Caulfield, a heartsick Hamlet
A few weeks after J.D. Salinger
January 27, I reread The Catcher in the
Rye. One highlight was Holden Caulfield’s riffs on
literature. At various
points he weighs in on Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy,
Lardner, Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Isak Dinesen, Ernest
Emily Dickinson, Rupert Brooke and Robert Burns – to say nothing
of his views
on The Gospels and Beowulf.
I was especially fond of
his take on Hamlet:
"D.B. took Phoebe and I to
see it last year. He treated us to
lunch first, and then he took us. He’d already seen it, and the
way he talked
about it at lunch, I was anxious as hell to see it too. But I
didn’t enjoy it
much. I just don’t see what’s so marvelous about Sir
Laurence Olivier, that’s
all. He has a terrific voice, and he’s a helluva handsome guy,
and he’s very
nice to watch when he’s walking or dueling or something, but he
wasn’t at all
the way D.B. said Hamlet was. He was too much like a goddamn general,
of a sad, screwed-up type guy" (117).
Why does Olivier’s
alpha-Hamlet bother Holden so much? What’s
phony about it?
The straightforward answer
is that Holden perceives himself as the exemplar of
screwed-up type.” As such, he often contrasts himself with the
athletic Oliviers of his world – the Steerforths to his
Copperfield. His Pencey
Prep roommate, Ward Stradlater, is the novel’s prominent Olivier:
“He was a
very strong guy. I’m a very weak guy,” observes Holden
after Stradlater easily
breaks his half-nelson (39).
In Holden’s limited
worldview, handsome jocks are never sad
or screwed-up. After all, it’s the jocks that get to make out
with girls like
Jane Gallagher. Stradlater notoriously gives Jane “the
time” in Ed Banky’s car
(42). And a hotshot diver from Choate, whom Holden describes as
and no brains,” also gets in Jane’s pants (135).
But Holden never does, and
his melancholy about this is the
novel’s driving force. It is as responsible for his sad,
screwed-up state as
the death of his brother Allie. And these two formative, teenage
traumas are commingled
in the text. Holden’s fistfight with Stradlater – fueled by
sexual jealousy of Stradlater’s success with Jane – occurs
only moments after
Stradlater insults Holden’s essay about Allie’s mitt. And
Holden is impotent to
harm Stradlater because of Allie: Holden
literally lost the power to “make a good fist” thanks to
the injury he
sustained punching garage windows in raging at Allie’s death
The altercation with
Stradlater and the punching out of
garage windows are two of the only times Holden acts on his passions.
most part, Holden – like Hamlet – is all talk and no walk.
He packs the perfect
snowball with his bare hands but never throws it (36). On nine separate
occasions, he thinks about contacting Jane (32, 59, 63, 76, 105, 116,
202). But he never does, despite the obvious grip she has on his heart
loins. He prefers the emotional safety of Robert Ackley, Faith
Luce and Sally Hayes.
reason Holden won’t call Jane: He wants her
fixed in his mind as an ideal. To contact her would risk tainting the
their hand-holding summer in Maine,
PG-rated though it was. Of course, Holden never says this about Jane.
But in the
book’s longest paragraph – a three-page discourse on the Museum of Natural History
– he writes:
"The best thing, though, in
that museum was that everything
always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go
there one hundred
thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching
fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would
drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their
skinny legs, and the squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving
same blanket. Nobody’d be different" (121).
The erotic language is no
accident. Mixed with the museum memories
are romantic flashbacks of an awkward childhood: “You’d be
two rows of kids,
and you’d have a partner. Most of the time my partner was this
Gertrude Levine. She always wanted to hold your hand, and her hand was
sticky or sweaty or something” (120).
That last sentence, on its
own, may not seem like much. But
it gains power as a follow-up to Holden’s description of holding
Jane: “We’d start holding hands, and we wouldn’t quit
till the movie was over.
And without changing the position or making a big deal of it. You never
worried, with Jane, whether your hand was sweaty or not” (79).
And so we come, at last, to the
real reasons Holden is afraid to contact Jane. He can't stand the
thought of being her Gertrude Levine. And he would rather not confront
the adulthood reality of her holding hands with someone else -- someone
who isn't so screwed-up or sad.
Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by Glimmer Train.
In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the
Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts
Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also
written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.