Language, Voice, and Holden Caulfield: The Catcher in the Rye Part 1

Language, Voice, and Holden Caulfield: The Catcher in the Rye Part 1


Hi, I’m John Green. This is Crash Course Literature, and today we’re going to talk about The Catcher in the Rye, the best-selling book never to be adapted into a film. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, what about the Quran? Fair enough, me from the past, but there’s a religious injunction there; the reason this has never been made into a movie is of course because Salinger and his estate won’t allow it. But how this text – I mean, even most of Salinger’s covers are imageless – has managed to remain relevant without a movie adaptation in our image-saturated and image-driven culture is a very interesting question. And so today, we’re going to take a look at the pure and unadulterated text of The Catcher in the Rye. Now there are many ways to read a novel critically, and next week we’ll take a very different approach – we’ll infuriate JD Salinger’s ghost by reading this novel in a historical and biographical context. But today let’s appease Salinger’s ghost by
pretending that he as a person never existed. [Theme Music] These days our artistic landscape is so deeply defined by visual narratives on TV and in the movies that we can hardly imagine a world without images. In fact, I’d argue that we have a bad habit of seeing books as sort of cheaply made movies where the words do nothing but create visual narratives in our heads. So too often what passes for literary criticism is “I couldn’t picture that guy”, or “I liked that part”, or “this part shouldn’t have happened.” That is, we’ve left language so far behind that sometimes we judge quality solely based on a story’s actions. So we can appreciate a novel that constructs its conflicts primarily through plot – the layered ambiguity of a fatal car accident caused by a vehicle owned by Gatsby but driven by someone else, for instance. But in this image-drenched world, sometimes we struggle to appreciate and celebrate books where the quality arises not exclusively from plot but also from the language itself. Holden Caulfield, by the way, was aware of this,
because he too lived in an image-driven world. I mean, on the very first page of the book, Holden calls his brother a prostitute for abandoning book-writing for Hollywood, and says, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” And the novel frequently identifies itself in direct opposition to film, as for instance when Holden says, “I don’t remember if he knocked me out or not, but I don’t think so. It’s pretty hard to knock a guy out, except
in the goddamn movies.” By the way, for the record, it is okay to say Charlotte Bronte if you are quoting the book in question but now, outside of the text, I have to use “Charlotte Bronte.” Ugh Stan, I know we have to do this for the schools but this prohibition on cursing is so Emily Bronte annoying. OK, so if you’ll just allow me one biographical note here, Salinger once wrote in a letter that “The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are ready-made ‘scenes’ – only a fool would deny that – but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener. He can’t legitimately be separated from his
own first-person technique.” All right, but before we examine that first-person technique, let’s go to the imagetastic Thought Bubble. Catcher in the Rye is the story of Holden Caulfield’s expulsion from Pencey Prep and his journey back home to New York City, where he bums around for a few days trying to get someone to listen to him and meaningfully respond to his fears about becoming an adult. Holden has grown six inches in the past year and one side of his head is full of gray hair, both symbols of impending inevitable adulthood and its accompanying adulteration of innocence. He’s so obsessed with, and protective of, innocence that he can’t even throw a snowball at a car because the car “looked so nice and white.” Over and over again Holden tries to reach out to people who might tell him that adulthood will be okay – friends, old teachers, a prostitute, a nun, cab drivers – but he can never quite find a way to ask these questions directly, and anyway, no one ever listens to him. Nothing much else happens; there are no explosions or car chases, and certainly no skoodilypooping, as Holden Caulfield is perhaps the first human in history ever to pay a prostitute not to have sex with him. What Holden really wants is not sex, or money, or power, or any of the dramatic stuff in Hollywood movies; he wants to stop time. As he famously says when thinking about the Natural History Museum, “the best thing, though, in that museum, was that everything always stayed right where it was.” Holden wants to be a protector of innocence, a catcher in the rye, but he also wants to stay innocent himself. Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So one way this is explored is through sex. Holden is certainly very interested in sexuality, and he acknowledges his sexual desire, but what he knows of the adult world of sex is very scary, and even abusive. After a possible sexual advance from a trusted
adult near the end of the novel, Holden says, “That kind of stuff’s happened to me about
twenty times since I was a kid.” Like a lot of what Holden tells us about his feelings, that’s very subtle, and it requires close reading, but it’s important. Like, it’s easy to see why the adult world strikes Holden as so phony: the only adult who pays attention to him in the entire novel has ulterior motives. So he just wants to stop time to keep himself and the people he cares about away from that world. You may remember this obsession with stopping time – “Holden time back”, if you’ll pardon the pun – from The Great Gatsby. Of course, that doesn’t work out for Gatsby,
just as it doesn’t work for Holden. I mean the kid’s 16 years old and he’s already
got grey hair. Oh, it’s time for the open letter? An open letter to grey hair. But first, let’s see what’s in the secret
compartment today. Oh, thank god, it’s the red hunting cap. Ohh, my people hunting hat. Stan, I know this is corny, but I just feel
so much more confident when I’m wearing it. It’s kind of my emblem of protection. Dear grey hair, You generally result from the wisdom that comes with age, or else someone experiencing a great fright. But grey hair, if you’re associated with age, how come you’ve already attacked Holden Caulfield, and more importantly, how come you’ve already attacked me? I just had a haircut, and not a great one, I might add, and my stylist said, “Do you think we should dye your hair? You are on YouTube.” There’s no room in the brave new media world
for wisdom or age. Holden Caulfield, I am beginning to know what
it’s like to be you. Grey hair, all of this leads, as TS Eliot put it, to an overwhelming question: should I dye my hair? Eh, I think I’ll just stick with my red hat; it covers my grey hair and it makes me feel like I can take on the crushing phoniness of the adult world. Best wishes, John Green. OK, let’s now turn to what Salinger called
“Holden’s first-person technique.” So all these experiences are obviously very
important and intense to Holden. I mean he’s writing us about the stuff that led him to a mental hospital – but the intensity of these emotions is masked by the tactics of his narration. I mean, we just saw how subtly he hints at
sexual abuse, for instance. And also, Holden uses the passive voice constantly, which of course, you’re not supposed to do as a writer. Look, for instance, at this sentence: “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.” Any writing teacher would tell you that this is a disaster; you ought to say “I stood way up on Thomsen Hill,” not “I was standing on it.” But this passive voice is a coping mechanism. I mean, the whole reason that writing teachers tell you not to use the passive voice is because it creates distance, whereas active verbs feel immediate and real. But Holden needs to create distance between
himself and the reality of his pain. I mean, he’s standing on top of that hill
because he’s been expelled from school. And also because everyone hates him because he left the fencing team’s equipment on the subway, thereby forcing them to forfeit, becoming the first person in history to lose the big game without being on the team. Who wouldn’t want to distance themselves from
that humiliation? You see this again and again in Holden’s voice, and you also see other strategies of minimization of language as a form of self-protection. I mean, he describes his institutionalized
self as “pretty run-down.” He says that Ackley is “sort of a nasty guy.” He “sort of” strikes up a conversation with a cabdriver, asking him what happens to the ducks in the pond when winter comes. Late in the novel, he “sort of” gives his
sister Phoebe a kiss. In fact, the phrase “sort of” appears in the
novel 179 times! Also, even 60 years later, Holden’s voice still sounds authentic, which is a function of grammar and word choice. After Stradlater asks the expelled Holden to write a composition for him because he “doesn’t know where to put the commas,” Holden writes, “That’s something else that gives me a royal pain. I mean if you’re good at writing compositions
and somebody starts talking about commas. Stradlater was always doing that. He wanted you to think that the only reason he was lousy at writing compositions was because he stuck all the commas in the wrong places. He was a little bit like Ackley, that way.” You see what Holden did there? He stuck a comma in the wrong place. There shouldn’t technically be a comma before
“that way,” but it sounds right. But Holden’s greatest gift as a narrator is that all these techniques of creating distance only make it easier to empathize with him, especially when his defenses finally break down. I mean, look, for instance, at this passage where he’s talking about his brother Allie’s baseball glove. “He had poems written all over the fingers
and the pocket and everywhere. In green ink. He wrote them on it so that he’d have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up at bat. He’s dead now.” The gut-punch of those last three words is
brilliant. A present tense sentence in a past tense novel. We go from imagining a kid standing in the outfield reading poetry from his glove to knowing that this kid is dead – not that he died or that he passed away, but that he is dead now. The tense reminds us that the dead don’t stop being dead; that they remain dead, and that is how they haunt us. Or another example, look at the use of the
word ‘listen’ in this novel. Over and over again, characters – but especially
Holden – begin sentences with ‘listen.’ “Listen, do you feel like laying canasta?”
Holden asks Ackley. Ackley doesn’t. To Luce he says, “Listen, hey, Luce. You’re one of those intellectual guys. I need your advice. I’m in a terrific-” and then Luce cuts him off, unable to listen
even to the end of the sentence. But at the end of the novel, Holden says to
Phoebe, “Listen, do you want to go for a walk?” It takes her a while – they start out walking on opposite sides of the street – but they do go for a walk. Holden finally does get listened to. Maybe you realize that as you’re reading and maybe you don’t, but it works on you unconsciously regardless. And so, moments later, you feel something
welling up inside of you as Holden writes, “I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the
way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy,
if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could have been there.” Look at the phrases that get repeated there: “So Bronte happy” and “kept going around and around.” Some say that Holden never changes in this novel,
but I think he does right there at the end. The boy who wants nothing ever to change becomes “so damn happy” when he sees his little sister going around and around. When Holden stops thinking of time as a line toward corrupt adulthood and starts imagining it as a circle where one goes around and around, in a journey to and from innocence that lasts throughout life, he can finally be so damn happy. Yes, Holden never really gets anywhere. And yes, nothing much happens. He just keeps going around and around. But that doesn’t mean nothing changes. Thanks for watching. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller, our script supervisor is Meredith Danko, the associate producer is Danica Johnson, the show is written by me, and our graphics team is Thought Bubble. Every week, instead of cursing, I use the
names of writers I like. If you want to suggest future writers, you
can do so in comments, where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of English literature experts, mostly me. Thanks for watching Crash Course. If you liked today’s video, make sure you’re
subscribed. And as we say in my hometown, Don’t Forget
To Be Awesome.

100 thoughts on “Language, Voice, and Holden Caulfield: The Catcher in the Rye Part 1”

  • "Sometimes we struggle to appreciate and celebrate books where the quality arises not exclusively from plot but also from the language itself." I feel that this describes a lot of people's struggle to enjoy Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It is such a language driven book, and I think many readers are waiting for the action-driven crescendo to occur and the action movie moments to happen. I certainly had that problem when I first read it, until I settled into it's meditative pace and realized that the books langugae and the writing itself was meant to draw you in, not hollywood style movie moments.

    It's my favourite book now btw.

  • But didn't holden end up in the hospital with TB? It appears like he was in a mental hospital but at the end of the book it says that he came down with TB or something. Am I right?

  • I was so excited to watch this video, I kept horsing around. But then when I got to the video I turned away. I wasn't in the mood. You have to be in the mood for that kind of stuff. It really knocked me out.

  • This isn't even for English I just want to know; what did it mean when Holden was afraid to get to the end of the block? When he was asking Allie to protect him? Was that simply him being scared of reaching the end of a time period? Asking Allie to protect him because he's dead and that might make him like a guardian angel or all-knowing?

  • Not gonna lie. I hate this book. I hate this book with a passion. I want to punch Holden in his stupid face. I can’t even explain it. But I hate it. So much.

  • He says God's name in vain too much. The book is so boring. I couldn't even understand any of it. So so boring. Don't understand why it is a best-selling novel.

  • I think at some points in our lives we all think like Holden. Society forces us to live a very structured life of going to school, doing home work, eat, bed, and repeat. I think we start to get bored of it and want to find more happiness and meaning, we become cynical of the adults who do follow the structured life and believes ourselves to be more superior thinking cause we don’t want that boring life. However it’s only boring if you make it boring. You have to find your passion and work for it. If it’s to become a lawyer then ur gonna have to sit through school whether you like it or not. And that’s the part about growing up. Holden didn’t have passion he was just getting by, leading a boring life. He tried to pursue happiness without knowing what made him happy.

  • It wasn't made into a movie because it would be such a shitty movie, like nothing happens it's the narration that makes it amazing

  • First finished this book in July of 2018, and I honestly didn't get it. Now, seven months on, I feel just like Holden. Time is a theif.

  • Actually, some stories from the Quran had been translated into film (albeit Arabic film ) and there are some stories from the bible that are quite similar!

  • Holden Caulfield seems to represent everything that's wrong with millennials, almost seventy years after it's publication

  • Does anyone else find it interesting that Holden’s lack of commitment is directly paralleled in his choice of things he buys? Think about it, the entire book Holden buys 2 things that last him more than a couple of hours, his hat, and the record for phoebe. Otherwise he spends all of his money on food, drinks, a hotel room, a hooker(for the less if the two times I might add), movie tickets, ice skating admission, and cab rides to nowhere.

  • The small scenes we get with Jane Gallagher were very hot. 🔥
    The chemistry between them was evident even though they did so little like holding hands.

  • how is "I was standing" a passive? it really isn't. it's just Past Progressive Tense. in fact, it's not even possible to form the passive voice for verbs like "stand".

  • “Was standing” isn’t passive voice. It’s the past progressive, used to indicate ongoing action. Passive voice is a form of be + the past participle (not the present participle or -ing form). And passive voice covers up the doer of the action by placing the actor after the verb instead of in front of it. E.g. “The test was taken by me” instead of “I took the test.” Just saying! Best wishes, me.

  • Why does he have to be so over the top at thinking he's actual entertaining and funny. Should have just approached this straight forward without trying so hard. LAME

  • I remember reading this novel for the first time. I remember at first thinking about how mean Holden was and how cruel and strange his thoughts were but then i realized that his thoughts weren't strange, they were authentic. He's a rich, smart young man in a world full of expectations of what he should be which is so different from what he wants. I thought he hated people and was cruel to them but by the end of the novel i realized that he's a caring soul but he lives in a world that is bitter and harsh and he is trying to fit in and belong so he becomes that. In the end, i think he is a loving, smart man but he needs some guidance. He really is kind but his the world gives him cruelty and bitterness and you can only give what you've been given.

  • The FUCKEN love this book, it is my favorite. When I read it I loved it, it made me happy and sad. And once I saw this I was jumping with joy 🙂

  • I just finished reading this novel.
    This novel is so related to my life.
    I must say this book was so ahead of time.
    I like Ackley & Holden's little sister Phoebe ☺️

  • I have just watched this video because a student cited it in a research paper and argued "the reason I was standing…" is the passive voice. It is NOT the passive voice. It is the past progressive tense in the active voice. To all students out there – use scholarly sources for your research. That means pear reviews texts with a list of references at the end – something that has been review by experts. this video is not a scholarly source of information. It contains some good information but it is more geared to entertainment than academics.

  • this was very confusing… he just started talking and said random words about catcher in the rye until he hit th ten minute mark

  • I love books they open up a world of possibilities, you can imagine what the characters look like and I love the feel of the pages

  • I think Holden himself was a damn phony. Sure he horsed around New York City and all, but at the end of the book he just went back to being a rich phony. That killed me.

  • For the record, your off the cuff comment about sex workers was pretty wrong based on the ones that I've seen give lectures, seminars, and round tables. Plenty of people pay prostitutes and don't have sex with them, sometimes they intend it that way from the beginning and other times it just works out that way. It's a common stereotype but that doesn't make it right.

  • I never read the book, but this episode made it sound super interesting! I love speaking english well enough to get such fine linguistical details. You guys should learn another language and read their famous authors.

  • 6:05 Dude, "I was standing" is in the past continuous tense. "I stood" is in the past simple tense. The passive voice is "to be + past participle." For example, "the book was stolen" is in the passive voice. And you're a native speaker.

  • I'm shocked that the word "Corny" didn't come up, in my memory that book is full of that word. Did I miss remember?

  • This is a very good review. I would like to offer another perspective on Holden. I think he’s going through a depression or PTSD due to the loss of his little brother Allie.

  • To be honest the basic language in this book is unengaging personally. Even when reading for extra textual meaning.

  • from 3:00 to 4:00 is the part that i paused it at and started this comint i have never read the book and know nothing abought it but the way john described it and the histary musim quote makes me think this is a story about an altistic persion

  • My inner Holden Caulifield wishes bad on many, many people, it's just I'm just a man and can only so much belittling.

  • Read once. Never again. Why can't people talk without using obscene and profane language? Doesn't make them look big. Just the opposite. Rudeness is a weak mans attempt at showing strength I've always heard.

  • The part starting at 6:05 about the passive voice is incorrect. “I was standing on the hill” is not in the passive voice, it’s active voice. Passive voice would be “the hill was being stood on by me”.
    I think you meant to say that he uses the past progressive tense.
    In my opinion this also has nothing to do with “creating distance”. The past progressive is used in the example you quote because Holden stood on the hill for a period of time, and other events, which he describes, occurred during that time. It is simply standard English usage.

  • 65 years old now, in high school i read this book( well most of it anyway). During a report of the book, while standing in front of the class, the teacher continually interrupted me every time i pronounced the main characters name, HOLDEN, with a long o sound, saying i was incorrect, and that its pronounced Hayden. Obviously she didnt think much of me, as after the end of my short report, she pronounced in front of the class that i in fact was Holden Caulfield. I often wondered how many others have had that happen to them. Shes long dead now, and i almost wish i could leave a text of the above video on her grave,but obviously it wouldnt really make me feel much better nor would it change her mind. Its late at night, but this is where i am at.

  • Not sure if anyone else has mentioned this – no time to read all the comments here, sorry – but as far as I know "I was standing" in Past Continuous tense of Active Voice in the English grammar. Where do you see the Passive voice? (6.25). Perhaps you should have chosen another example 🙂

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  • I have never read this book, I really wanna, I really do because this comment section amuses me and I need to see this Holden guy in action

  • How has it stayed so relevant?

    Because a bunch of old guys won’t shut up about it the same way atlas shrugged is still relevant.

  • Wait so the carousel alludes to holden’s finally coming to terms with loss of innocence and passage of time? In high school i thought the opposite like he was clinging to the fleeting innocence for a brief happy moment

  • That is the worst book ever. It is just his wishful autobiography and it is archetypal male teenager. The only reason people think it has some mystical power is because Salinger disappeared off the face of the earth and did a bunch of crazy stuff to make a bunch of hype.

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