Social Class and Conformity
Cultural Assumption in The Catcher in the Rye
In the 1950s society had their own set of rules that they wanted to be followed. They had social classes that people fit into and that was the way it was meant to be. There was high class, middle class and lower class. They were all expected to get some kind of education, get a job, get married, have a family and own a house. These were the set rules that society wanted everybody to follow. When the generation of 'teenage delinquents' came through, they decided that they didn't want to conform like everybody else. They wanted to live life their way and do what they wanted. They started to question and disobey the ideas of social class and conformity. Society was shocked and extremely worried about this and as a result they tried to stop it. They created lots of rules and started to shut down thing like teenage dances.
An element that highlights the ideas of conformity and social class is theme. There is a specific theme throughout the book. This theme is the pressure on Holden to conform.
The theme of pressure to conform is reflected through the schools that kept kicking Holden out because he wouldn't apply himself like he should and the way people around him react when he does things that contradict conforming. An example of this is when Holden is talking to Phoebe about Pencey Prep. Phoebe responds to Holden twice within two pages by saying: "Don't swear so much." and "Stop swearing." This shows that Holden's ten-year-old sister was influenced by the conformity of society and reacted when Holden tried to disobey the set rules.
Holden doesn't want to conform like every other adult. He doesn't like the ideas that society has and he displays this throughout the novel. He shows this by his making up of ways to run away and do things the way he wants to, by swearing and by not valuing school. The main reason why Holden doesn't want to conform is that he believes that most adults are phonies and that things like movies are phony. He continuously refers to adults as phonies. He continuously calls people phony because of his frustration that everybody is the same and they are trying to be somebody they are not. He doesn't like school because he sees all of the people there as phony. Even though Holden seems to be an intelligent character, he doesn't value school because he doesn't believe that it will get him anywhere. This is explained best with a quote in the book. The quote if from when Holden is trying to explain his thoughts on Pencey: "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 someday, and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques. The guys that are on the basketball team stick together, the Catholics stick together, the goddam intellectuals stick together, the guys that play bridge stick together. Even the guys that belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club stick together." This quote explains exactly why Holden doesn't value school. It also explains the way that Holden sees conformity and the way that he disagrees with society. It shows his frustration about having to work so hard at school only to grow up and buy a car. Holden doesn't see the point in working so hard and then not being able to do anything with it because of societies standards and rules. He swears because that’s the way he is feeling at that moment. Holden doesn't fake what he is feeling so he swears to explain things the way he sees them. Holden also doesn't like the fact that money is an adults top priority. The only adults that Holden doesn't see as phonies are two nuns that he meets during the story. He believes that they genuinely care about people and they are not caring so people think they are great. He shows that he doesn't value money as much as society does when he donates money to the nuns and when he tries to pay for their meal. He is himself and he doesn't lie once while he is talking to them which is a big deal for Holden. "I said I'd enjoyed talking to them a lot, too. I meant it, too." This is one of the only times that Holden says that he enjoys talking to anyone.
J.D. Salinger is questioning conformity and social class because he thinks that it shouldn't be the way it is. He didn't like that from the exact moment he was born he already had standards, expectations and rules from society. Salinger has the view that he gave Holden. He can't understand why, after working hard at school, he can't be who he wants to because of societies rules. Salinger wanted to express his belief that you should be able to be or do what you would like instead of having to follow set rules and that you should be able to do it without society looking down on you.