“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.”
There have been some voices around the internet in recent years singing the death knell of Catcher in the Rye as a relevant piece of assigned reading for high school students. And many of them present important arguments: Catcher, in this era of HBO, is no longer truly edgy and raw. Catcher has misogynistic and homophobic moments. Catcher is about a whiny, wealthy, straight(?), cis-gendered white male who doesn’t know true oppression. Catcher is not for cool kids anymore, but rather hipster teachers who think they are cool.
So, I do hear the value in all of that. I do. Certain flaws of the novel are crucial to address while studying it, particularly issues of privilege and representation. And hey, maybe I am just a hipster teacher who thinks she’s cool. But let me say this: teaching Catcher in the Rye is still important if the approach is a good one. I see my students’ eyes in our discussions, and I know this book still matters, because it’s a book about the human mind and heart, and how it works. It’s a book about fear and grief hurting so badly that a kid can become an insufferable jerk, even if he hates that about himself. It’s an opportunity for empathy, for mental health awareness, and especially for hope.
Not a single student in my classroom fits the social demographic that Holden comes from–opulent, elite wealth. But that’s an important part of understanding the story: even those who we assume are too rich or too [your word here] to ever have real problems definitely do still have problems. This idea is something that my students are able to identify along with a rudimentary introduction to some psychology terms. Holden’s negativity springs from a clear set of core issues and psychological defenses stemming from his anger and unprocessed grief. This, I think, is the difference between a dated teaching of this novel and a modern one. I don’t teach my kids to take this novel as a battle cry against phonies. I teach them to take it as a call for compassion.
Nobody likes Holden. Not even Holden likes Holden! But Holden needs help, needs someone to listen, needs protection. And, despite how irritating and clueless he can be, he still deserves love, as all of us do. The novel goes to some very dark places as Holden experiences self-destructive and even suicidal tendencies. Open conversations about mental health warning signs are an important result of these sections. My students are able to recognize Holden’s behavior and empathize with its source–not empty apathy, but a desperate need for help. Consider this moment from Chapter 25.
Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddam curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down, and nobody’d ever see me again. […] Every time I’d get to the end of a block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, “Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.” And then when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him.
At this point in the novel, my students are able to recognize the shadow language of symbols that have been building all book long. The ducks, the undialed phone, the false identities, the red hunting hat, the broken record–so many of them part of Holden’s longing for reassurance, for the sense that adulthood will be ok and safe, that his fantastical vocation of being the catcher in the rye is actually unnecessary. As you probably already know, the ending does get us–and Holden–to that place at the carousel in Central Park.
Holden’s final realization is, I think, one that my modern high school students still crave for themselves, and that is this: Ultimately, even when the world seems so dark that it can swallow you up as you disappear, there is still innocence and joy on the other side. Growing up doesn’t mean we lose everything. We can always depart and return to our inner child. We will continue to experience both loss and restoration as long as we’re on the ride. In the words of Holden, it’s “just so damn nice.”
The Catcher in the Rye is not without flaw. But it hasn’t outlived its usefulness just yet. It helps my students think about how grief and trauma disrupt one’s ability to behave in healthy and socially appropriate ways. It helps them think about how relationships can be sabotaged by fear. And it helps remind them that help is there for the taking, and that especially those who seem not to care about anything might actually just need someone to stop and listen.