not following the rules. 'They kicked me out. I wasn't supposed to come back after Christmas vacation on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself--especially around midterms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer--but I didn't do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.' (chapter 1).

JD Salinger challenges this cultural assumption through Holden Caulfield. Throughout the novel Holden expresses his dislike for the concept of social class and conformity. Holden believes that people that do things to impress others, or to live up to societies expectations are 'phonies'. 'One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies.' (chapter 2) '"You ought to go to a boys' school sometime. Try it sometime," I said. "It's full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day"' (chapter 17).Holden does not agree with the idea conformity and doesn't want to follow the rules of society nor does he want to live up to social expectations of America at the time.

He doesn't that believe that being seen with certain people should impact who you are nor should people spend time with people just to be seen with them. Holden also believes that people do things for the wrong reasons just because that is what is expected of them. This is the reason why Holden is constantly calling people 'phonies' because he believes that they are only doing what is expected of them, not what they truly want to do. 'At the end of the first act we went out with all the other jerks for a cigarette. What a deal that was. You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were.' (chapter 17)

In the book Holden gives the reader the idea that adolescence could just be another word for growing up and learning to be fake.

JD Salinger also makes the audience believe that Holden just doesn't want to grow up. Holden even says that he is childish. '"Boy!" I said. I also say "Boy!" quite a lot. Partly because I have a lousy vocabulary and partly because I act quite young for my age sometimes. I was sixteen then, and I'm seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I'm about thirteen. It's really ironical, because I'm six foot two and a half and I have gray hair. I really do. The one side of my head – the right side – is full of millions of gray hairs. I've had them ever since I was a kid. And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It's partly true, too, but it isn't all true. People always think something's all true. I don't give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it. People never notice anything.' (chapter 2)Holden is scared of growing up and having responsibilities and this is a big reason why he cant cope in society. He believes that conforming will make him the same as everyone else, that it will make him a phony and more importantly it will mean he will have to grow up.

I believe that JD Salinger challenges the idea of conformity because he believes that teenagers shouldn't have to conform to such strict rules. He believes that teenagers in the 1950s shouldn't be expected to live by such strict standards that society expects them to, especially considering the fact that society doesn't really understand how the teenagers are feeling nor do they know how to react to them. JD is presenting the idea that adolescence could just be another word for growing up and learning to be fake.

Comment Stream

2 years ago

Your cultural assumption is clearly outlined. The examples are very helpful in understanding the cultural assumption. Good choice of using characterisation to show the conformity in you chosen novel. The context also helps to explain why/how the author came up with the idea to put different social classes in the novel. It is clearly stated that JD Salinger challenges the cultural assumption of conformity.

I enjoyed reading this blog :)