I’m reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger (1951) at the moment.
I thought it would be interesting to analyze the beginning to see what techniques Salinger used, and to see what we learn about his 1st person narrator in the opening pages.
First, there are 13 paragraphs. I will look at each paragraph in separate posts. So, this post:
The first thing the writer does is show us that we have a kind of ‘reluctant’ story teller. He comes across as apathetic, showing little interest or enthusiasm. He says that he suspects we as readers would want to hear about his ‘lousy childhood’ but he ‘doesn’t feel like going into’
…all that David Copperfield kind of crap.
The instant literary reference tells us that he is a reader. His derision of Charles Dickens’ famous classic tells us he is direct with his opinions, not afraid to speak his mind.
We immediately get the idea that he’s young. However, we don’t know yet that he’s a boy. We find this out in paragraph 2.
He also forewarns us that he’s not going to tell us his
whole goddam autobiography
but that he’s going to focus on
that happened to him around
just before he got
pretty run down.
‘Madman stuff’ is vague. But know we are in for a short tale about a specific moment in his life, which grabs us. We are also introduced to one of his most-used verbal tics:
Yet because of the laziness in his voice we wonder why he needs to tell this story. We are intrigued.
Note also how he immediately introduces us to his family. First, his parents. He tells us they are nice but also
Touchy as hell.
He tells us that his parents would have ‘two hemorrhages a piece’ if he told us anything ‘personal’ about them.
Do we believe this? Is he really scared about causing them hemorrhages? Or is it a figure of speech? As I see it there are three explanations to his refusal to say anything personal about his parents.
1. He is genuinely concerned they will get sick.
2. He doesn’t want to upset them.
3. He is afraid of their reaction.
In contrast to his easy ability of offending the dead and distant Dickens, he is less willing to criticize his parents .
We don’t know what he means by ‘touchy as hell.’ He isn’t being specific. Because of this we don’t know if we can actually trust him.
Yet because a) he’s young and b) what he considers to be ‘touchy as hell’ could be a mature, responsible attitude we’re not yet sure if he’s a reliable narrator or an unreliable narrator.
Next he introduces us to his brother, D.B. He boasts to us about him, that he is in ‘Hollywood’ and that he owns a Jaguar. He boasts about him being a writer and about his ‘terrific book of short stories’ and about the effect one particular short story had on him -
It killed me.
- introducing us to another one of his (idiomatic) verbal tics.
Even though he expresses admiration for his brother he also despises his work, calling him a ‘prostitute.’ But to get to the truth of this we have to read between the lines:
Now he’s out in Hollywood being a prostitute. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.
So, by prostitute he means ‘screenwriter’ !
Perhaps this reflects Salinger’s personal experience of Hollywood, as, according to Wikipedia:
In mid-1948, independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn offered to buy the film rights to his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut“. Though Salinger sold his story the film version was lambasted by critics. It departed to such an extent from Salinger’s story that…as a result he never again permitted film adaptations to be made from his work.
So, to conclude, what 12 things do we learn about the narrator from this opening chapter?
1. He’s young.
2. He cares about those closest to him.
3. He reads.
4. He can offend easily (if the object of his insult is distant.)
5. He may be a reluctant story teller.
6. He may be an unreliable narrator.
7. He has positive and negative feelings about his parents.
8. He has positive and negative feelings about his brother.
9. He uses slang.
10. He uses idioms.
11. He is sometimes vague.
12. He makes us ‘read between the lines.’
Do you agree? Have I missed anything? What are your thoughts on the opening paragraph of this iconic novel?