The Feminist Lens: Catcher in the Rye

Photo 3_2I love The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger*.  LOVE it.  I first read it when I was a sophomore in high school, and loved it then.  I picked it up again when I was a junior in college in order to try to better understand one of my friends who was a Holden-esque character himself, and loved it even more.  I taught it to my American Lit class during my first year teaching and my love continued to grow with all the new things I learned about the book in my research in order to teach it.  I taught it again last year – equipped with cool tools like an interactive map of New York City that had pictures of all of the places Holden visited, as well as a “podcast” of me reading it aloud so my students could listen to it – and, well, I bet you can guess what happened from there. (I fell even deeper in love with the book.  Obviously.)

I know it is totally en vogue to hate Catcher (as I have lovingly dubbed it), and I’m not quite sure why.  Before I start teaching it to any group of students, I always tell them that they will end up either loving it or hating it, and either is fine, but they have to be able to tell me why.  This always piques their interest.  (I also tell them about all the censorship issues and other controversy surrounding the book, which doesn’t hurt my teacher-agenda, either.)

If you haven’t read Catcher and are planning on doing so, STOP.  I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.  Likewise, if you are a student studying this book and have stumbled upon this review and are planning on copying it for your own use, DO NOT.  Trust me: I’m a teacher, and your teacher will know.  I can’t even tell you how many students I’ve caught plagiarizing just by entering a sentence or two of their papers into Google.

If you haven’t read the book and want to keep reading my review, pause and go get a quick plot rundown from SparkNotes.

As a feminist, I am always very interested in looking at the female characters, especially in books by male authors or with male main characters.  Catcher is both, and has a plethora of female characters to look at – Phoebe, Sally Hayes, Jane Gallagher, Sunny, etc.  All of that has been done before.  I would like to look at Holden himself because, I think, with a little coaching, Holden Caulfield would have made a great feminist.  My reasoning is as follows:

He is a caregiver.
This is (sort of) the main idea behind the book – or, at least, behind the title.  Holden really has no direction in life as far as what he wants to do when he “grows up,” until the end of the book when he decides he wants to be the catcher in the rye.  “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all,” he tells his younger sister, Phoebe, “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 everybod 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” (224-225).  Aside from the obvious symbolism of the of the cliff being life and the children and Holden protecting their innocence, Holden really wants to care for these kids.  Whenever I ask my students what a good job for Holden would be, they always answer: teacher, doctor, nurse, psychologist – typical caregiving jobs.  He is definitely the first male character in a (canonized) book that I remember associating with one of these heavily-female fields.  Besides, don’t we, as feminists, want equal representation of men in caregiving roles? (YES!)

He respects women’s rights.
OK, he sort of respects women’s rights.   He objectifies the heck out of old Sally Hayes, enjoying the view of her in her ice skating skirt, and he does the same with a few other nameless women.  However, he does not EVER take advantage of them, and the hates the thought that any man might.  Throughout the whole book, he cannot get the image of his roommate, Stradlater (who has a reputation for being a little sleazy with the ladies), and his first love, Jane, out of his head.  Even Sunny (the prostitute) comes to his room and Holden asks her to leave before anything happens.  Sure, you could argue that he’s just nervous or something, but I think, given his history as a caregiver, he really does respect and want to protect women.

He is a radical.
He’s from the 1950’s, a time when going against the grain was frowned upon.  Still, he’s kicked out of schools, swears up a storm, travels around New York City completely alone, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and even thinks about running away at one point.  Yea, Holden definitely fights against the cookie-cutter norm of the 1950’s, and I think if someone had pointed out the terrible treatment of women after World War II, he probably would have jumped right on that cause.

He hates phony people.
And, let’s face it, so do feminists.  If you don’t believe me, do a quick search on a few feminist blogs for cheating politicianssingers involved with domestic violence, or other staples of our culture and read the dripping sarcasm.  We blog/report about it like crazy when someone lies or presents anything false.  After all, this is our job, as feminists.  We need to expose what is happening in the world in order to draw attention to it and, hopefully, make a change (or, at the very least, change people’s perceptions and attitudes).  Holden, and Salinger by extension, do just that.  They’ve downright defined the wayward, confused, teenage misanthrope, making it OK for people to follow their own drummer.

I know it is not new to define Holden Caulfied as a radical phony-hater who would fit well into a caregiving career.  I just think that this description also makes him a good candidate to join the feminist cause.  Personally, I’d have him on my side any day.

*Full citation: Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Liked this feminist book review?  Read more by clicking here.  Hated it?  Completely disagree with it?  Have something to add to it?  Have a book to recommend? Leave a comment or e-mail me at smallstroke (at) gmail (dot) com.

3 thoughts on “The Feminist Lens: Catcher in the Rye

  1. Pingback: Banned Books Week | Small Strokes

  2. Kristina on

    I find your take interesting, though I disagree. I am a strong feminist and I think Holden is a misogynist. It is one thing to say that in today’s society Holden would be a feminist and another very different thing to say his embodies someone who treats women as equals in Catcher. Also, I think it is important to note that though he may be “radical”, it is doubtful he would be a feminist because he is so self involved he would probably say it wasn’t his problem.

  3. Dixie on

    I just read Catcher in Rye today and I couldn’t believe the misogyny. I also disagree with your article and find some of your statements alarming.

    Under “He is a caregiver”, your argument is flimsy. Your use of word ‘caring” lets you create the image of “caregiver” that’s historically linked to female roles. If you referred to Holden as a protector you might create a more masculine image. I would argue Holden’s desire to be the “Catcher” and his fondness for children are Parental tendencies. If we looked to make a distinction stereotypically “Mothers care for and Fathers protect their children”. Either image fits but neither determine if Holden was likely to be a feminist. What we know of Salinger; it’s likely Holden’s ambitions were written as the masculine stereotype. With the exception of Nurse (and maybe Teachers but would need to consider types of positions women held in education), the occupations your students suggest at the time the novel was set were predominately/traditionally male. This discredits the notion Holden would seek out “heavily female fields”.

    In “He respects women’s rights” you instantly water that down that to “sort of”. Followed by “he never takes advantage” of women but you failed to acknowledge his regret over not raping “a girl – that isn’t a prostitute or anything … and keeps telling you to stop” (83). “I mean most girls are so dumb and all. After you neck them for a while, you can really watch them losing their brains … They tell me to stop, so I stop. I always wish I hadn’t, after I take them home”. (84) Holden spends his time judging women by their looks or intelligence. “You take a really smart girl, half the time she’s trying to lead you around the dance floor, or else she’s such a lousy dancer, the best thing to do is stay at the table and just get drunk with her” (63) “even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid” (65). You even skim over his objectifications and dismiss them because they are “a few other nameless women”. What feminist diminishes such things?

    “He’s a radical”. Catcher published as a book in 1951, Salinger had already created the character Holden in the late 1946. Holden is reminiscing. These few days in his life are in the late 1940’s; his brother died when he was 13 “He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine, on July 18 1946”. (33) Holden states he’s 17 when he tells the story from last Christmas making him 16 in 1948/9. Swearing, drinking, smoking and traveling alone were not radical practices. Many 16 year old boys were in the workforce and living adult lives. Holden going into nightclubs is never questioned (only purchasing alcohol was). Holden’s not “fighting against the cookie cutter 1950’s” because it’s not set in the 1950’s, Holden’s struggling with his mental health from the death of his brother, a peer’s death and molestation “when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid”. (174) It’s unlikely Salinger wrote Holden in mind for taking up women’s liberation. It plausible Salinger wanted to shine a light on sexual abuse.

    “He hates phony people” … “and so do feminists”. I’m aghast. Holden IS a phony, especially to women. Holden’s internal dialogue practically criticizes everyone and everything. “So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff … how most people don’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. That old bull’ (11) Holden plays the phony throughout the novel, constantly outwardly playing the socially acceptable card of politeness, while internally judging them for what he is doing exactly. By Holden’s own words he’s “yella”, his brain isn’t going to let him deliberately offend someone. The only outbursts that aren’t phony is the odd mouthy quip, which he always promptly apologies (the apology is phony) or his physical reactions involving violence, which are definitely linked to his mental health issues and trauma.

    I think you really need to reconsider the depth of conviction you have for Holden and Salinger being on the right side of Feminism. You’re one of the first articles that came up for me when I Googled “Catcher in the Rye Misogynist” and it really left me empty.

    I’m a stay at home mum who only read this because my son is reading it for school. Only last week I had to report some of my son’s school peers for “slut shaming” a young girl publicly on a youtube video. I’m super concerned, that the misogyny in this book won’t get examined in the school setting and as a Feminist that is really concerning. I think Catcher in the Rye has a lot to offer today’s students if they are asked to critically look at the depiction and treatment of women equally with the other themes.

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