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.

2 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.

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