Thursday, 2 December 2010

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

I started reading 'Catcher in the Rye' a couple of years back and I couldn't stand it. I was twelve and I didn't get the language at all. I didn't get the language and I didn't understand the protagonist. I read it again last year and I suddenly understood the book on a completely different level. I wrote an "essay" on the beginning of the book and here it is.

How does Salinger use language, structure & from to engage the reader with the opening of ‘Catcher in the Rye’?

In this essay I will try to analyse  the language, structure & form of the beginning of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and thereby find out why and how it hooks a reader.

Something that I think is very important to know when analysing a book is in which time a book is written. ‘CitR’ was written in 1951 by the American author J.D. Salinger. This is important because this book became a representative for how the youth felt around that time. That means it will be written with a certain attitude and a certain language. The paragraph starts of by telling you that what you really want to hear, you will not hear about. He hereby adds that this is probably about his childhood, which, according to him, was ‘lousy’. He gives us a hint at why this could have been so, saying :’how my parents were occupied and all’. In adding ‘and all’ he seems to say he doesn’t really care. He then directs us at another book, ‘David Copperfield’. That he mentions that book gives us the possibility to find out something about him. The fact that he, apparently, identifies with David Copperfield shows us he does have some problems with his parents, although he is trying to overrule that by pretending to not care.
This fist sentence is very important, because it gives you, as a reader, a good look at the main character. He knows what you want and he is not prepared to give it to you. This is not a book that is meant to please you, or live up to your expectations. It is going to be exactly as he wants it.
He continues on the same line, saying that ‘that stuff bores me’, as if it has nothing to do with him. Also his parents wouldn’t be very happy if he told anything to personal to such a wide audience. He jokes about it, saying ‘they would have two hemorrages apiece’. He does however say they are nice, which would mean he does feel that connection with them and has not been treated as badly as he hinted at with the David Copperfield-connection.

He then goes on to say he will not tell us his ‘whole goddam autobiography’, once again alarming the reader this is not about what the reader would want to read, but about what he wants to write. He has decided on what to tell us, ‘this madman stud that happened to me last Christmas’, and does not give the rest a glance. He didn’t tell his brother anything else, so why would he tell us anything else? He calls his brother D.B., without telling us what those initials mean. Again, he doesn’t care whether we would like to know or not. He seems rather fond of his brother though, for he keeps on talking about him for the rest of the paragraph.

His brother is a writer, who has gone of to Hollywood. He compares Hollywood to the place he is now, which we know nothing of, and comes to the conclusion his place is ‘crumby’. His brother seems to like him as well, for he comes every week-end to visit. Here the writer starts boasting, telling us about his brother’s car and how fast it goes and how much it cost. This seems weird, for he did not want to tell us anything about himself, yet now seems eager for us to know his brother got a Jaguar.
He then goes rather pensive, saying his brother now has a lot of ‘dough’, but didn’t use to. He almost seems to regret the fact his brother now makes a lot of money and is, as he calls it ‘a prostitute’.

Here he compares two of his brothers works. One is a little book his brother wrote, when he was still young. The other is what his brother does now, writing for movies. About the first he says: ‘It killed me’. About the second all he got to say is: ‘If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.’ It struck me as weird he would tell us that. He seems to genuinely adore his brother, otherwise he wouldn’t tell us about him, yet he doesn’t like what he does. And he wants us to know that. As if it would change the way we looked at him. I think it’s a typical example of teenager-behaviour. He wants to be a rebel against his family and the main-stream culture. H can perfectly unite this in his “hate” against movies.

The language in this excerpt is very slang and very modern. The use of words as ‘dough’ and ‘goddam’ and phrases as ‘It killed me;, suggest a young writer. Also, he does not use any very intellectual sentence-structures or words, which suggest an unexperienced writer, if you see the main character as the author of the story.
The excerpt is not very structured or at least doesn’t seem so. He simply rambles on and hops from one subject to the other. Yet if you look closer you can see that everything ahs to do with him, everything leads back to him. There’s not only the fact that his parents wouldn’t want him to tell anything personal, no. HE doesn’t want to tell you anything. His brother now writes movies and makes a lot of money, yet HE himself doesn’t like it. All these things shape his identity and therefore are present in his tale. The story starts after the actual happening, for he refers back to the ‘madman stuff that happened at Christmas’. The story will therefore most likely be an account and very chronological.

At this point you cannot really tell what sort of genre this is. You can guess at it being a coming-of-age story or simply fiction. It is written in the first person, which should give you the opportunity to identify with the main character, yet he doesn’t allow us to. The beginning is quite original, as the writer speaks to you as a reader directly.

Concluding, I think that what hooks the reader is his resentment to tell us anything. What is forbidden is more interesting. Now you want to know what happened and why he does not want to tell us anything more. You wonder where the disinterest in his tone comes from and where he is. Who is he exactly? The beginning does not unravel the mystery surrounding the main character. We do not know anything about him yet, although he has, actually, told us quite a lot already about his environment etc. Most likely this book will capture your interest and make you curious and that is why you will continue reading it.

Guns 'n Roses wrote a song called 'Catcher in the Rye', Give it a listen:

Have you read 'Catcher in the Rye'? What were your thoughts on it?

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