Voice is perhaps the biggest player in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield is an overpowering force of rich-kid anger, disillusionment, and alienation. But what seems so brilliant to me about Salinger’s portrayal of Holden is his contradictory existence. On the one hand Holden hates everyone, yet he wants to be liked. He is confident with hooking up with girls, yet innocent and virginal. He’s intelligent, but fails at just about everything he does. He is, in almost every scene, a giant contradiction.
What I love about this is how Salinger, through his unreliable narrator, captures not only the conflicting values and behaviors of Holden and teenagers in general, but all of us. We all lie to ourselves constantly. We say our health is important, but we smoke. We say school is a top priority, but we play video games instead of studying. We say we’re fine even when we just chipped a tooth and our bank account is empty. Self-denial and contradiction is a natural part of human existence.
As a writer, I wonder how one creates a believable character with so many inconsistencies. To me, the following paragraph, just a few pages into the novel, offers clues:
The reason I was standing way up on Thomsen Hill, instead of down at the game, was because I’d just gotten back from New York with the fencing team. I was the goddamn manager of the fencing team. Very big deal. We’d gone in to New York that morning for this fencing meet with McBurney School. Only, we didn’t have the meet. I left all the foils and equipment and stuff on the goddamn subway. It wasn’t all my fault. I had to keep getting up to look at this map, so we’d know where to get off. So we got back to Pencey around two-thirty instead of around dinnertime. The whole team ostracized me the whole way back on the train. It was pretty funny, in a way.
Everyone knows if you’re the manager of a team you don’t have the talent to actually be on the team. But Holden forcefully re-frames it the other way–“the goddamn manager” . . . “Very big deal.” I’m important, he’s saying, self-preservation intact. But his importance is still threatened: he left the equipment on the subway. Major error. The fencing meet is forfeited because of his irresponsibility. Yet he pulls out the number one survival mechanism of adolescence: Denial. “It wasn’t all my fault.” We’ve gone from “big deal,” to major screw up, to not “my fault” in ten seconds flat. But there’s more. “The whole team ostracized me.” I bet they did. This would kill the self-esteem of any normal kid, and it probably is killing Holden’s too, but Holden’s ability to deflect is not shaken. In fact, like any teenager trying to save his dignity he immediately distances himself from his most recent colossal failure. “It was pretty funny, in a way.” And once again we’re heading in the other direction. Up and down, in and out, seemingly so disparate but convincingly whole–and all in one tiny paragraph. That’s pretty nifty.