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Analysis of The Catcher in The Rye as a Representation of Modernism

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Table of contents

  1. Modernism
  2. Jerome David Salinger
  3. The Catcher in the Rye and Modernism
  4. Conclusion

World War I is one of the most tragic events to occur for all mankind. Although wars bring about death and destruction, it also brings about unity and new beginnings for new ideas. The effects of war are expressed through literature and art. This made way for the birth of a new literary movement- Modernism. Modernism was seen as a revolt against the traditional values of Realism. Modernism paved way for new authors to create their own style of literature and authors began to experiment with new literary techniques in fiction and poetry. Jerome David Salinger is an example of a Modernist author and has published several works during this time period. One of his most known work is The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger uses hints of his life in his works and inputs his views on society. This novel follows the journey of Holden Caulfield who is an angsty teenager with a temper who struggles to find himself in New York City. Jerome David Salinger uses Holden’s personality and his writing style of allusions, first-person narrations, and themes of alienation to reflect Modernism characteristics.


The Catcher in the Rye falls under the genre of Modernism. Modernism is a literary movement that originated from the horrors of World War I. In opposition to the traditional values of Realism, the movement was largely concerned with the degree to which civilization is heading. The movement began in the early nineteenth century with the publication of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in Europe (Diamond). During this time, there was an increase of globalization and industrialization leading to technological advancements. However, instead of progress, Modernists perceived it as an antagonistic to the artistic impulse. Modernists saw a decay and growing sense of alienation of the individual and society.

Modernists believed that by rejecting tradition, they could discover new ways of creating art. Many began to write more loosely, in distorted time sequences, and with a frequent use of irony and understatement. Literary writers of modernism focus on the characters’ interior lives and on the anticommunal and antihistorical aspects of modernist texts. The interior life of modernist literary characters is frequently associated as an alienated one, and the disconnection from context and history can produce ambiguity in the construction and resolution of the plot (Gaydosik). The works of modernists are influenced by movements in painting such as Impressionism, Expressionism, and Cubism as well as the developments in the art of moviemaking and tried to create new stylistic techniques (Anderson). The movement also gave rise to the youth culture during the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Some common characteristics that are prominent to the Modernist movement are a sense of alienation, narrations through fragmented viewpoints, and a substantial use of allusions.

Modernism paved way for writers to experiment with form creating a new style that is highly individualized. One commonly used literary theme is sense of alienation. Alienation is the sensation of being alien, or not belonging, to one’s own time period (Literary). The primary kind of alienation that Modernism utilizes is stream of consciousness. Modernist writers use stream of consciousness or “interior monologue” to emphasize the inner feelings of a character. This monologue is presented to the reader without proper narrative structures and common textual signs associated with narrative speech which is crucial to establishing an insight into the consciousness of the character (Fromm). Modernists have shifted from the omniscient to first person narration. First-person narration implies that what is relayed is being colored by the character’s consciousness, by his or her habits of perception and of creating meaning (Margree). Modernist theories about the omnipresence of the past, make the use of allusions difficult to avoid in modernist literature. An allusion is a brief reference to a person, place, thing, idea, or language from the past (Literary). None of the allusions are references are explained and the reader must make sense of what he or she can. These characteristics are central to the literary movement and present in The Catcher in the Rye.

Jerome David Salinger

Jerome David Salinger was born in 1919, New York City, to a Jewish Father and a Irish-Scottish mother. His father, Solomon, was a successful businessman and moved his family to Park Avenue, a wealthy neighborhood in New York. Jerome David Salinger is the second child, and only son. Salinger used to attend top elite private schools, but his performance was too poor to continue. Eventually, Salinger’s father sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy, hoping it would still a sense of purpose in him (Kerr). It was at Valley Forge Military Academy, Salinger began to write the start of The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger did not find interest in his father’s business, and enlisted in the army where he continued to write. It was not until his return to New York in 1946 when he began to fully indulge and start publishing his work (Kerr). The experiences Salinger gained in his life was depicted in his writing and realistic views as an author. It is also the reason why Salinger is recognized as a Modernist author.

Jerome David Salinger’s novels and works have recurring themes of self-discovery, love, communication, and loss of innocence. Many of Salinger’s recurring themes, ideas, and characters appear to find their roots in autobiographical incidents. As mentioned in his brief biography, Salinger was in the army for six years so he witnessed many casualties and experienced loss. Many of Salinger works are set in the postwar era and he often incorporates his knowledge and experiences in his work to illustrate society’s realities. His writing style involves vulgar language,frequent use of irony and understatement, and allusions which are sometimes difficult for readers to understand. Furthermore, in his writing Salinger uses some characteristics of postmodernism. A writer may sometimes bring out a piece both of modernism and postmodernism without consciousness of putting it into which classification. Jerome David Salinger wrote in mostly modernism but he uses some apparent postmodernism characteristics such as the the peculiar language and narrative, the characterization of an anti-hero which is totally against tradition, alienation and fragmentation which permeats in the narration of the novel. However, most of Salinger’s work is still considered as Modernism. Essentially, Sallinger ‘s experiences influence his writing style, making him a Modernist author.

The Catcher in the Rye and Modernism

The Catcher in the Rye by Jerome David Salinger is considered a novel categorized as part of the Modernism movement with some apparent Post-modernistic characteristics. Jerome David Salinger utilizes his writing style, characters, and plot to reflect the movement. The Catcher in the Rye primarily features 17 year old protagonist Holden Caulfield who starts off the novel saying he does not intend to share his life story. Currently in a mental hospital, Holden recalls the events from last christmas. Expelled from yet another school out of four, Holden goes to New York where he struggles to find a place in society. Through his narration from fragmented viewpoints, use of allusions, and a sense of alienation, Jerome David Salinger establishes The Catcher in the Rye as a work of Modernism.

Allusion is a brief reference to a literature piece, which the modernists authors uses for a better understanding. Holden Caulfield is a common reader of books and is very familiar with literature. Holden’s familiarity to literature results in his constant use of allusions throughout the novel. Holden starts off the novel with the fact that he would not be talking about where he was born, his childhood, and his parent’s occupation. He sums all of this with an allusion, “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” (Salinger 1). He’s alluding to David Copperfield written by Charles Dicken. Charles Dicken typically wrote in a poetic way, very detailed, using lots of satire and humor. Holden explains he is not going to be write in such detail because his parent are not “very touchy” and he does not even talk about personal stuff to his own brother. Another literary allusion was made to book written by Ring Lardner. Holden narrates:

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though. I wouldn’t mind calling this Isak Dinesen up. And Ring Lardner, except that D.B. told me he’s dead” (Salinger 10).

Holden felt he shared a similar personalities with Lardner due to the fact they are both entertained by sarcasm. Lardner would typically write short stories that were featured in the magazine. Lardner wrote a lot of satire and was described as a sarcastic individual. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, Holden overhears a kid singing the lyrics to the song ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye’ written by Robbie Burns (Salinger 62). This song is a major allusion to Holden’s character. Holden explains he wants to be a ‘catcher in the rye’ who protects children from falling alluding to the theme of perseverance of innocence. In Modernism, allusions are a broadly effective communication tool as it forces readers to make connections towards the meaning intended by the author. Therefore, Jerome David Salinger uses the element of allusion throughout the novel which make The Catcher in the Rye a piece of Modernism literature.

Narration through fragmented viewpoints is a characteristic central to Modernism. In the Catcher in the Rye, the narrative strategy is known as pseudo-oral. Pseudo oral describes the narrative strategy when the narrator keeps interrupting his or herself and tends to address the audience familiarly. Also the narrator does not shy away from expressing their feelings and views emphatically, thus setting themselves off from the typical narrators of literary texts. The first-person point of view also affects the narration because readers are subjected to the narrator thoughts and opinions. In the novel, as Holden Caulfield talks to Sally Hayes, about his hatred of things that make him feel “lousy” (Fibingerova). He is interrupted by Sally, and he comments, “Don’t shout, please,” old Sally said. Which was funny, because I wasn’t even shouting” (Salinger 70). Readers would believe Holden, however, a similar incident happens with Carl Luce. When Holden gets passionate about a subject, he begins to yell without realizing it (Fibingerova). Holden has no intention of gaining self-awareness and readers make the mistake of blaming other characters because of the limited viewpoints. The disparity between his perceptions and the evidence provided by other characters suggests a lack of self-awareness that is a product of poor mental health (Hühn). Holden has a very pessimistic and depressed outlook of society. In another scene of the novel. Holden is awakened by Mr. Antolini, embarrassed, he quickly runs away, but later he begins to “think” about the incident:

“I didn’t want to, but I started thinking about old Mr. Antolini… I mean I started thinking that even if he was a flit he’d certainly’d been very nice to me… I mean I started thinking maybe I should’ve gone back to his house” (Salinger 211).

If Holden had earlier responded to everything he experienced with both sides of his nature, he would have recognized the existence of opposite qualities, not only with in people, but in every single thing he perceived in his world. The solution of Holden still in the lies in his being able to perceive, with both sides of his nature, that everything in reality has two faces . The use of fragmented narration is to show how J.D. Salinger demonstrates Holden’s personality and perceptions. Therefore, narrated fragmentation is frequently used throughout the book to establish the fact that the novel is an example of Modernist literature.

Finally, one of the most commonly used theme in Modernism is the sense of alienation. The primary type of alienation that Modernists utilize is stream of consciousness. Modernist writers use stream of consciousness or “interior monologue” to emphasize the inner feelings of a character. Salinger relays heavily on crafting his novel through the memory and recollection of a fifteen year old teenager that seems to be going through a crisis of coming of age. As readers, this employment of stream of consciousness instills weariness in terms of the reliability of the prose. For instance, Holden walks to the bar after watching a war movie in New York:

“Those war movies always make me blind and disorderly in mind. I feel if I have to go to the war I could not stand it. I really can’t stand it. If they just let you die or something what and that’s not too bad …I like The Great Gatsby. The old Gatsby is a lovely guy. I love him very much. Anyway, we invented the atomic bomb that made me very happy. If there is another war, I will simply sit on the top of the atomic bomb” (Salinger, 148)

Salinger’s personal feeling of the war was instilled in Holden. Although the language is vulgar, it showed Holden was not willing to acknowledge adulthood and it’s corrupts way. The character consciousness is constantly skipping from time to time and different memories are invoked at different parts of the novel. During Christmas, Holden narrates,

“Well, anyway, here is a piece of Christmas. Thousands of children came to the city with their mothers and get in and out of the bus and the shop. I wish old Phoebe beside me. She is not the kind of naïve child that will be very happy when enter the toy department, but she likes to see the scene of bustle. I had taken her to downtown to buy something last Christmas. We were happy for a while. I think it was in Bumin Dyer. “(Salinger, 152)

When Holden went for a walk in Fifth Avenue, the place was not changed, but his consciousness was stimulated by the Christmas atmosphere in front of him. In this quote, Salinger shows the fluctuation of Holden’s thoughts among the present, future, and past (Jing). Hence, the stream of consciousness is also present in the novel, further supporting the claim that The Catcher in the Rye is a Modernist piece.


Essentially, Modernism is seen as the most creative literature era that many authors incorporate in their writing today. It incorporates various new and different characteristics like narrations through fragmented viewpoints, themes of alienation, and a substantial use of allusions to represent the realities of the modern world. Jerome David Salinger is considered a well-known Modernist author whose works reflects characteristics of Modernism with a few aspects of Postmodernism. His novel The Catcher in the Rye is an accurate representation of Modernist Literature. It incorporates all the necessary elements for the novel to be considered part of the movement as it presents allusions based of works from previous movements, first person narrations to depict Holden’s views of the corrupted world around him, and the usage of stream of consciousness to convey the mindset of the youth and also attract the attention of adults. Modernism is a crucial key to understand Jerome David Salinger’s work, The Catcher in the Rye, which is written to help understand the inner world of the youth generation.  

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