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May 14, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye Essay

Since its publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has received vociferous criticism because of its seeming foul language and poor role models. However, the so called foul language is only skin deep, and the importance of the issues addressed, including growing up, sex, death, responsibility for one’s actions, and life in general, outweighs the negative aspects. J.D. Salinger’s use foul language is more effective than plain language, and rather, helps convey Holden Caulfield’s true feelings. It is because The Catcher in the Rye is often misunderstood as a foul and vulgar book which portrays the life of a disturbed teenager that it has been unfairly censored. Because they have just reached the teenage threshold, and a higher level of maturity, students should be able to study The Catcher In The Rye starting in the eight grade.

When John Milton published Aeropagitica in 1644, it was the first major work arguing against censorship. Milton believed that censorship destroyed God’s purpose to let man exist, by denying the opportunity to let man express his views. Ironically, it was censored. Like Milton, Salinger’s challenge to current moral standards was censored. Salinger asserts that the teenage years are not easy ones. By censoring the novel, critics deny the difficulty of the teenage years.

As George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships,” (Seldes 631). Similar Shaw’s writings, society not only benefits when censorship is lifted, but it also advances. The same applies for society with The Catcher in the Rye. Although a person not versed in the studies of J.D. Salinger’s most popular book might think that the book is obscene, vulgar, or presents Holden as a poor role model, it rather exemplifies the teenage spirit (Corbett 103). Since Holden is a teenager, and a male at that, he is expected to use such language. In fact, other teens of his age use far more foul language than he. Even though his use of the language may be offensive if taken out of context, when compared to the rest of the novel, it is really quite remote. “Considered in isolation, the language is crude and profane. It would be difficult to argue, however, that such language is unfamiliar to our young people or that it is rougher than the language that they are accustomed to hear in the streets among their acquaintances,” (102). Next, these words are part of Holden’s personality; denying his personality through censorship is unreasonable. Furthermore, replacing “fuck” in Catcher in the Rye with the word “fiddlesticks” is almost humorous and is detrimental to the novel’s merits. “To deny that words can shape out attitudes and influence out actions would be to deny the rhetorical power of language. But to maintain that four-letter words of themselves are obscene and can corrupt another is another matter,” (103). Although at first glance the language may seem powerful, it is no more influential than slang teens hear each day on the street.

But the reader knows Holden’s true thoughts on the issue of foul language. He knows that these words are inappropriate when he complains upon seeing the words “Fuck you” written in his sister’s school. This is because he wishes to remain innocent; he wishes the same for not only his sister, but all children as well.

The book demanded such language to be used. Holden himself would not be the same character if he refrained from using such language. “Given the point of view from which the novel was told, and given the kind of character that figures as the hero, no other language was possible. The integrity of the novel demanded such language,” (103).

Others might argue that the book has too many sexual references. Holden solicits a prostitute, and instead of having sex, he talks with her. When he sees her dress hanging in his hotel closet, he decides not to have sex; seeing the dress and its provocative intent makes him feel sad. In the end, he pays her just to have a conversation, which she is not interested in having. Although Holden’s action of soliciting a prostitute was a negative one, his actions in his hotel room were far nobler. This conveys a message that Holden just wanted company; someone to talk to, rather than having sex. For Salinger’s generation, sex had become a taboo matter only spoken of during very fleeting and private moments. However, in today’s age of openness about sexuality, such an reason for censorship is no longer valid.

Critics of the book say that Holden focuses on the past, when he discusses his deceased brother, Allie, quite frequently. Although Allie died from Leukemia a few years before the book starts, Holden portrays him in a manner which makes him very much alive. Holden looks back with fond memories, and realizes that although Allie is dead, he lives in his heart. Even though Holden does focus on the past, like when he is a child, when he played with his brother, or when he went to the history museum, he does it with fond memories, and not in a fashion where he cannot get on with his life. Simply put, Holden is just as poor a role model when he was a child as when he is an adult.

Furthermore, those who deny Holden’s emotions are denying the human soul. Just as Holden goes through puberty, teenagers around the world experience the same thing with similar feelings and similar actions:
While there are undoubtedly subversive or corrupt elements in the novel, arguments for censoring it misrepresent its more nobler intentions and greatly exaggerate its subversive designs. Putting aside the over-inflated claims of the novel’s most extreme critics and supporters, the diversity and intensity of the readers reactions to the “Catcher in the Rye,” suggests that the issues it raises are significant ones. (Essays on Catcher 128)

Although Holden may seem brash and coarse, he is really a child stuck in a man’s body and has good qualities. Holden, upon seeing two nuns in a diner, donates $10 to their cause. He realizes that in the end, that $10 might make more of a difference to someone else than it would to him. This is only one of Holden’s positive characteristics:
There are several ways that critics have attempted to describe Holden’s positive characteristics, including rather obvious childlike innocence. This quality is evident in a number of passages, including when Holden expresses his desire to be a catcher in the rye who protects little children from falling over the edge of a cliff, his fight with Stradlater for making sexual advances to Jane Gallagher, his inability to have sex with a prostitute, and his tender dance with his sister…It is this sensitive, innocent, and childlike side of Holden that makes him a complex and endearing character in spite of his vulgarity and immaturity (Essays on Catcher 129).

Although Holden may not be the ideal role model for teenagers, he provides someone they can identify with. But more importantly, his real life emotions and his positive qualities set a positive example for those who read it.

For those mature enough and of the proper age, The Catcher in the Rye is an appropriate novel to teach teens about life as it exists. Although Holden may not be the ideal role model, he still goes through emotions and feelings that teenagers can easily relate to. Since Holden possesses good qualities, and is an honest person with his emotions, there is little reason his life should be censored. Simply put, if the book enrages someone so much, they are not obligated to read it.


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