Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is J.D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ Moral or Immoral?

A lot of criticism has been heaped upon J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for being 'cheap' and 'vulgar'. "The Catcher in the Rye" is basically the classic story of a teenager's quest for maturity but It has been dubbed 'obscene' by some for the use of the four-lettered words.

Not only this, the novel has also been called 'blasphemous' over the boy's caustic comments about religious hypocrisy. 'Catcher' has become a symbol for critics of what they perceive to be a vile, ungodly plot that can undermine morals.

Most academicians do not subscribe to this idea and beg to differ. 'Catcher' is chosen and prescribed in classrooms for number of important reasons- its literary quality, unceasing interest, great readability, relevance and its lasting moral worth. While critics accuse The Catcher in the Rye of "immorality," the novel can be defended both on literary grounds as well as moral. Contrary to critic's belief, "Catcher' is not only a work of great literary merit but also of great moral worth.

Whether The Catcher in the Rye is immoral or not largely depends upon how one defines immorality. Certainly if one sees it as any work that contains "dirty" words, refers to a sexual act, or questions religious dogma, no matter what the content, then The Catcher in the Rye fits the description. One does not have to read the book. Just flip a few pages and the offending words and passages can be easily spotted.

One needs a more matured and responsible definition of morality to appreciate this great work of art. Over the centuries, philosophers have espoused numerous rational ways of evaluating moral behavior e.g. Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics explains his principles of the virtuous life.

Moral living presented in the New Testament involves humans interacting with others in ways that demonstrate caring and respect for the rights and dignity of each individual. When Jesus saw a crowd ready to stone a woman caught in adultery, he said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone." He admonished the disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned for "in as much as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me."

In an article proposing a Christian definition of obscenity, the Reverend Howard Moody wrote in Christianity and Crisis that obscenity has as its basic motivation and purpose the degradation, debasement and dehumanization of persons. The dirtiest word in the English language is not "fuck" or "shit," it can be a racial slur used to dehumanize or belittle someone. In other words, it is not sexual or blasphemous words that make something immoral but acts that degrade humans.

What, then, is moral about The Catcher in the Rye is the question? Let us look at some examples from the story of "Catcher" that show the New Testament definition of morality in action in the novel. One of the most endearing qualities of the teenage protagonist is his empathy for other people, especially those whom others reject. The story opens with Holden Caulfield skipping a football game at his elite boys' school to visit an infirm, elderly history teacher. Thanksgiving vacation is near and Holden has heard he must leave school after Christmas because of failing grades.

The boy realizes "Old Spencer" will lecture him about not fulfilling his potential, and he doesn't like seeing old men in their pajamas with "their bumpy old chests" and their legs "so white and unhairy." But he goes anyway out of respect for a teacher who cares about his subject and his students.

On the last test Holden wrote an apology to Spencer for doing poorly, "so he wouldn't feel so bad about flunking me." For a sixteen-year-old to worry about an elderly teacher's feelings is moral behavior. To visit the sick man is even more so. Other people in Holden's life also benefit from his caring attitude.

Everybody hates Ackley. Be- sides snoring loudly, he has "sinus trouble, pimples, lousy teeth, halitosis, crumby fingernails." But, says Holden, "You had to feel a little sorry for the crazy sonuvabitch." Holden is the only one who does. Though Ackley irritates him, he never turns him away. He makes snide remarks but he does not reject. He invites Ackley to go to a movie because he knows the boy has no other friends.

With Ackley, as with others, The Catcher in the Rye 's hero shows a concern not common with his peers. Holden is especially distressed at the insensitivity of his classmates. He remembers a small, quiet student who refused to apologize for calling another fellow conceited. Six dormmates descended on his room. That night, wearing a green turtle- neck sweater borrowed from Holden, he threw himself out a dorm window.

Holden still winces at the image of the boy sprawled dead on the sidewalk and thinks the harassers deserved more for their actions than school expulsion. Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother Family unity is a moral value espoused by the New Testament and by critics of The Catcher in the Rye.

No teenager could demonstrate more love and respect for his family than Holden Caulfield. He admires his father's abilities as a corporation lawyer, his mother's taste in clothes and decorating (typical reactions for the 50s), and his older brother's skill as a writer in Hollywood. He shows special affection for his ten-year-old sister, Phoebe: "You never saw a little kid so pretty and smart in your whole life ... if you tell old Phoebe some- thing, she knows exactly what the hell you're talking about ... you can take her anywhere with you."

Tragedy struck the Caulfield family a few years earlier when the third son, Allie, two years younger than Holden, died of leukemia. "You'd have liked him," says Holden ". .. he was the most intelligent member of the family. He was also the nicest." When Allie died, Holden went out to the garage and smashed all the windows with his bare hands.

The Catcher in the Rye 's leading character is not rebelling against parental values. He is roaming the streets of New York because he wants to protect his family from the hurt he thinks his failure will bring. In the end, it is his love for Phoebe, and her love for him, that ends his escapades, keeps him in the family circle, and restores his self-respect.

Blessed are the Pure Holden is a virgin. He tells us that right off. Despite all the thoughts typical of an adolescent, and "quite a few opportunities," he has set a limit. As he puts it, In my mind, I'm probably the biggest sex maniac you ever saw. Sometimes I can think of very crumby stuff I wouldn't mind doing if the opportunity came up .... The thing is, though, I don't like the idea. It stinks, if you analyze it. .... Sex is something I really don't understand too hot.

When a girl tells him to stop, he says, he stops. He never wants to hurt or offend. Holden leaves Pency a few days early and wanders around New York, afraid to go home and announce his school dismissal to his family. He gets a hotel room and in the elevator is approached by a..... pimp who persuades him to "have a good time."

Holden is reluctant, but decides maybe it would be good experience if he ever got married. He goes to his room, brushes his teeth, and changes his shirt. When the prostitute knocks on the door, he trips over his suitcase getting to it. She isn't any older than he-a skinny little thing with a high, squeaky voice. She takes off her dress. He hangs it in the closet so it won't wrinkle. He tries to make casual conversation. When she approaches with serious intentions, he panics, tells her he has just had an operation, apologizes profusely, and pays her $5.00 to leave.

Clearly, he is not ready to lose his virginity and certainly not with a prostitute. The poignant scene dispels any belief that Holden is anything but a mixed-up adolescent with a strong sense of values. Woe to You, Hypocrites Like Jesus who became incensed over the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees, The Catcher in the Rye 's protagonist rails against those who behave one way in public and another in private.

He claims he left his last school because of the hypocrisy of the headmaster: He'd be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents ... if a boy's mother was sort of fat and corny-looking ... then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he'd go talk, maybe for half an hour with someone else's parents.

Holden objects to the catalogue at Pency which shows a student on a horse jumping over a fence and writes of the "splendid, clear-thinking young men" the school produces. According to Holden, the school did not even own a horse, and the students are anything but splendid. He believes the school serves steak on Saturday nights so Sunday's visiting parents will think the meals are always like that.

He sees the school as manufacturing a public image that belies reality-a type of hypocrisy not uncommon in educational institutions. Religious phoniness upsets him even more. Holden considers himself an atheist, but he "likes Jesus and all." The disciples, however, are an- other matter. They were all right after Jesus died, he says, but while he was alive "they were as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting him down."

Loyalty is a very strong value for Holden. His own predicament stems from the belief that he himself is letting down his family and is thus unworthy of their love. While still in New York, the boy invites an old girlfriend to see the Christmas program at Radio City Hall. It is supposed to be a religious theme, but Holden cannot "see anything religious or pretty, for God's sake, about a bunch of actors carrying crucifixes all over the stage. When they finished ... you could tell they could hardly wait to get a cigarette or something." Religion, in his mind, should be simple, not gawdy and profit- making.

If Jesus had seen all those fancy costumes, says Holden, he "probably would've puked." If Jesus were wholly man as well as wholly God, he probably would've. In contrast to the show-biz religion at Radio City Hall, Holden meets two nuns in the lunch- room at the train station carrying cheap suitcases. They are teachers going to a new assignment in southside Chicago. He insists on giving them a $10.00 contribution.

When he realizes they did not ask if he were Catholic, he wishes he had given them more. Their humility and gentleness epitomize for Holden what religion ought to be. Suffer the Little Children Jesus stated that one must become like a little child before one can enter the Kingdom of God. The innocence and simplicity of children holds an especial appeal for Holden as well.

Holden demonstrates repeatedly his love for his sister. He empathizes with a little boy in a movie whose mother will not take him to the bathroom. He shows two young brothers how to find the mummies in the public museum. Finally, he spies a poor family going home from church. A small boy is walking in the street singing the Scottish ditty, "Comin' Through the Rye." Says Holden, "He had a pretty little voice, too. He was just singing for the hell of it. It made me feel better . .. not so depressed any more."

Later Holden tells Phoebe that what he'd like to be more than anything else in the world is a "catcher in the rye." He pictures a large field with thousands of little kids playing and nobody big around but him. He stands at the edge of a steep cliff and catches all the kids before they fall over. "I know it's crazy, but that's the thing I'd really like to be."

Toward the end of the book, Holden goes to Phoebe's school to send her a note. He sees the words "Fuck You" scrawled on the wall and goes crazy. He thinks of how Phoebe and the other children will wonder what it means. He wants to kill whoever wrote the words, to smash his head against the stone steps. Finally, he rubs them off with his hands, afraid somebody will think he wrote them.

The scene illustrates Holden's main wish, to protect children from getting a "cockeyed" version of sex from "some dirty kid." Obviously, sex for him is not an obscenity but an act of love between two people who respect each other.

In this sometimes funny, sometimes painful, novel of a teenager's search for self-worth and values, the protagonist uses words typical of an insecure young man trying to appear grown-up. He tries out sexual ventures, only to retreat when he oversteps his moral limits. He drinks to escape the fear of hurting his family and falls into depression.

None of this is painted as glamorous. None is likely to entice other teenagers to go and do likewise.

Contrary to the claims of the critics, The Catcher in the Rye is a moral book with ethical basis discernible only to an unbiased mind. Holden Caulfield may emerge as a confused person but he is moralistic. He befriends the friendless. He respects those who are humble, loyal, and kind. He demonstrates a strong love for his family.

He abhors hypocrisy. He values sex that comes from caring for another person and rejects its sordidness. And, finally, he wants to be a responsible member of society, to guide and protect those younger than he. What greater morality can one want from a novel?


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J said...

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