Most of us read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, and unless you were dead set a lover of literature, you probably hated it. And why? Well, for one, some could argue that it’s a pretty sucky book in general. Why? Well, written in a subjective stream of consciousness style is never easy to follow; especially when your protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is having a mental and emotional breakdown throughout the plot of the novel. And as far as the plot goes, it’s nothing to brag about; a boy who gets kicked out of boarding school and spends several days wandering aimlessly around New York, and then ending mutely; with small musings on the importance of telling stories, and on missing friends.
There is nothing remarkably “good” about Catcher in the Rye, and yet it sells nearly a quarter of a million new copies each year, and I bet that most people who read it in high school can remember many of its bright and intimate details, while other books that you’ve perhaps read more recently have faded from memory. And yet every couple years or so people push for a movie-rendition of Catcher, it’s held its place firmly in the ranks of most popular banned books ever, and nearly everyone knows the name of Holden Caulfield.
As far as books goes, it’s very hard to define what is so compelling about it. In fact, what seems to be so compelling about it is the ease with which everyone wants to hate it; whether you hate the writing style for being confusing, the main character for being self-absorbed and violently moody (not your typical protagonist, if you can even call him that), the relatively uneventful plot, or the offensive sexual remarks/language, almost everyone can come up with a reason to dislike this novel. And perhaps that is what makes it so good; so memorable. Because this is not really a young adult novel (with that definition Holden would have to undergo some sort of growth or education, and by the end of the novel it’s unclear if he’s learned or progressed at all as a result of his experiences), and this is not really a post-modern novel. Rather, it’s a novel about the human condition; we see the “ostrich sticking its head in the sand” sort of mentality; of a society that would rather keep walking by than help the man who cannot come to terms with his own humanity. Perhaps if we blindly bulldoze forward through our lives, we can forget the questions we have, that have yet to be answered. It’s the one thing that connects all of us, and something that many of us resent, when we take the time to think about it. It’s rare to find a book with an adolescent voice that is not about adolescence, but about the greater human condition.
And what is the human condition that we speak so loosely about? I don’t know. If you do, tell me, because I would sure love to find out. The human condition of being who we are, seems despicable, outrageous, and callous in the figure of Holden Caulfield, but we can argue that he’s perhaps one of the most honest characters in literature, for being able to be a main character without being a protagonist. Indeed, he straddles the line between despicable and pitiable, tragic and malevolent, so artfully that arguably he is one of the greatest characters in literature.
Because in life, there are no protagonists and no antagonists: only people caught in different pages of time, in different casts of light.