To Catch A Cultural Assumption

(or: Cultural Assumptions in Catcher in the Rye)

Catcher in the Rye is a 1951 novel written by American author J.D Salinger that focuses on the experiences of sixteen year old Holden Caulfield during his time in New York City. After being expelled from his school, Holden decides to spend several days in New York City before heading home to in a visit to his younger sister.The story is recounted from the point of view of Holden as seventeen year old, while he is in a mental hospital in California after suffering from a breakdown during his time in New York City.

''Nothing much else happens; there are no explosions or car chases ... what Holden really wants is not sex or money or power or any of the dramatic stuff in Hollywood movies - he wants to stop time.''

  • John Green, Language, Voice, and Holden Caulfield: The Catcher in the Rye Part 1

[8Tracks music mix for the Catcher in the Rye by h_caulfield]

i. teenage deliquency

    In the 1950's, there was a strong feel of joy and liberation following the Second World War. At the same time, these feelings of freedom were resonating with teenagers, who were starting to develop and grow into their own place in society, away from the long held assumptions of how teenagers were supposed to behave. In the following years, teenagers begun to develop their own fashion trends, their own jargon and even their own quasi - cultural assumptions about both themselves and adults. 

    An example in 1950's society would be the trend of being seen out in popular places, even if it was with someone you either didn't know or didn't want to spend time with. Teenagers were expected to be social and keep a large network of people to spend time with, always having an outing ready to complete. Salinger challenges this in Catcher in the Rye by having two of his characters (Holden Caulfield and Ward Stradlater) have a negative reaction towards Stradlater forgetting the name of his date:

    "Shut up, now, Holden," he said with his big stupid red face. "just shut up, now."

    "You don't even know if her first name is Jane or Jean, ya goddam moron!"

    "Now, shut up, Holden, God damn it--I'm warning ya," he said--I really had him going. "If you don't shut up, I'm gonna slam ya one."

    Holden reacted badly because he was upset Stradlater didn't really know the name of a childhood friend, but went on the date anyway, and Stradlater reacting badly enough to resort to physical violence on Holden when he - possibly unintentionally - challenges the quasi - cultural assumption. This ties into teenage delinquency as once the teenagers begun to work to find their own place on society, they begun to step away from the near - constant socialisation and move towards having stronger friendship ties.

    “Although adolescence was not part of the popular lexicon until the turn of the century, its roots go back well into the early nineteenth century, most recognizably in popular recapitulation-based notions of childhood…The invention of adolescence was greatly informed by [these works] and in particular their use of recapitulation as a way of explaining the ‘savage’ behavior of the child and, perhaps more important, as a way of essentializing this behavior as not only biological but also evolutionary.” 

  • Kent Baxter, p. 8-9, Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence (2008)

At first, teenage delinquency was simply seen as the behaviour of teenagers acting out after the stresses of war. However, the longer the behaviour went on, attempts were made to control the teens; eventually however, it became clear the issue - as it was seen by the more conservative generations - of teenage culture wasn't going to be going away easily, or at all. In Benjamin Fine's 1,000,000 Delinquents (1955), the term 'juvenile delinquent' was coined; this heavily implied that Fine believed one was synonymous with the other. This style of thinking continued through the 1950's, with Fine maintaining that teenage delinquents (or JD's) only committed acts that ranged from dropping out of high school to vandalism and went to torture and murder was done simply for fun, with no greater aim.

While the majority of public opinion towards teenage delinquency and adolescent culture was overwhelmingly negative, there were several studies done to understand the teenagers on a physical, emotional and psychological level. Catcher in the Rye is an example of an author using those teenage feelings of marginalization and condemnation to challenge the perceived opinion of teenage delinquency.

J.D Salinger challenges the idea of teenage delinquency through having the main character, Holden Caulfield, do things that were (and still are) considered to be the wrong thing - such as constantly smoking, asking for alcoholic drinks though he is underage and repeatedly swearing - before implicitly stating that Holden is simply acting out and doing the wrong thing as he feels he is being ignored by society.

''Everybody was asleep or out or home for the week end, and it was very, very quiet and depressing in the corridor. There was this empty box of Kolynos toothpaste outside Leahy and Hoffman's door, and while I walked down towards the stairs, I kept giving it a boot with this sheep-lined slipper I had on. What I thought I'd do, I thought I might go down and see what old Mal Brossard was doing. But all of a sudden, I changed my mind. All of a sudden, I decided what I'd really do, I'd get the hell out of Pencey-right that same night and all. I mean not wait till Wednesday or anything. I just didn't want to hang around any more. It made me too sad and lonesome. So what I decided to do, I decided I'd take a room in a hotel in New York--some very inexpensive hotel and all--and just take it easy till Wednesday. Then, on Wednesday, I'd go home all rested up and feeling swell. I figured my parents probably wouldn't get old Thurmer's letter saying I'd been given the ax till maybe Tuesday or Wednesday.''

The above quote shows that as Holden doesn't feel like he would be able to go home - as his parents would have a negative reaction towards seeing him - and he doesn't have the traditional support network of friends that you would expect - Holden mentions three other boys his own age at Pencey - Ward Stradlater, Robert Ackley and Mal Brossard. J.D. Salinger uses narration (via Holden) to describe Pencey having the feel 'sad and lonesome.' The strength of the friendships are challenged when Holden later admits that he doesn't like Ackley, and has a fight with Stradlater; a fight that is one of the major factors that prompts him into leaving Pencey for New York. Brossard is only mentioned two or three times throughout the book.

In the novel, there is a pattern of times where Holden has an opportunity for human conversation and connection, but ultimately loses the chance due to some turn of circumstance; such as the time he asks two taxi drivers the same question. By the end of the novel, Holden is slowly beginning to consider the effect his actions have on his family, in particular his little sister, Phoebe.

Salinger works to challenge the cultural assumption of teenage delinquency by providing reasons to separate act from individual - in this case, Holden has few emotional connections and is acting out in a near desperate attempt to gain attention. When Holden begins to consider the impact of his actions, this allows him to begin to accept the help of others, further proving Salinger's theory on teenage delinquency, as once Holden feels he is being listened to, he then turns and starts to listen to others - namely adults. Salinger takes teenage delinquency and breaks it down from the effect, into the cause.

''I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible. So when I told old Spencer I had to go to the gym and get my equipment and stuff, that was a sheer lie. I don't even keep my goddam equipment in the gym.''

ii. mental illness

In the 1950's people suffering from mental health issues - particularly teenagers - were viewed as people who were struggling to live in a society which had a strong focus on rules; they were seen to be acting in a way that society couldn't accommodate. Inhumane treatments were being phased out, and scientists were researching and creating drugs that were for the treatment of mental health issues.

''I want to write an unreliable narrator. In fact, he'll be so unreliable that I'm not even sure he'll show up to narrate.''

  • Jarod Kintz, This Book is Not FOR SALE

In reading Catcher in the Rye, traits of several mental illnesses can be seen in the characterization of Holden Caulfield, including:

  • Depression - Holden is constantly saying that he feels depressed, at one point stating ''It makes you feel so lonesome and depressed.'' This, when combined with the quote: ''What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide'' shows that Holden, in addition to a skewed world view, has a high level of depression and some level of commitment to suicidal thinking. The level of depression is further shown in the text - '' "Okay," I said. It was against my principles and all, but I was feeling so depressed I didn't even think. That's the whole trouble. When you're feeling very depressed, you can't even think.''
  • Anxiety - Salinger, through Holden, gives us several potentially dangerous nervous habits (such as ''I sat down on the one right next to him and started turning the cold water on and off--this nervous habit I have.'' and ''Then I sort of started lighting matches. I do that quite a lot when I'm in a certain mood. I sort of let them burn down till I can't hold them any more, then I drop them in the ashtray. It's a nervous habit.'') Holden's habit of jumping subjects and his fear of being judged by moral standards could be traced back to his anxiety.
  • Bipolar disorder - Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of mania following periods of depression. An example would be the time when Holden agrees to have sex with a prostitute, but only feels like talking, a short time after he agreed to have the sexual encounter - ''Sexy was about the last thing I was feeling. I felt much more depressed than sexy.'' A further example could be the fact he hired a prostitute without much thought, especially in the 1950's, when sexual activity was not explored. He also doesn't sleep much through the novel, a symptom of bipolar disorder, saying: ''I wasn't sleepy or anything, but I was feeling sort of lousy.''
  • Attention deficit hyperactive disorder - ADHD is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity. There are referenced elements of this with the Holden's behaviour at the schools he was expelled from before Pencey, but is shown in more detail when he was in New York; he was always looking for attention and interaction with other people, and rarely thinks of the consequences of his actions. An example would be be Holden's habit of jumping from one subject to another in the middle of a conversation. At the beginning of the novel, he had a decent supply of money to spend, but he was forced to borrow money from his sister after only a short time, with him saying to her: ''I'm practically broke.'' This ties in with his earlier comment about his finance situation: ''I don't remember exactly what I had left, but it was no fortune or anything. I'd spent a king's ransom in about two lousy weeks. I really had. I'm a goddam spendthrift at heart.'' These quotes show that Holden has some impulse control issues, and his habit of losing or forgetting to collect change can be attributed to inattention or hyperactivity.

The character that had the -  arguably - largest impact on Holden is Allie, his younger brother who died as a result of leukemia several years before the events of the novel. Holden's oversimplified worldview can be traced back towards his brother's death, as Holden is almost unconsciously immortalizing his younger brother - thus, Holden views adults as superficial with ''phony'' often being used to describe how Holden views adults and adult society; In turn, Holden views children as innocents, and thinks that children need to be protected from adulthood and the process of growing up.

As Holden doesn't acknowledge that becoming an adult - and the associated traditions - scare and confuse him, he creates a fantasy where childhood is a place of ideal qualities such as innocence, curiosity and honesty; adulthood is the direct opposite. Little else shows his image of the two worlds better than when he openly talks about his fantasy to Phoebe: "I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,'" I said. "Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy." Holden likens the field of rye to childhood, the fall to adulthood, and himself as the saviour, the person who will stop the children from coming into contact with the realities of life.

Holden views adulthood as a kind of death for the ideal qualities - innocence, curiosity and honesty. The oversimplified worldview gives Holden his excuse to pull back from the world put use cynicism as a protective barrier. However, during the events of the book, the shallowness of his perceptions are shown to Holden, leading to his eventual breaking point.

This theme is in Holden's repeated thoughts of death and how death impacts on those left behind; it is continued in how Holden builds his morals, and his lack of willingness to be judged by those same moral standards he holds everyone else to - he is scared of becoming what he defines as 'phony' and so critiques everyone around him in an attempt to prove to himself that he is still what he views as innocent and good. It is also shown in the repetition of the ducks - Holden is using them as an anchoring point, as an outside influence to prove he is unchanging from his innocent status. It is also worth noting that Holden is especially interested in where they go during winter - that is, during the hard times of the year.

Through the novel, Holden is constantly looking and talking to adults in an attempt to have them tell him that the adult world isn't as negative to the extent that Holden has exaggerated it to inside his head. He attempts to connect with several people, including teachers, nuns and even a prostitute.

Through the book, Holden relies on the small amount of stability that his oversimplified worldview gives him; the same worldview stops him from looking at life in shades of grey or motives as ambiguous. Salinger uses this, as well as traditional hormonal issues, to get readers to empathize with Holden; Salinger himself doesn't have Holden dwell long4 on the motives of the characters before writing them off, and this helps us to understand Holden's mental status better, as well as the attitude towards mental illness, both Salinger's and the cultural conceptions of mental health. Salinger saw more combat than almost any American solider during World War Two - he was on Utah Beach on D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and he was one of the first Americans to enter a liberated concentration camp. Through personal experience, Salinger knew that adult life - and by extension, the adult world - could have strong negative effects on people.

''And in war and elsewhere, Salinger often saw - and sometimes was - a victim of that phony adult world that preys on the weak and the frightened.''

  • John Green, Holden, JD, and the Red Cap- The Catcher in the Rye Part 2: Crash Course English Literature #7

[The source below is an essay on the relationship between Holden and his parents, written by pmiranda2857]

iii.  conformity and social class

''"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, 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 and sex 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. If you try to have a little intelligent--" ''

During the 1950's, you were expected to follow a tradition that carried over from society before World War Two - you were expected to attend a school that was appropriate for your social class, graduate and follow the same tradition for university - or lack thereof - and then go and get a job. You were then expected to get married and have a family. Holden Caulfield fails at the first expectation, failing Whooton School and Elkton Hills in addition to Pencey Prep. While Holden is obsessed with the idea of 'saving' children from the assumed fall from grace that is adulthood, he is also obsessed with the idea that anyone who conforms, or any kind of conformity is wrong; through the novel, Holden continually judges people for acting in the way society tells them they should act.

''The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. . . . Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you.''

Throughout the novel, Holden is constantly judging other characters for conforming to the standards society puts on them; though this can be explained by Holden's mental health issues with his oversimplified worldview, it can also be attributed to Holden's near obsessive desire not be seen as phony - rather, what society believes he should be. He rebels against what society thinks he should do on several occasions, through leaving Pencey early, through asking for alcoholic drinks while he is underage and by breaking into his own home in the middle of the night. Though the majority of his actions can be attributed to Holden's mental health issues, he actively acts in ways that counter what society would want for him.

When Catcher in the Rye was written, Americans were experiencing a rapid increase in the industrial economy that made the social rules become a major part of conformity. Several events from Salinger’s early life are transferred over into The Catcher in the Rye. For instance, Holden Caulfield goes from one prep school to another prep school, is threatened with military school, and knows an older Columbia student. In the novel, the autobiographical details are put into a post–World War Two setting. As Salinger himself once wrote:

''The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are ready made 'scenes' - only a fool would deny that - but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator's voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener. He can't legitimately separated from his own first-person technique.''

When Holden goes to visit his younger sister, Phoebe, one of the first things he does is to remark on several of her behaviours when she was younger, such as spelling the name Hazel as Hazle and how she can recite the lines of a particular movie - The 39 Steps - in time with the actors. At Phoebe's school, Holden rubs explicit graffiti from the wall, in a sudden fear that Phoebe - and the other children - might see it and be influenced by it.

Through Holden, Salinger challenges several cultural assumptions that relate back to conformity, particularly for teenagers. Salinger writes Holden with a desire to stop children from conforming to the standards that Holden believes adult society places on people; Holden wants to keep them inside the child - like mind frame of social thinking, where everyone is equal and special and no one is wrong or a social outcast.

''Anyway, it was the Saturday of the football game with Saxon Hall. The game with Saxon Hall was supposed to be a very big deal around Pencey. It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win.''

In Catcher in the Rye, Salinger also challenges another society - based cultural assumption - that of social class. While it is linked to conformity through the theory of obeying society, Salinger uses social class as more of a springboard for his challenging of the 1950's idea of conformity. He doesn't openly bring it to the foreground, like he does with teenage delinquency, but he does lift elements from it to challenge the idea.

An example of Salinger challenging social class would be the quote below, when Holden remembers Dr. Thurmer's metaphor - based speech on playing according to the rules of the game, which translates as conforming to life; Mr. Spencer then agrees with the Pencey headmaster, reinforcing the idea of conforming because it is expected and everyone else will. Salinger then uses Holden to wonder about the side (or lower classes) where things aren't so privileged, challenging the idea that social classes meant an egalitarian society.

'' "Oh. . . well, about Life being a game and all. And how you should play it according to the rules. He was pretty nice about it. I mean he didn't hit the ceiling or anything. He just kept talking about Life being a game and all. You know."

"Life is a game, boy. Life is a game that one plays according to the rules."

"Yes, sir. I know it is. I know it." Game, my ass. Some game. If you get on the side where all the hot-shots are, then it's a game, all right--I'll admit that. But if you get on the other side, where there aren't any hot-shots, then what's a game about it? Nothing. No game. "Has Dr. Thurmer written to your parents yet?" old Spencer asked me.

Salinger, through Holden, looks at social class by looking at the upper class - Holden's own, as his father is the 1950's version of a corporate lawyer. Salinger uses the class standing of Holden's family to challenge the 1950's classist social structure regarding teenagers: ''Pencey was full of crooks. Quite a few guys came from these very wealthy families, but it was full of crooks anyway. The more expensive a school is, the more crooks it has--I'm not kidding.'' Before the 1950's teenagers were expected to be obedient and biddable, especially in the upper class, but as teenagers pulled away from society, it became clear that that wasn't always the case.

iv. bibliography

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

Salinger, JD | The Catcher in the Rye |3rd March - 18th March

Candlish, Emma | various e-mails | n/a | 3rd March - 17th March

Mansela, Chris | Catcher in the Rye Pyschology | | 3nd March

Unknown Author | | 4th February

Unknown Author | | Holden Caulfield and his non-conformity | 5th February

Unknown Author | What age is Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye? | | 5th March

Unknown Author| Holden Caulfield's Bipolar Disorder | | 5th March

Crash Course | Language, Voice, and Holden Caulfield: The Catcher in the Rye Part 1 | | 7th March

Crash Course | Holden, JD, and the Red Cap- The Catcher in the Rye Part 2: Crash Course English Literature #7 | | 8th March

Powers, Richard | The Life of a 1950'S Teenager | | 10th March

Baxter, Kent | p. 8-9 | Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence (2008) | 11th March

Kintz, Jarod | This Book is Not FOR SALE | 12th March

Comment Stream

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2 years ago

6. Rebelling against rules, and the book was written around the time of war the same as Lord of the Flies.

2 years ago

blog 2

2 years ago

1. the cultural assumption is that people that had a mental illness weren't excepted or "didn't fit in". you state that clearly

2 years ago

2. the examples make no sense at all and I think they are hard for someone to understand on all levels. I think you should pick a quote where it shows someone is mentally ill and is saying the wrong stuff or someone not being accepted into a community because of it

2 years ago

3. the elements of the novel have been identified clearly

2 years ago

4. linked the cultural assumption with the context clearly by stating different mental disorders like anxiety and bipolar

2 years ago

5. the cultural assumption and author are clearly identified

2 years ago

6. there are some similarities like mental illness and it related to my book because of men being mentally ill after war.

9 months ago

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2 months ago

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