‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is a novel, but what kind of a novel is it? This lesson explores how the novel is defined in general terms as a genre, and discusses the unique qualities of the book and its protagonist-narrator, Holden Caulfield.
Holden Caulfield’s Complaints
Teenagers have a lot of bad days. Sometimes, when you’re a teenager, it seems that life is simply a string of bad days that will never get better. Our protagonist from The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, would definitely agree.
Holden isn’t an optimist. In fact, he pretty much hates everyone and everything – except his little sister Phoebe and maybe a few books that he’s read. Holden’s full of complaints.
One could look at The Catcher in the Rye as a novel made up of Holden’s long list of complaints about American postwar society and culture. Holden Caulfield is perpetually dissatisfied. He has no trouble expressing it – repeatedly – to anyone who will listen, including other characters in the book, as well as us, the readers.
A Coming-of-Age Novel
What kind of novel is The Catcher in the Rye? What makes it so unique? We can safely say that the main attraction of the novel is its narrator, Holden, who has so much to say about the difficulty of getting along with ‘phoney’ people in a ‘depressing’ world. Holden’s voice – the style in which the book is written – is part of what has made the book a classic.
Holden’s story is, to some extent, every teenager’s story of pure discontent.Because of its teenage protagonist and subject matter, The Catcher in the Rye is what we call a coming-of-age novel in which a young person has an experience that promotes their maturation and a change in their attitude towards the world. The coming-of-age novel usually observes a character taking a step towards adulthood. By the end of the novel, the reader usually can see a change in the personality of the main character that demonstrates some degree of psychological maturation. This type of narrative can also be described as the story of the education of a character. This is rarely an education that you get in school, but is rather an education that happens when life presents a challenge.
That certainly is the case for Holden! He has a few really rough days in the novel, and he tells his story with a lot of detail. But who is listening to his tale?
The Audience of the Novel
Holden speaks his tale to a mysterious ‘you’ that could be we, the readers, or perhaps some other unnamed character within the book itself that serves as Holden’s audience. In the last chapter, we find out that Holden is in a psychiatric ward, and his narrative abruptly stops.
Suddenly it seems that we, the readers, haven’t been reading a novel, but have simply been overhearing a long monologue between Holden and somebody who needed to know the story. Maybe that person is a doctor, or a friend, or a stranger. The text gives us no real clue as to who the ‘you’ is, but overall, this device has the effect of making Holden’s tale seem more intimate, immediate, and vivid to the reader.
Still, the question remains at the end of the book: after all these bad days that Holden has had, has he learned anything important that will change his behavior? It seems that he’s just as immature at the end as he was at the beginning. Thus, we have to wonder if The Catcher in the Rye is actually a coming-of-age novel at all. If it’s not, then the novel amounts to nothing more than Holden’s hearty condemnation of the ‘phoney’ world around him, one so incredibly dissatisfying and empty that it will never allow him to grow up.
The Catcher in the Rye is first and foremost a novel, one that is very unique and compelling, mostly because of its style. Its narrator, Holden Caulfield, is a teenager who experiences some difficult days in his young life, days so trying that they have the potential to make him grow up a bit. This kind of fiction that deals with the maturation of a young protagonist is called a coming-of-age novel.
Holden tells the story of his difficult times to an unknown audience, but his voice never shows any sign of maturation. For this reason The Catcher in the Rye makes us question its general characterization as a coming-of-age novel, and also makes us wonder about Holden Caulfield’s future: will he ever grow up?