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J.D.Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger (1919 - 2010) is first and foremost known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The novel has been a bestseller for decades and created a whole new trend in writing.

J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye stands out as the most iconic novel about a new type of protagonist - the young and disillusioned Holden Caulfield. We meet him in New York City and at Pencey Prep School in Pennsylvania during a long weekend.

The Emergence of a Youth Culture

Up until the 1940s and early 50s there was no specific culture that the young could identify with. Youth was just a transition phase between childhood and adulthood. The youngsters were seen as small adults and had no alternative to the culture enjoyed by their parents. After World War II this gradually changed, and the change first took place in the USA. There was no specific literature defining how to be a teenager. The 17-year-old Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye breaks with this tradition and dismisses the adult world as phony.

The opening of the novel goes like this:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
(The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger, 1946)

Just opening a novel like that was quite shocking in the post-war period. Can you see why?



  • What do you associate with the word "phony"?
  • From reading the opening of the novel, what was it about the adult world, do you think, that Holden would characterize as phony? Make a list.
  • Do you think the list is any different from what a teenager would rank as phony today? Explain.
  • With what modern words today would we replace the connotations related to "phony"?

Holden as Protagonist and Narrator

Holden is a first-person narrator and as readers we have to depend on him to reveal the story. However, Holden admits that we cannot trust him: "I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. If I'm on the way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. (The Catcher in the Rye, J D Salinger, 1946, 3.1)

  • So - Holden is a liar! How does this proclamation affect you as a reader?
  • Even if we cannot trust Holden, try to find out who Holden Caulfield is. Make a characterization of his inner and outer world.
  • Afterwards, try to sum up how you were able to explore his character.

The Title

The title of the novel is based on a poem/song by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 - 1796)

Field of rye. Photo.

Field of rye

Comin thro' the Rye

O, Jenny's a' weet* poor body,
Jenny's seldom dry:
She draigl't* a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Comin thro' the rye, poor body,
Comin thro' the rye,
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
Comin thro' the rye!

Gin* a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?*

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warl'* ken?*

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the grain;
Gin a body kiss a body,
The thing's a body's ain.*

Ilka lassie has her laddie,
Nane, they say, ha’e I
Yet all the lads they smile on me,
When comin' thro' the rye.

*weet – wet, draigl't – draggled, gin – if, should cry – call out [for help], warl – world, ken – know, ain – own

The Catcher in the Rye is a novel about growing up and how hard it is to face the adult world. The person Holden admires and loves more than anyone else - is his little sister Phoebe. He wants her to keep her innocence and illusions for ever, so that they can go on playing in the rye fields. He wants to catch her and all children before they become grown up and phony. In the poem Burns writes about a field of rye.

  • However, what does Burns really write about?
  • Somehow Holden misinterprets the poem. Find out how, and how his misinterpretation is significant.



One of the illusions you have as a child is the way you yourself are conceived. Sex is a delicate matter. With time the topic is not as controversial as it used to be. In the early fifties, however, a teenager would rather die than discuss sex with his parents. Holden is painfully aware of what is happening to his body, and that he is in the transition period before he becomes a fully grown man.

  • If you look at the opening pages of the novel, in what way do you see sex as a topic?
  • Look at Burns' poem. How is the matter of sex highlighted? In what way?
  • Why do you think the very thought of sex troubled Holden so much?


Holden is expelled from his school, he is hospitalized and in every way apart from the world around him. As we read on, we also notice that by characterizing the others as phony, he uses his alienation to cope with his fear of growing up and as a way of protecting himself.

  • Find examples in the excerpt where you think Holden emphasises how "different" he is from other people, and how "different" other people are from himself.
  • Why do you think he makes a point of this?

Writing Style

  • From reading the first pages, how do you think this works as an opening of a novel?
  • A lot of slang is used. Find examples. Why do you think Salinger chose to characterize his protagonist by means of slang? How do you think the public and critics responded to this back in the early 1950s?
  • The writer lets the protagonist address the reader in a direct and personal manner. How does this dialogue style work?
  • What does the style reveal about the protagonist?


Are you phony? Take the quiz and read about the novel

The Catcher in the Rye - Quiz

The Catcher in the Rye - Spark Notes

Last updated 01/11/2018
Written by: Morten Serkland

Learning content

Literature after 1900

What is core content and additional content?

Subject Material

Tasks and Activites

External resources

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