Fiction

Review of “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner

On 10 December, 1950, William Faulkner delivered his banquet speech before the audiences attending the Nobel Prize Committee at the city hall in Stockholm, Sweden.  One can tell from his address that he is seemingly out of his element, coming from the deep South of Mississippi.  Anyone can listen to his address for free from the Nobel Prize website.  In it, Faulkner addresses an audience fully aware of what post-war political tensions are capable of, what with the Cold War and the powers involved posed as a threat to civilization.  Yet, he talks about modern writers of his time losing touch with their connection to the “human spirit,” something he claims, “which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”  He goes on to add:

He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid… Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands (Faulkner, “Banquet Speech”).

Faulkner writes this because he believes it entirely to be the truth of writing.  This isn’t some thought that he embellishes for the sake of the Nobel Prize Committee, but a philosophy that he has based his writing and life off of. In one instance, it is even recognizable in his earlier work: “Barn Burning,” a short story published in the June 1939 issue of Harper’s Magazine.  In this story, a conflict exists that sets the human spirit at odds with itself.  The struggle between what is morally right and a young man’s obligation to his family reveals the tragedy that exists within this literary piece.

https://i1.wp.com/c27980.r80.cf1.rackcdn.com/easterniowanewsnow.com/150318/barn-burning.jpg

 

The tragedy here is as much an economic one, as it is about a family being torn apart by a boy’s father and his actions.  Would Abner Snopes have burned barns at all if he didn’t have a grudge against the system that keeps him and his family impoverished?  In fact, modern readers may have an easier time recognizing poverty’s role in the awkward position this family is in, rather than a man’s downward spiral because of spite and contempt.  Faulkner captures how poor these people are with descriptive imagery that tells us how cheap and worn their lives have become.  For example, expressions like ” flutter of cheap ribbons” and “drew from the jumbled wagon bed a battered lantern, the other a worn broom” shows us enough of their world through minor details, revealing the root of their problem.  It is poverty and the reactions he receives from those who are not impoverished that poisons the father’s actions.  He sees himself and his family as victims from the plantation owners who use them for menial labor, something that Snopes is begrudging of all throughout the narrative.  Just after arriving at their new (albeit temporary) home, father announces, “‘I reckon I’ll have a word with the man that aims to begin tomorrow owning me body and soul for the next eight months'”(Faulkner “Barn” 221). Taking his son with him, they both make their way to see Major de Spain, the land owner he’ll be working for.  Sartoris, his son, sees the house of the Major de Spain as a sign of prosperity, a symbol of status and stability, something his life is devoid of; nevertheless, coming to this house gives him a sense of hope.  The negativity and contempt the father feels for his future employer, however, is clearly expressed both during, when he ruins the rug, and after, when he states: “He stood for a moment, planted stiffly on the stiff foot, looking back at the house. ‘ Pretty and white, ain’t it?’ he said.  ‘That’s sweat. Nigger sweat. Maybe it ain’t white enough yet to suit him.  Maybe he wants to mix some white sweat with it” (222).  This attitude he shows toward people of wealth is what creates friction in the story.

Contrary to statements like these, we learn from particular moments throughout the story that reveal he wasn’t always this way.  The tension in his character lifts at one point even when Snopes takes his sons into town, regardless of being late with the crops, unlike all the other farmers.  Stopping at the blacksmith shop, there is a moment where the reader is given a glimpse into Snopes’s former life: “His father and the smith and a third man squatting on his heels inside the door were talking, about crops and animals; the boy, squatting too in the ammoniac dust and hoof-parings and scales of rust, heard his father tell a long and unhurried story out of the time before the birth of the older brother even when he had been a professional horsetrader.  And then his father came up beside him where he stood before a tattered last year’s circus poster on the other side of the store, gazing rapt and quiet at the scarlet horses…” (Faulkner “Barn” 226).  The fact that he buys cheese for the three of them to eat and idles around a “tall rail fence… upon which men stood and sat” to watch horses trot back and forth in a ring seems out of character for the father up to this point in the narrative (227), quite in contrast to his stern demeanor toward his family witnessed earlier in the story.  Is this a moment into a former life, one that was prosperous and fulfilling, one that he ultimately lost touch with due to familial obligations or other reasons?  What ever this moment is, it is the source for his contempt.  He finds peace reminiscing about the days of his youth in these few moments with his boys.  It seems, though, that this is the source of his inner-turmoil, his regrets, his personal demons and why he takes his revenge out on people who did make it — by burning their barns, ruining their possessions, tarnishing the lives of others as his own life has been tarnished.

While the story seems predominantly about the Mr. Snopes, it is as much about his older son, “Colonel” Sartoris,  a boy who seems to be at conflict with this father’s actions.  The moral conflict rests between the father and the son, no one else.  All throughout the narrative, we get the sense that Sartoris is not happy with their overall situation — moving from house to house because of his father’s actions.  But he fears and respects his father’s motives for toying with fire at the same time: “The element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as the element of steel or of powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion” (Faulkner “Barn” 220).  While it is something he understands, there is a desire to reveal what is happening to the authorities, something his father picks up on in the beginning of the story and pulls him off to the side, away from the rest of the family to discuss.  Snopes strikes him with the flat of his hand and tells his son that “‘you got to learn.  You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you.  Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would?  Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?'”(220).   But Sartoris says nothing, thinking to himself, “‘If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again'” (220).  His father sees the same fire in his son and connects with him in many ways throughout the story.  The two of them are very much alike in how they respond to their environment: the father burning barns to express his repressed anger for his living conditions, and the son reacting rebelliously to this father’s lack of consideration for the family and for his emotional neglect.  All the other characters in the family are relatively passive and sheepish, settled in their misery with no one to help see their way out of it.  They rely on Snopes to survive, and he drags them into his downward spiral along the way.

Sartoris, his oldest son, is the one character in the story, though, who struggles with his father’s personal vendettas and constantly seeks to alleviate their burdens by convincing his father not to take his aggressions out with fire.  In the final act, where Snopes sets himself upon retribution toward Major de Spain for the high fine price from the ruined rug, Sartoris breaks away from the clutches of his mother and rushes off to the plantation to warn Major de Spain of his father’s intentions.  The act of betrayal towards his own bloodline is finalized when he hears shots ringing off in the distance.  Walking along the road, Sartoris walks away from the situation, liberated and free from the conflict embedded within his conscience.  The bond to his family is severed by his actions, and he never looks back at his family, reminders of the misery and emotional bondage enforced by his father.  Faulkner uses imagery and colors to work this motif throughout his story, too.  Although they are a white family, references to iron-like shades of black are constantly made throughout the story.  His father is often described as “a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tine and without heat like tin” (220).  This emotional emptiness on his father’s part is the poison that taints the well; it is the source of his anguish and his personal depression with the world around him.  It is the sickness of his human spirit.

Going back to that moment in Stockholm, Sweden, Faulkner finalizes his thoughts before the audiences of the Nobel prize committee as if he were referring to Sartoris, himself.  He says: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”  Having betrayed his father, the son walks into the night, among the whippoorwills and dark trees around him, and he does not look back.  He is immortalized in this moment of release, having saved his soul from the same moral corruption that haunted his father’s spirit.  His sacrifice is one that liberated, not only himself from the bonds of obligation at the expense of truth and justice, but also of his family.  Even though he walks away from them, he saves them from further punishments that might have came with his father’s neglect.  This can be seen as an act of mercy or of selfishness by the reader.  But in the end, he has learned his lesson in fear and is ready to take on the world before him, much in the same way Faulkner did himself when he sat down to write this story.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. “Banquet Speech” (1950).  Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Ed. Horst Frenz.  Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969. Nobelprize.org. Web. 05 Mar. 2013.

Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning” (1939). Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Ed. Ann B. Dobie. Boston: Heinle Thomson Learning, Inc. (2002): 217-229. Print.

Image source: “Barn Burning in Bellevue.” [Image]. Frompo. Frompo, 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2015.

Review of “The Wall” by Marlen Haushofer

(Reader’s note:  I wrote a series of notes on this review shortly after I finished reading the book, nearly a year ago, but I never managed to publish my thoughts until now.  Enjoy!)


The Wall

Now that I have finished reading The Wall, I will never think about our yearly vacations to the Austrian Alps the same way again.  It has been a growing tradition in our family to try to go skiing twice a year, once on Thanksgiving weekend and then again in March, at the end of the season.  For a couple of years we managed to do this yearly routine.  We would stay in a small village along the main road leading into the Oetztal valley. A small mountain brook fed by a waterfall some three hundred meters from the bedroom window and balcony ran by the vacation apartment where we stayed.  On the night of our arrival, we would go to bed early to have the chance to get to the slopes the following morning.  From there, we’d ski the whole day until before the last ski gondola would return to the valley below.  The view was always something to see.

Mountain pass panorama

Here is a panorama I took of the Austrian Alps the last time I went skiing in 2013.

I remember the first time I went skiing in the Alps.  Shortly after we’d arrived at the tallest lift station on the mountain, the wind picked up and a cold weather front came up over the neighboring mountain range.  It was really ominous, watching those milky clouds roll over the mountain like that.  I’d never seen clouds move the way they did.  There was nothing we could do but ski downhill.  We were in the mountains, and it was becoming clear that this would be my rites of passage, so to speak.  My partner went down the mountain with a cat-like grace, weaving this way and that. Clearly, thirty plus years of experience guided her the whole way down.  I could barely make a sweeping turn, on the other hand, what with this being my third time on skis.  I felt ridiculous as more and more experienced skiers passed me by.  What the hell am I doing way up here, I thought on more than one occasion.  Once, I had to side-step my way down the slope; it was just too steep for my skill level.  This and the pending doom that the clouds forbore only made me more anxious — and annoyed.  I still blame my partner for taking me down a red-diamond slope with a snowstorm just off the horizon. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy myself; after all, I did survive to tell the tale. What an adventure that snowstorm turned out to be, too.  A complete white-out at 2,500 meters.  I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone the path that I was skiing on.  There was nothing but raging snow, blowing this way and that, to remind me that I was on top of a mountain.  It was all one big blur, the whole three grueling hours of it.  Eventually I made it down to the middle station, drank a lot of Jägertee to calm my nerves and relaxed in the end at a thermal spa that evening, where I gave my aching muscles the rest they deserved.

Coming back to this book The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, I could think of nothing but my own experiences in the mountains as I read it.  How rugged and hazardous living there could be, especially if it was without the support of some fraction of civilization.  The thought of living alone, the way she does in the novel, with no one to aid, comfort or console you, is tormenting, not only for her but for us as readers, as well.  To consider how this story came to be is somewhat puzzling, too.  From one day to the next, she is alone, terribly alone, because of the wall:

I couldn’t see what he was so frightened of.  At this point the road emerged from the gorge, and as far as I could see it lay deserted and peaceful in the morning sun.  I reluctantly pushed the dog aside and went ahead on my own.  Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s [the dog] obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.  Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs.  Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air.  I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane.  Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears.  My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it  (Haushofer 8).

From this point on, this unnamed narrator struggles to survive in a world where only her and her animals exist.  All other traces of humankind are frozen on the other side of the wall, an invisible barrier that keeps her trapped within a mountain valley.  At one point during her survey of the valley, she describes a man she finds on the other side of the wall: “The man by the stream had fallen over and now lay on his back, his knees slightly bent, his cupped hand still on his way to his face.  He must have been knocked over in a storm.  He didn’t look like a corpse, more like something excavated from Pompeii…. rather like things that had never been alive, entirely inorganic” (Haushofer 45).  In the end, she finds companionship with the animals living with her inside the wall, her dog companion, Lynx, and several cats, who all help her maintain her sanity.  That, however, does not go untested without its trials and tribulations.  There is a return to nature of sorts in this novel and that means more than simply existing.  She is no different from the animals she natures and cares for in the novel, but at the same time, she is more than that.  She mostly tells us about her experiences behind the wall through a reflective journal, but traces of her thoughts, her memories are periodically forced to the surface throughout the text to reveal clues to her past.  And she struggles with those memories, for better or for worse.

Snowfall

Ultimately, she is alone.  Except for the many animals around her, she is terribly alone.  These animals become characters.  They take on a life of their own.  She survives because of them and they because of her.  The tragedy at the end of the novel rips the reader from the comfortable complacency that settles and takes hold and forces us to loath what happens — more so, how it happens.  To reveal this point in the plot would spoil the whole novel, but it is in this moment at the end that the strength of this female protagonist comes shining through.  Even after something tragic like this happens, she still goes on living.

Whether you look at the book from a feminist point of view, with the female protagonist struggling to survive in the mountains behind an invisible barrier or from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, with a hint of her isolation being self-imposed, almost as if she is living in a personal hell, if you will, one thing remains certain of this book:  it is not easy to analyze.  Some would argue that the novel is SF (science fiction), but the only reference that suggests any possibility for such a genre classification lies in the very early parts of the book, where she says something about “nuclear wars and their consequences” (Haushofer 3), but claiming it to be such is a bit far removed from any SF sub-genre I can think of.  It could very well be an existential novel, one where she must learn to find her place in nature.  There is one point in the book that I found to be supportive of this idea, and it rests with the appearance of a white crow:

This autumn a white crow appeared.  It always flies a little way behind the others, and settles alone on a tree avoided by its companions.  I can’t understand why the other crows doesn’t like it.  I think it’s a particularly beautiful bird, but the other members of its species find it repugnant.  I see it sitting alone in its spruce-tree staring over the meadow, a miserable absurdity that shouldn’t exist, a white crow…. It can’t know why it’s been ostracized; that’s the only life it knows.  It will always be an outcast and so alone that it’s less afraid of people than its black brethren.  Perhaps they find it so repugnant that they can’t even peck it to death.  Every day I wait for the white crow and call to it, and it looks at me attentively with its reddish eyes.  I can do very little for it.  Perhaps my scraps are prolonging a life that shouldn’t be prolonged.  But I want the white crow to live, and sometimes I dream that there’s another one in the forest and that they will find each other (222).

The white crow showing up is no coincidence in terms of the plot development, either.  It appears just before the tragedy and becomes a point highlighted by the narrator even again in the final lines of the story, after she’s lost everything else.  “The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest.  When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow.  It will already be waiting for me” (244).  It would be easy to link this white crow to her own character, an outcast of sorts, left to die alone, outside of the security of the flock.  The black crows are bully-ish, scavenging and taking what they want for themselves, carrion opportunists that would eagerly jump at the first chance for a meal.  But, this white crow is different.  It separates itself from the flock, much like our narrator, contrary to exile being involuntarily imposed on her.  Perhaps the ostracized bird is forced to stay away, too, a thought worth thinking about.

On a side note to my existential thoughts here, the crow was once commonly known to be white in Greek myth.  It was only through tragedy that the black crow was born.  According to Cassandra Eason from her handbook on Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols, the story goes that Coronis, the daughter to Phlegyes, became pregnant by the god Apollo, who left a white crow to watch over his beloved mistress at the city of Delphos.  Coronis, however, went off and married the hero, Ischys, despite her previous affections for the god.  Upon learning from the white crow that reported everything to him, Apollo slew Coronis and Ischys, and in his anger turned the crow black for being the bearer of bad news.  Apollo claimed the child born unto the world and named him Asclebius, who later became the healer semi-deity (66).  Seeing the symbolism of the white crow here as the bearer of bad news might help to foreshadow certain events in the novel, but that would require a certain amount of knowledge on Greek mythology to see it coming.

Whatever way you look at the book, there are many reasons why I feel this book is a genuine work of art.  Written by an Austrian writer who clearly had a way with the world she was raised in, Marlen Haushofer told a tale of isolation, despair, but above all else hope that is so convincing, it may very well bring you to tears.  If nothing else, it will leave you thinking about it for a very long time. This is the perfect novel to read on a cold, wintery day, albeit I would not recommend it for those who may be weary at heart or who find themselves easily depressed.  In fact, I would recommend drinking a hot cup of tea (perhaps a Chai) while reading it or going for a run once you’re done.  Whatever you do, though, go out and meet a friend or talk to a neighbor.  Go out and be social, because there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re alone, or taking for granted what may not be there someday.

Works Cited

Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008. Googlebooks. Web. 08 Aug. 2013.

Haushofer, Marlen. The Wall. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. Berkeley: Cleis Press, Inc., 2012.  Print.

Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. WordPress.com. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

“The Guest” from Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus

Exile and the Kingdom

Are we ever really alone?  There comes a point in your life when you realize that people are dependent on you, or vice verse.  Children are dependent on their parents; parents, in turn, are dependent on social commitments, for they have responsibilities to those whom they provide for.  Even if you don’t have children, you seek out connections with other people, whether those are through common interest or romance.  We want to feel connected to other people, and for good reason.  You’ll see this in a cafe, where people meet to socialize — in an office, where people are working together to see a task through — in a school, where children are learning about the world they live in — even in the “Lonely Hearts” column of a newspaper, where men and women of all ages seek out partners with subtly written adverts about themselves.  What I am doing right now, writing this critique, alone and to myself in the basement of my home, is a way for me to feel connected to others, such as yourselves, even if I don’t know you. 

David Copper, a professor of philosophy at the University of Durham, tells us that “a perennial concern of philosophy has been to confront an alienation of man from the world which science, language or metaphysical speculation may threaten…. Either man is just one more kind of thing in nature, or nature is itself a constituent of his consciousness” (Cooper 25).  To think about my desire to be surrounded or noticed by other human beings leaves me to think that it is inherent in my sense of self to do so.  After all, do I not learn a sense of who I am through others?  But, not everyone longs for this sense of connection.  There are those who desire to be distant, alone, introvert.  “The Guest” by Albert Camus, originally published in his collection of short stories Exile and the Kingdom in 1957, the same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, is clearly a story where the protagonist, Daru, is at odds with humanity.  He desires solitude, and that is what this story delivers, even at the expense of the moral consequences involved.

Largely inspired by the Algerian War during the 1950s, Camus writes about his protagonist’s struggles to accept what he is ordered to do in what would appear to be sympathies toward an Arab prisoner.  Whether those sympathies are drawn from his devotion toward helping others in need — the protagonist is after all a schoolmaster — or if they are more politically motivated, something that would not fall short of Camus’s talent, this remains unclear.  But, what we learn from the story is the protagonist’s desire to alleviate himself from this burdensome task.  No doubt, an analysis on the effects of isolation can be drawn from this story, even if Camus never intended for such a reading. 

The story begins with Balducci, an Army officer, bringing an Arab prisoner to Daru, the main protagonist who runs charity for impoverished people from a schoolhouse in the middle of the desert upon a plateau.  It is clear from early on that he wants to be alone at the schoolhouse, for his demeanor toward this officer and his charge are in the least bit welcoming.  He is astonished even when Balducci explains that the reason he is there is to pass the responsibility for the prisoner over to him, to take him to Tinguit, a nearby town, where both of them are expected at police headquarters.  This doesn’t settle well with Daru, so much so that he revolts against Balducci by refusing to hand this captive over to the authorities, even against the orders set upon him.

To Daru, this Arab prisoner placed in his charge disrupts the solace he has had upon this plateau in the desert.  Cooper summarizes the early nineteenth-century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel by telling us how alienation remains a fundamental feature of man’s consciousness.  That by separating himself, and thus opposing his very nature, he can remove himself from his natural life and become recluse in the new environment he finds himself in.  He quotes Hegel:  “Its subsequent history is that of further ‘withdrawal out of its happy natural life, into the night of self-consciousness’; followed by the long attempt to ‘reconstruct… the reality… from which it has been separated'” (qtd. in Cooper 26).  The Arab, suddenly in Daru’s presence, seems to represent “the night of self-consciousness” that Hegel discusses, for his company on this evening seems to upset the way Daru has chosen to live his life.  By living remotely in the desert, atop a plateau no less, Daru feels uneasy now when social obligations require him to watch an Arab prisoner, a person whose name we never even learn.

In the middle of the night, Daru was still not asleep.  He had gone to bed after undressing completely; he generally slept naked.  But when he suddenly realized that he had nothing on, he hesitated.  He felt vulnerable and the temptation came to him to put his clothes back on (Camus 253). 

In this first instance, he is made conscientious of his nakedness, a thought that never occurred to him in his isolation and a further indicator of how removed he is from society.  Could his hesitation be a sense of shame that he feels in the presence of another human being?  The Arab’s presence even rekindles thoughts of his life before he became secluded in the schoolhouse in the desert.

In this room where he had been sleeping alone for a year, this presence bothered him.  But it bothered him also by imposing on him a sort of brotherhood he knew well but refused to accept in the present circumstances.  Men who share the same rooms, soldiers or prisoners, develop a strange alliance as if, having cast off their armor with their clothing, they fraternized every evening, over and above their differences, in the ancient community of dream and fatigue (Camus 254). 

But the schoolmaster is not able to sleep, unlike the Arab who finds solace in company.  After all, there are subtle hints in the narration that reveal Daru’s nonchalant demeanor toward the prisoner.  He doesn’t fulfill the role of a jailor in the same sense as Balducci from earlier in the story; rather, he is annoyed by the Arab and seeks to distance himself from the prisoner by remaining defiant against the orders issued to him.  The Arab knows his sense of purpose, even if that is to live in confinement as a prisoner.  Daru, however, is at odds with his new-found responsibilities, for he doesn’t recognize his obligations in the same way.  He motivates himself only in ways to be rid of his commitment to this prisoner. 

His final decision in the story is what releases him of his association to the prisoner, allowing him to return to the life he had before.  His thoughts are clear on his motivations for this decision, too, when it is made known:

That man’s stupid crime revolted him, but to hand him over was contrary to honor.  Merely thinking of it made him smart with humiliation.  And he cursed at one and the same time his own people who had sent him this Arab and the Arab too who had dared to kill and not managed to get away (Camus 255). 

Instead of delivering him personally to the “administration and the police”, to save his face from the statements he made to Balducci earlier in the story, he releases him — gives him food and money even — to turn himself in to the authorities for his crime.  Confused by this at first, the Arab reluctantly goes off into the distance and eventually disappears, the reader not knowing if his journey will be a liberating one.  Daru, however, is glad to be rid of the responsibility forced onto him and returns back to the school.  We find traces for his reluctance to leave made known to us earlier in the story:  “This is the way the region was, cruel to live in, even without men — who didn’t help matters either.  But Daru had been born here.  Everywhere else, he felt exiled” (Camus 248).  There are many reasons for his staying behind: his sense of honor keeps him from going to town to deliver his prisoner; his home being the only place where he feels at ease and himself; and his reluctance to give up his solitude.  As Cooper points out about the Existentialist, the only way to really exercise a true sense of freedom is to break away from the “‘Public’, the ‘herd’ or the ‘they'”, which will undeniably cause confrontation when he finds himself in contact with society again (33).  I think this is true of Camus’s protagonist, a character for whom we find taking extreme measures to remain in isolation, to remain distant and removed from society.  They are extreme in that his decision, his sense of honor even, goes against the moral reasons for the prisoner being in his custody to begin with.  This man committed a crime — he murdered his cousin — so to release him the way Daru does conflicts with society’s laws, but this is nothing he concerns himself with.  He takes these measures for the sake of remaining in his solitude.  In essence, he is a hermit, alone on his plateau.  He chooses to remain alienated and distant from everyone else, regardless of the consequences he may face for having done so.  The last line of the story ends with the very word that we can imagine is on his mind the whole time: alone.

It remains a relative question then as to whether a person can really be alone.  There may be a desire to distant one’s self from family or friends, much like Daru has done by taking up residence at the schoolhouse in the desert.  Society, though, will always be there and will always keep tabs on its constituents, much like the officer Balducci does, when he comes bearing orders for Daru.  This implies that Daru was thought about at some earlier point when the Arab prisoner was apprehended.  While Daru may have been alone in his schoolhouse, someone in town was thinking about him.  Why else would the officer take the prisoner up to him in the first place?  If nothing else, it serves as a good backdrop for a narrative, which Camus has made into an enjoyable story.  As to the question of whether someone can ever truly be alone, at least in my mind, it remains to be seen. 

Works Cited

 Camus, Albert. “The Guest” from Exile and the Kingdom (1957). eFictions. eds. Joseph Trimmer, C. Wade Jennings, and Annette Patterson. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc., 2002. 247-256. Print. 

Cooper, David A. Existentialism: A Reconstruction. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999. Print.

 

Review of “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk

Fight ClubPerusing through the bookstore the other day, I chanced upon this book in one of the more remote corners of the shelf and thought how this was a book I had yet to read.  At the time Fight Club was being released in theaters, I was joining the U.S. Armed Forces and was on my way to basic training.  I had never heard of Chuck Palahniuk, nor of his novel and only learned about the story, like so many others, through the film adaptation starring a young Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.  Its cinematic release was an instant hit that captivated even younger men like myself, who for whatever reason romanticized the notion of fisticuffs.  The idea of fighting, openly at that, was both foreign and innate.  It was something you just didn’t do, but secretly wanted to.  Basic combat training, or Boot camp, was the perfect outlet then for this strange fascination that beset many of my peers.  Hand-to-hand in the sand pits of Fort Sill was where we vented our frustrations, but for what exactly?  Were we upset about things in the same way Tyler Durden and the unnamed narrator in Fight Club were?  Was there something more deeply rooted going on amongst those of us “men” who became infatuated with Chuck Palahniuk’s work?  Having since read the book, I look back at that time in my life, at a pivotal moment really, and see how I was moving on from that small town (“corn-fed” as my uncle called it) mentality, moving on to bigger and better things — what those “things” were I had yet at the time to figure out exactly, but I was moving on, nonetheless.  Considering all that the 90’s represented, a conundrum of cultural shifts and fluxes, the decadents of a century, moreover a millennium, taking form for us through boyish tendencies and primal acts of infighting, Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel definitely offered a fresh look at the counter-culture that was emerging in response to these shifting dynamics that were marking the turn of the millennium.  Like his protagonist, I was also at a turning point in my life and needed something to change.  And that was what this book was ultimately about — change.

In many ways, Fight Club is an uncomplicated book from a narrative standpoint; its short chapters (a total of 30 over a 208-page novel) reveal a sequence of unlawful events that are seemingly piece-mailed together and make up the basic premise of the story: the unnamed narrator who meets Tyler Durden, who forms Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization devoted to the oxymoronic notion of organized anarchy, who becomes victim to his own whims.  One reviewer puts what this book is doing well into perspective, where the initial fight forms the club, a “new religion and secret society for males who want to reclaim their instincts as hunters within a society that has turned them into consumers. Fight Club provides a space in which men can transcend the reality of their lifestyle, their jobs, and their bodies. The club begins to present the body as a site of power and resistance to its followers, through violence and destruction” (Byrne).    This transcendence taking place occurs through a baptism in pain, with the temple of the body being cleansed of its repression.  It is in this transformation that we find the real complexity to Fight Club, the story, emerging.

The First Rule of Fight Club…

And painfully complex it was.  Not the kind of pain you would associate to a woman during childbirth.  That kind of pain is real and intrinsic; no, the pain dealt with in this book was expressed in one of the only ways a man can express his pain, outwardly, in a violent kind of way.  Not necessarily so in the beginning of the book, though; not while the unnamed narrator (from this point on, known only as first person for the consistent use of “I” throughout the book) was sulking in his misery, looking for an outlet.  No, first person was taking his pathetic existence to a whole new pessimistic level, one that seems iconic for Palahniuk, based on what I gather from an impression of his other works.  First person finds some sort of relief by going to support groups for terminally ill people  — Chloe suffering from her brain parasite from the group “Catch-Up Rap” being a good example (Palahniuk 35) –and these narratives are what give him his release.  “‘You cry,’ Bob [with testicular cancer] says and inhales and sob, sob, sobs. ‘Go on now and cry.’  The big wet face settles down on top of my head, and I am lost inside.  This is when I’d cry…. Anything you’re ever proud of will be thrown away.  And I’m lost inside.  This is as close as I’ve been to sleeping in almost a week” (17).  As early as chapter 2, we’re offered this look at his release and how absorbed he becomes in the painful existences of those he visits in these groups.  All of this, his “vacation” as he calls it, is interrupted the moment Marla Singer enters the picture.  “The only woman here at Remaining Men Together, the testicular cancer support group, this woman smokes her cigarette under the burden of a stranger, and her eyes come together with mine.  Faker. Faker. Faker” (18).  The irony of First person’s commentary not withheld.  The impact of her presence is revealing to his inner turmoil.  He confesses:

Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt.  I wasn’t host to cancer or blood parasites; I was the little warm center that the life of the world crowded around.  And I slept.  Babies don’t sleep this well.  Every evening, I died, and every evening, I was born.  Resurrected. (22)

This is not the only time the theme of resurrection is brought up in the book.  Enter Tyler Durden.

First person goes to support groups for release.  Marla Singer ruins his outlet by revealing herself as a faker, forcing him to recognize the truth of it — that he’s a faker, too — so we are then introduced to Tyler Durden, the hero of the novel of sorts who challenges First person to take control of his life.  “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time” (Palahniuk 29), the book often reminds us.  Add the insomnia first person starts the book off with, and those become very long minutes.  That leaves plenty of time to think about it ending.  It is more about existing than it is living, and the misery of first person is compounded all the more by the underlying themes of consumerism found throughout the story.  Tyler Durden is the one character who grounds first person to what is real.  He forces first person to take a look at himself, to break away from his life of commodity, to regain control of his life.  As Palahniuk tells the reader in the afterword of his book, “Really what I was writing was just The Great Gatsby, updated a little.  It was ‘apostolic’ fiction — where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero.  There are two men and a woman.  And one man, the hero, is shot to death” (Afterword 216).  Before we can reiterate the resurrection reference made in the previous paragraph and in Palahniuk’s words quoted here, we should jump back to the 90s to look at that cultural shift that was happening.

Looking Back

Countless sources will vouch for the fact that this is a story about masculinity.  Palahniuk himself tells us even that his story is about masculinity, challenged by a feminist ideal that, at the time, was prevalently being displayed throughout many pop cultural references.  He writes about the motivations that inspired him to write Fight Club:

At the time, I’d seen a Bill Moyer television program about how street gangs were really young men raised without fathers, just trying to help one another become men… At the same time, the bookstores were full of books like The Joy Luck Club and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and How to Make an American Quilt.  These were all novels that presented a social model for women to be together.  To sit together and tell their stories.  To share their lives.  But there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives. (Palahniuk, Afterword 214)

The point in his quote about street gangs raising men without fathers is worthy of attention as these very words are found coming from one of the disciples for Project Mayhem, who lectures to first person, as if to check his devotion: “If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God.  And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?…What you end up doing… is you spend your life searching for a father and God… What you have to consider… is the possibility that God doesn’t like you.  Could be, God hates us” (Palahniuk 141).  This insightful quote reveals a lot about the Freudian issues at work in the protagonist, along with all the other males that are found in this book; they are all men with daddy issues lashing out against a society where everything is provided for and men have no purpose but to be a part of it.  Pain and fear is the only truth that reminds us of who we are, our individuality, Palahniuk seems to tell us, and that gives us a sense of our own self worth.  Our ability to conquer this is what shows the strength of our resolve.  This is why Project Mayhem operatives go out searching for people, forcing them at gun point to explain what they want to do with their lives, because from one day to the next, it could all end.  It is existential thinking at its finest.  The same way of thinking took place during the 1890s, during the Fin-de-Siecle.

To Be Resurrected

From all that can be seen of the fighting and terrorist acts, the book is not nihilistic, contrary to what some reviewers think (“Fight Club“).  It is about depression on a massive scale.  On a generational scale.  An entire generation of men, who don’t feel like themselves, who don’t really feel like they are men, who have been raised fatherless by women, who are repressed.  When you’re a man, you’ll likely agree that this is hardly anything new for a man to do, to repress his feelings and hide how he really feels, which brings us back to one of the reemerging themes of the book — resurrection.  First person rationalizes with us after his first few fights that “maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer.  Tyler never knew his father [imagine that].  Maybe self-destruction is the answer.”  Later, first person rationalizes with us further in saying that “I’m nowhere near hitting the bottom, yet.  And if I don’t fall all the way, I can’t be saved.  Jesus did it with his crucifixion thing…. This isn’t just a weekend retreat.  I should run from self-improvement, and I should be running toward disaster…. ‘If you lose your nerve before you hit the bottom,’ Tyler says, ‘you’ll never really succeed.’  Only after disaster can we be resurrected” (Palahniuk 70).  This life lesson can be explained when we take a look at the writings of Richard Hilbert in his understandings for chronic pain.  Pain in many ways is a subculture.  Culture tells us how to identify and define pain, but when the pain becomes too much, too overwhelming, we look for extrinsic ways to cope with it.  The key to this process is social interaction (365).  Fight club is just that.  Like the Church or any other organization, support group, what have you, it is through others that we learn to cope with our pain.  Tyler emerges from the narrator as the motivating force for this expression of inner pain.  Without Tyler, the first person would continue to go about his daily affairs, living in his condo filled with commercial commodities, surrounded and alone with things he doesn’t need.  Like the deeply repressed feelings of abandonment and displacement, Tyler comes forth into first person’s world, serving as the expression he needs to cope with his inner pain, his spiritual pain, and it is through Tyler that he bonds with other men who are feeling the same way.  Fight club represents the social interaction these men otherwise do not have.  It is their coping mechanism.

Fighting is what helps to actualize this spiritual pain, to bring it to the surface.  Otherwise, it stays cooped up inside, repressed, like the notion of being fatherless.  These men who take part in Fight Club are searching for something meaningful, something more than the lifeless houses they surround themselves with: “I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct.  The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue” (Palahniuk 43).  The doorman of first person’s complex tells us after we finish reading about our narrator’s apartment being blown up, “if you don’t know what you want, you end up with a lot you don’t” (46).  Fight Club and Project Mayhem are simply the means of taking back control of their lives, to break away from the routine and materialism that would otherwise confine them, to help them truly feel alive.  To be resurrected.

And, this is what boot camp did for me.  It gave me control of my life.  I would not be where I am today had I not experienced similar feelings at that point in my life.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I felt repressed or abandoned.  I have rather fond memories of my childhood, and my father was always there whenever my sister or I needed him.  Instead, I believe it lies more in the fact that I needed more control over my life.  I needed to feel like I was doing something for myself.  The military enabled me to find a sense of myself, much in the same way fight club enabled first person to get a better grip over his own inner turmoil and spiritual anguish.  Fight club is as much about brotherhood and bonding as the military is, what with its camaraderie and unit cohesion.  While the book is extremely pessimistic in its approach to conveying this deeply rooted observation about men in turn-of-the-century society, even embellishing the details about male angst to a large degree, I believe it conveys the feelings all young men go through at a period in their lives: striving to find a sense of themselves.  We do this by relating to others.

Works Cited

Byrne, Chrystal. “Fight Club — Book Review.” Weekend Notes. On Top Media, Ltd. 01 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

“Fight Club.” Kirkus Review. Kirkus Media, LLC, 20 May. 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Hilbert, Richard. “The Acultural Dimensions of Chronic Pain: Flawed Reality Construction and the Problem of Meaning.” Social Problems 31.4 (Apr. 1984): 365-378. JSTOR. Web. 10 Jul. 2013.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. London: Vintage, 1997. Print.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Afterword. Fight Club. London: Vintage, 1997. 209-218. Print.

Review of “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

Four years ago on the 27th of January, J.D. Salinger died in his home at Cornish, New Hampshire, having lived to the ripe old age of 91 years.  In his life time, he was famously known for his novel The Catcher in the Rye (Catcher), which was considered one of the prominent novels of the 20th century by Time but, in many of the same ways, has been widely challenged by censoring boards across the globe who view its message as more unorthodox and have seen it as so since it was first published in 1951.  Perhaps its popularity can be attributed to the fact that it has been deemed so controversial.  In fact, there are many dialogues happening to this day that attempt to take Catcher off of school reading lists.  The American Library Association (ALA) even ranks the novel as one of the most censored books of the 20th century, but why?  Where does the controversy exist?  I decided to reread Catcher for another look at what makes this book as widely discussed and timeless as it is, even four years after Salinger’s death.  In knowing about Catcher and its widely volatile nature amongst parents, I find it safe to say that this book is widely misunderstood by anyone who seeks to ban it.

First Impression of Catcher

The book is about Holden Caulfield, our protagonist who is an antihero of sorts, a teenager who seems to find trouble wherever he goes.  Throughout the novel, Caulfield offers numerous insights into the world of 1950s America.  Narrating his own personal accounts, we depend on him to describe, often with honest brutality, the way life is for him, but this is somewhat problematic for the reader, especially when he tells us early on in the novel that he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life” (Salinger 16).  I was on my guard, waiting for him to tell me that it was all made up, and that I had been suckered into reading about his Christmas break from school that year; however, this revelation never came, and I was left to ponder his reliability as a narrator, judging him and his actions along the way.

Yet, this is not what makes Catcher a controversial book.  The controversy seems to lie on everything one finds along the surface of the novel.  In fact, a long list of reasons for all the censoring boards across the country that have banned Catcher from being read by their schools has been published in Robert Doyle’s book, Banned Books: Challenging our Freedom to Read, and may be found on the ALA’s website.  Reasons often include the typical buzzwords, such as excessive or unacceptable sexual references and profanity; vulgar language; “anything dealing with the occult;” obscene, premarital sex, alcohol abuse and prostitution; statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled; for it being “anti-white” and “obscene;”  for its “lurid passages about sex;” for being centered around negative activity; for its use of the ‘F’ word; for strong sexual situations; and a plethora of other reasons.  One source even goes as far as to challenge the book for being “blasphemous and undermin[ing] morality,” while another disgruntled parent called it a “filthy, filthy book” (qtd. in Banned and/or Challenged Books).  With each of these “reasons” spanning from parents in towns like Marysville, California, to places as far away as Savannah, Georgia, it is clear that this book causes friction when it is made out to be required reading in high school English classes.  Just from the rough sketch made out above, it is easy to see what makes Catcher appear as a “bad” book for adolescents to be influenced by.

Language and vulgarity, sexually explicit content and prostitution, and lastly, morality and Godlessness seem to make up the general consensus for why parents despise this book so much, but are these solid grounds to stand on for removing a book entirely from a school’s curriculum, especially when these have no bearing on what the book is really about?  Is there nothing that can be learned from it, these “vulgarities” serving merely as reasons for parents to jump on the bandwagon of censorship?  This book is clearly not just about teenage rebellion and adolescence struggling to find its own identity; rather, it is about society and learning our place in it.  As one scholar wrote, “Catcher in the Rye captured the zeitgeist, a particular way of looking at the world we share” (qtd. in “Catcher in the Rye Author”).  In almost every way, this book is about the status quo and applies just as much to today’s society as it did to society of the 1950s.

A Deeper Look at Catcher

While offensive language is seemingly noticeable throughout the novel, it should be stated for the record that the profanity we read actually plays a significant role in understanding  Caulfield.  “Goddam” is the strongest, and most frequently, used expression in the whole book, and it is used quite regularly, I will confess.  In fact, the word is used 12 times over two pages, let alone the rest of the book, but this is only because at this particular point he is upset with Jane Gallagher, a girl he secretly admires, for dating someone whom he considers a “phonie.”  This emotional outburst of cursing is nothing new in the way of profanities.  In fact, John Nicholas Beffel writes about “the lost art of profanity” in a 1925 column for The Nation, claiming that “nobody has a profane vocabulary any more, there is no variety in oaths, nothing unique, no artistry, no sparkle.  Everybody uses the same words in swearing. This indisputable fact is of course chargeable to the universal trend toward standardization in the United States…Originality faces starvation. Artists get no encouragement.  Emotion is at a low ebb.  Passion is gone from us” (270).  When it is put this way, the swearing Caulfield does in the book becomes somewhat relative and heartless, if what Beffel is saying is true about the “old-time brimstone language” of yesterday, particularly when we consider Caulfield’s profane, but limited, use of vocabulary in a modern context.   This book’s use of profanity, in all aspects, is relatively mild to what people generally hear throughout the media, especially when it is compared to how vulgar and sexist the music industry is today — a form of expression that has far more influence over modern audiences than the book Catcher has.  Maybe profanity is making a come-back but not within the context of this book.

When we check language and vulgarity off of the list, we find strong sexually explicit content to be next among the reasons for finding this book offensive.  After all, what kind of book about adolescent rebellion would you have if it didn’t include a few points about the self-indulgent, sexually impulsive tendencies that teenage boys often experience?  Perhaps we forget in his dialogue that Caulfield is only 16 years old.  It’s easy to do, actually, when you consider his mannerisms and outlooks read more like the author’s, the musings of a 32 year old man with a message to make.  To be disgruntled over the sexually explicit content of this book is to really do the book an injustice, as it’s not about Caulfield’s urges at all, but how he deals with them. Sure, he tells the bellhop on his way back up to his room that he’s interested in a “lil’ tail” when he’s asked, but he tells us that, “I was a little nervous. I was starting to feel pretty sexy and all, but I was a little nervous anyway.  If you want to know the truth, I’m a virgin.  I really am” (Salinger 92).  He then continues to explain to us why.  “The trouble with me is, I stop.  Most guys don’t.  I can’t help it…. I keep stopping.  The trouble is, I get to feeling sorry for them” (92).  This is not the kind of dialogue we would expect from a lustful teenager, but it is one example of the inner turmoil Caulfield has when trying to come to terms with what he feels are his shortcomings.  When Sunny, the prostitute, arrives to his room, his nervousness for losing his virginity amounts to nothing that parents should be concerned over in the long run.  He only ends up  feeling sorry for her in the end: “It made me feel sort of sad when I hung it [her dress] up.  I thought of her going in a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all.  The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it.  It made me feel sad as hell — I don’t know why exactly” (96).  He feels sorry for people like this all throughout the book, which reveals a lot about his overall demeanor.

In fact, we learn a lot about his personal beliefs in this way.  Take, for instance, his beliefs in God.  It’s easy to recognize where a lot of the controversy comes into play with this aspect of the book.  Many of the censors argue that the book is grounded with immoral content, with Godlessness, yet the pity he feels for the prostitute in the earlier paragraph shows that he isn’t an immoral character.  He is actually distraught over many things that happen over the course of the story.  At one point, Caulfield even openly reveals his personal beliefs to the reader.  He tells us, “In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist.  I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible” (Salinger 99).  To come forward openly with his beliefs like this for the sake of continuity in the story immediately sets him apart from the sympathy of the reader who may disagree with him.  His atheism defines him, establishing what many opponents of this book believe to be immoral and misguided.  At the same time, we as readers should be careful not to misjudge him.  He is not an immoral character.  He attracts our sympathies on several occasions: first, his curiosity as a teenage boy for the prostitute and his plea for conversation over sex; secondly, the two nuns he meets while having breakfast at the diner and his conversation with one of them about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; and lastly, his dialogue with old Sally at the Radio City Ice-skating rink.  All of these scenarios reveal information about Caulfield that require us to look at him as more than just a rebelling teen, but as someone who is struggling to find himself in the world around him, maybe even Salinger himself.

A Deeper Look at Caulfield

Taking a closer look at the dialogue he shares with Sally shows us where the real issues in the novel begin to emerge.  After skating with old Sally on the ice — “there were at least a couple of hundred rubbernecks that didn’t have anything better to do than stand around and watch everybody falling all over themselves” (Salinger 129) — Caulfield pulls Sally off for a cigarette and a coke, where he tells her a lot about the turmoil that seems to bother him.  This is a revealing moment for us, the readers, as it offers some insight into the reasons why he calls everyone a “phony,” a word he uses all throughout the book to describe people he meets.  Everyone is a phony to Caulfield, even Sally, the girl sitting across from him, listening to him,  his excitement for finally finding someone he can talk to.  This is the first point in the whole book that he tells someone other than us, the readers, that he sees the world full of “phonies,” or people who he feels are otherwise superficial, fake or shallow.  He asks Sally, “Did you ever get fed up?  I mean did you ever get scared that everything was going to go lousy unless you did something?  I mean do you like school, and all that stuff?”  Her reply — “It’s a terrific bore (original emphasis)” (130).  He continues:

“You ought to go to a boys’ school sometime.  Try it sometime, it’s full of phonies, and all you do is study so that you can learn enough to be smart enough to be able to buy a goddam Cadillac some day and you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses, and all you do is talk about girls and liquor and sex all day, and everybody sticks together in these dirty little goddam cliques” (131).

He is opening up to her, bestowing his trust and his personal opinions upon her, because he wants her to take a risk with him.  To leave everything behind and to start a new life, with no obligations or ties to anything or anyone but themselves.  He tries to convince her of what he sees all around him, but Sally still wants to experience life as it’s expected of her, “college… and marriage and all” (Salinger 133).  In the end, she is just a girl who knows nothing and cares nothing — “you could tell she wanted me to change the damn subject” (131) — for Caulfield’s disgruntled views toward society.  She fails to see what he wants from her, suggesting that it is not he who has lost sight of what’s good for him, rather that society has become a dull and drab existence of status symbols and “phony” appeasement, something that makes him “depressed as hell” (133).  Caulfield is the type of character who longs for genuine experiences, genuine emotions, and he realizes by the end of the chapter that he hasn’t found them with old Sally, the girl he exposes his true feelings to — and he laughs at her: “The whole thing was sort of funny, in a way, if you thought about it, and all of a sudden I did something I shouldn’t have, I laughed.  And I have one of these very loud, stupid laughs” (134).  This is the source of his angst — growing up to fulfill the status quo.  He wants to break away from it by any means that he can.

We detect his longing for honest and unadulterated people at several points throughout the novel too.  He admires the people he meets in his life who are genuine, authentic and true to themselves.   The feelings he has for Jane, for example, tell us that “all you knew was, you were happy.  You really were” (Salinger 79).  Everyone else depresses him.  Sadly, Jane is the one person he can’t share these feelings with.  He feels the same way for his deceased brother, Allie, who died from leukemia at an earlier point in Caulfield’s life, which explains a lot about his inner-turmoil and anguish.  Allie’s death, after all, was a tragic moment for him to deal with: “I was only thirteen, and they were going to have me psychoanalyzed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage.  I don’t blame them [his parents].  I really don’t.  I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it” (39).  Caulfield is only three years older as he’s telling the story of Catcher, so it’s a strong possibility that his feelings for the loss of his brother are a strong source of his angst toward society.

He can’t look to his parents for help with this inner conflict, either, as he feels his father represents the very thing he’s disgruntled with — the material world around him, the status quo.  “What I don’t spend, I lose.  Half the time I sort of even forget to pick up my change, at restaurants and night clubs and all.  It drives my parents crazy.  You can’t blame them.  My father’s quite wealthy, though.  I don’t know how much he makes… but I imagine quite a lot.  He’s a corporation lawyer” (107).  His well-to-do parents are one reason for this blame game he puts himself through and how he rationalizes his own behavior when he’s up to no good.  In fact, he feels like a source of shame to his parents, especially with the circumstances surrounding his expulsion from school.  “She [his mother] hasn’t felt too healthy since my brother Allie died.  She’s very nervous.  That’s another reason why I hated like hell for her to know I got the ax again” (107).  One review written in an editorial for Life said that Holden Caulfield “is a misfit, but he is no freak; and his virtues and vices are peculiar to his generation.  Holden, for example, is no rebel; he willingly accepts the blame for his own failures. But while he does not dispute ‘the system’ he mentally punishes the many individuals who elicit his favorite adjective, ‘phony'” (“A Generation of Esthetes?” 96).  And punish them he does — he lets us know that these phonies are all about possessions and materialism, while he himself is suffering from loss.  In many ways, he is no better.  Are these not “virtues and vices” that our present generation of youth could learn from?  To owe up to your own actions?  To be responsible for yourself?

Understanding Catcher

Caulfield is a character with many flaws, and this is what makes him the widely discussed fictional character that he is.  It isn’t that he represents adolescent rebellion against all parents; to think this is to read the book the wrong way, to scream “CENSOR!” at the first profane word he uses, and to brand it an icon of the unruly.  On the contrary, Catcher is a book with a deeply embedded message about the status quo and the materialistic ways society drives us to fulfill them.  It is a coming-of-age novel about the struggles of finding our identities amongst a culture saturated with forceful impressions and advertisements that want you only to talk about their products for the sake of more sales.  We are defined by the products we buy, and Caulfield (moreover Salinger) realizes this.  It is a novel about identifying who we are and where we should be going.  Stephen Metcalf tells us in a tribute he wrote for Salinger shortly after his death in the e-zine, Slate, what Catcher meant for him: “Like many of my fellow pilgrims, I hit adolescence only to discover my autobiography had already been written; plagiarized, in fact, by a man named J.D. Salinger who, in appropriating to himself my inner mass of pain and confusion, had given me the unlikely name of ‘Holden Caulfield.'” Any sensible person who reaches the conclusion of the book without jumping on the censoring bandwagon probably feels the same way.  How can a book about teenage rebellion that has been dedicated to the author’s own mother, for whatever reasons therein may lie, be anything other than an apology for his own misbehavior as a teen?  If he was anything like myself, or Stephen Metcalf, or even you, sensible reader, then this book speaks about nothing more than being a teenager and fitting in.  We can all call ourselves ‘Holden Caulfield’ in this way, so Catcher is only as controversial as you or I.

Works Cited

“A Generation of Esthetes?” [Editorial]. Life. Time, Inc. 26 Nov. 1951. Google Books. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

“Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” ALA.org. American Library Association, Banned and Challenged Books, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Beffel, John Nicholas. “The Lost Art Of Profanity.” Nation 123.3194 (1926): 270-272. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Jan. 2013

“‘Catcher in the Rye’ Author Leaves Behind Tales of Teen Angst.” PBS.org. Newshour, extra. MacNeil-Lehrer Productions, 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Metcalf, Stephen. “Salinger’s Genius.” Slate. The Slate Group, 28 Jan. 2010. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print.