Everyone knowns "Holden Caulfield" the 16 year old protagonist from whose perspective the book is told from. He is in the process of being kicked out of his 3rd prep academy (Pencey). He has an older brother "DB" who is a writer in Hollywood, a younger sister "old Phoebe", and a deceased younger brother "Allie" that died at 11 from leukemia when Holden was 13 -- Holden damaged his hand "breaking every window in the garage" in anger over the death. This incident provides almost enough sympathy for the protagonist for the reader to care what happens to him.
"The Catcher in the Rye" refers to a fantasy entertained by Holden loosely based on a misquote of a Robert Burns poem, where Holden prevents children playing in a large field of rye from falling over a cliff which symbolizes "loss of innocence". The fantasy is in no way major to the actual content of the book -- it may be an attempt to assert that the book ITSELF carries out the fantasy -- it glorifies teen angst and encourages navel gazing self absorption with no sense of any reason to ever "grow up".
The cynical conservative in me summarizes the work as "Peter Pan with smokes, drinks, sex (or at least leering), a prostitute, suicide, and a possible near homosexual encounter". The suicide is "James Castle" -- who is wearing Holden's borrowed sweater when he dies, leapt from a window because a group of guys did something "unspeakable" to him, and his body is picked up by the suspected homosexual. We could easily mine that for symbolism, but I'll spare you.
Lot's of "goddam", everything is "phony", a little series of "fuck you" being written all over, possibly as an allusion to the corruption of innocence as the young move to adulthood since Holden (the imaginary "catcher in the rye") is trying to rub the words out so his sister will not see.
At the end we find out that the book is being written from some institution or sanitarium where Holden is staying until he returns to schooling the following fall. The entire book itself covers 3-4 days before Christmas as Holden is moving toward home to deal with the fact that he has been thrown out of another school. (all stories are really about going home)
My thoughts on the book:
- the adults are presented in very negative lights -- "old", "phony", ugly, either vaguely or actually corrupt, heavy drinkers or drunks, etc
- the book is bereft of any religious or philosophical values -- Holden's admittedly juvenile perspective of all the things he "can't stand" or "drive him crazy" is a "stand in" for such lofty concepts. His younger sister Phoebe is "virtue" -- and "virtue and innocence" are essentially the same thing. There is no "mature virtue" presented.
- While only 16, Holden is tall and has "gray hair on one side", so he is able to pose as being older "early 20's" -- sometimes, other times he is seen through immediately. The "imposter" theme is woven through the book ("phony"), relative to actors, women, etc.
- The portrayal of women is highly sexist / adolescent. If "ugly" they are worthless, if attractive, they "drive him crazy, they really do".
My sense is that published as it was in the 1950's, it was "shocking" and therefore got the "cool, forbidden, sophisticated" aura. It's "message" is a purposeless meandering for potential "pleasure" that never materializes, with no overarching meaning or morality. While some teens may have at some point felt SOMETHING like Holden Caulfield, it seems unlikely that many would want to BE Holden. The only potential "virtue" he portrays is the very thin imaginary one of preventing children from growing up. He doesn't even have a good time.
At it's simplest, "liberalism" or "progressivism" is a life of adolescence extended to death. Responsibility is always avoided and in the hands of others, things are "unfair" due to "others", the individual is convinced of their own goodness or possibly even greatness at some fantasy level, but that is vague and remote -- the immediate motive is always the next smoke, next drink, next sexual conquest, next entertainment, etc.
Perhaps Holden Caulfield is the prototype for the modern life of the perpetual adolescent. I find the idea of giving this book to anyone under the age of 21 to be the spiritual equivalent of handing an 8 year old a .45 and a box of shells and telling them "have a good time".
As an adult, the fact that the book is as famous as it is provides strong evidence that our educational system has failed us -- we REALLY need to understand classic literature, and then realize that this work isn't it.