Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Odyssean Wanderings in J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye"

From the time of its original publication, many critics have acknowledged the Odyssean nature of Holden Caulfield's wanderings in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. In addition, much has been made of the importance of Holden's younger sister Phoebe, who serves him as, among other things, an ideal of innocence and honesty in contrast to the corruption and phoniness of the adult world.

In one of the densest and most frequently analyzed episodes in the novel, narrated in chapters 21-23, Holden goes to his family's apartment hoping to talk to Phoebe before he confronts his future. Although her name from the Greek Phoibus, meaning "radiant" has led critics to link her with the sun goddess and the moon, the details of this scene suggest that Phoebe's name also supports the assertion that she functions as an oracular figure: someone to consult, confide in, and who will offer predictions and advice-a priestess of Phoebus Apollo, the oracle at Delphi.

The most widely known and most frequently consulted oracle of the ancient world, the oracle at Delphi was traditionally a young woman. In his study The Delphic Oracle, Joseph Fontenrose observes that the "conventional" representation of the oracle in modern literature includes the presence of "toxic gases or vapors" rising from the surrounding area, a "frenzied" priestess "talking incoherently," making "ambiguous prophecies and remarkable predictions" (xiv). Salinger has incorporated each of these details into his narrative.

When Holden enters the apartment looking for Phoebe, he comments that "our foyer has a funny smell that doesn't smell like anyplace else. It isn't cauliflower and it isn't perfume-I don't know what the hell it is "(158). Later, when Holden realizes that his parents have returned home from a party and that his mother will check on Phoebe, he hurriedly "fan[s] hell out of the air to get the smoke out " (176). Phoebe is not actually sleeping in her own room; she has installed herself in the room of their older brother D. B., who is away working as a writer in Hollywood.

When Holden finds her there, he gazes at her appreciatively for a time, then feels he must wake her if he hopes to speak to her before their parents "barge in" on them. Phoebe, he informs us, wakens very readily, and when she does, she launches into a torrent of frenzied talking, questioning and hugging that prompts Holden to remark, "She gets very excited." In an effort to calm her, he is moved to implore her repeatedly, "Not so loud," and "Listen. Listen a second. Wait a second, willya?" (158-63).

Phoebe goes on to bring Holden up to date on the family's activities, but suddenly "she started looking at me funny." Phoebe realizes that Holden should not be home from prep school for Christmas vacation so soon and responds with anger and disappointment to her intuition that he has been kicked out of yet another school: "She had her hand on her mouth and all. She gets very excited, I swear to God."

Despite Holden's attempted denials ("Who said I got kicked out? Nobody said I-"), Phoebe knows the truth, and it inspires her outraged prophecy, "Daddy'll kill you!" This she repeats in chant like fashion-"All she kept saying was `Daddy's gonna kill you"'-until it temporarily drives Holden from the room (164-66).
When he returns, Phoebe has calmed down somewhat, but her first remark to him is nevertheless a reiteration of her insistent prophecy, "Daddy'll kill you."

She finally relents enough to ask him passionately, "Oh, why did you do it?" Holden then takes the opportunity to unburden himself of some of the "million reasons" for his misery-mainly the overwhelming phoniness and meanness of his classmates and the world at large.

Phoebe continues to function throughout the episode as a confidante, counselor, and source of insight and knowledge, insisting that Holden examine his real feelings and motives, and Holden recognizes Phoebe's unusual gifts: "She always listens when you tell her something. And the funny part is she knows, half the time, what the hell you're talking about. She really does."

Phoebe urges self-control ("Stop swearing"); she leads him to confront his feelings about their dead brother, Allie, and perhaps most importantly, she reveals to him that he has been misremembering the words to the song "Comin' Thro the Rye," which fed his fantasy of being the "catcher in the rye"-a revelation that will be the seed of his final acceptance of the universal and inevitable loss of childhood innocence (166-73).

Clearly, Holden's pilgrimage to see his beloved younger sister, and her talents for advising, listening, and enlightening, provide him with the insights, awareness, and guidance he will rely on to begin to come to terms with his despair-just as a mythic hero's consultation with an oracle may help him to resolve a crisis.

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