One of the most important aspects of J.D Salinger’s [1919 — 2010] literature is the position and the situation of the narrator. Even when he uses the third person — which is supposed to be more distant and impartial —, the narrator of the stories is somehow too close to the main character’s point of view.
Many other writers work with unreliable narrators, but, unlike them, Salinger’s characters hardly arouse the reader’s suspicion. This happens because his characters are always nice people. They do nothing wrong. They do not commit any homicide and treat the reader as a jury, like the narrator of “The Black Cat”, by Edgar Allan Poe, for example. They are just fine regular people with nothing to hide.
Nevertheless, the narrator in Salinger is unreliable. He is not hiding a body or a crime, but, almost always, he is a member of the character’s family, so he tries to convey a good image of the family and distorts or hides any trouble spot. Salinger’s narrator are in some way, press agent of the protagonists. Buddy Glass, the narrator of many short stories written by Salinger — like “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction” — is Seymour’s brother, the second most famous character of his work. Is it possible to believe anything he says?
In Seymour’s case, for example, the sticking point that the narrator attempts to hide is the reason of his suicide. Seymour’s suicide just does not fit in the perfect profile that Buddy draws to him.
In Salinger’s literature, the issue is not only the family or exclusively the existence of a blood bond between the characters and, sometimes, the narrator. What Salinger actually establishes is the idea that communication and understanding are only possible between equals. Obviously, the very notion of communication implies the sharing of a certain background. For two people to communicate, they must share a code understood by both and some basic concepts, at least.
Salinger’s main characters, however, seem to radicalize this notion considering that communication is possible only within its “closed circuits”, as pointed out by the American author, critic and political activist Mary McCarthy in “JD Salinger’s Closed Circuit” .
A good example of this notion of communication only between people who share a strong bond and likeness is given in “Franny and Zooey”, in the dialogue between Zooey Glass — Seymour and Buddy’s brother — and his mother, Bessie.
At one point the dialogue, Bessie says:
“You either take to somebody or you don’t. If you do, then you do all the talking and nobody can ever get a word in edgewise. If you don’t like somebody — which is most of time — then you just sit around like death itself and let the person talk themself into a hole. I’ve seen you do it”. [...] “‘You do’, she said, without accusation in her voice. ‘Neither you nor Buddy know how to talk to people you don’t like’. She thought it over. ‘Don’t love, really’, she amended. And Zooey continued to stand gazing at her, not shaving. ‘It’s not right’, she said — gravely, sadly. ‘You’re getting so much like Buddy used to be when he was your age. Even your father’s noticed it. If you don’t like somebody in two minutes, you’re done with them forever’”.
According to Mrs. McCarthy, Salinger and Hemingway are the two greatest writers to see the world as an opposition between friends and enemies of their characters:
“Again the theme is the good people against the stupid phonies, and the good is still all in the family, like a family-owned ‘closed’ corporation…. Outside are the phonies, vainly signaling to be let in.”
In the case of the dialogue above, between Bessie and Zooey Glass, the “phony” in question is Lane Coutelle, Franny’s [younger sister of the family] boyfriend. Zooey even tries to explain why he considers his sister’s boyfriend an idiot. For him, this is a truism:
“‘[...] Well, I hate to disillusion you, but I’ve sat by the hour with him and he’s not sweet at all. He’s a charm boy and a fake. Incidentally, somebody around here’s been shaving their armpits or their Goddam legs with my razor. Or dropped it. The head’s way out of—’
‘Nobody’s touched your razor, young man. Why is he a charm boy and a fake, may I ask?’
‘Why? Because he is, that’s all. Probably because it’s paid off’.”
The same family also disapproves Seymour’s wife, Muriel, using pejorative adjectives like “fake”, which leads us to believe that this is not a very receptive family to relatives’ lovers and even when they try to break into the closed circuit through the marriage it seems not to work at all.
One of the most constant themes in Salinger’s literature is childhood. Many of his characters are children — like Esme in the short story “For Esme With Love and Squalor” — or adolescents — like Holden Caulfield in “The Catcher in the Rye” — or young adults who talk a lot about childhood — as Buddy Glass in “Seymour — an introduction.”
The childhood theme — as pointed out by André Carvalho, a grad student from USP, in his dissertation “J.D Salinger: questões críticas”  — is closely related to the family issue:
“In giving privilege to the representation of childhood, Salinger may have been forced to deal with those who are closer to each other in this time of life [ie family, especially siblings]. Thus, it is understood that there is little room for the world of work and marriage, spheres, in our society, appear only as a form of adults’ socialization”.
So, the poor reception to the in-laws appears as a double reaction, first to the attempt of “barbaric invasion” to the closed circuit, and then to the fact that the brother — who is now an adult with an independent life from the family — had grown up.
In his article “The Eye of Innocence”, 1962, the American literary critic Leslie Fiedler works on the issue of childhood in Salinger and Mark Twain’s literature as a formal device. According to him, these authors’ narrative is made according to the child’s point of view even when the narrator is, by chance, a teenager or young adult.
The peculiarity of the child’s eye is that they sees the adult world through a “keyhole”. That is, they see the world, they can understand their problems and lack of nobility, but they do not need do participate yet in all this.
In Salinger’s short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” that issue — the standpoint of child — appears sharply. The plot shows the encounter between Mary Jane and Eloise, two ex-college classmates. Eloise — Ramona’s mother and mistress of the house where the two meet — recalls the past while holding out just how dissatisfied she is with her current life.
The story presents a contrast between the cheerful young woman Eloise was and the careless mother and unsympathetic boss she became. The fact that her daughter lives in a fantasy world and barely communicates with her mother reinforces the impression that Eloise left behind any understanding of childhood, which makes the communication with Ramona impossible.
At the end of the story, Eloise deals with Ramona harshly, ignoring the presence of her daughter’s imaginary friend — Ramona sleeps on the side of the bed to make room for her imaginary boyfriend — and forcing her to sleep in the center of the bed.
At this point, Eloise takes her daughter’s glasses — Ramona is blind as a bat — and rubs in her own face. Immediately, the mother’s tears water the daughter’s glasses, as if, through the glasses, Eloise had been able to reach the child’s point of view, the “innocence” she had lost one day.
Then, Eloise goes back to the room where Mary Jane is waiting for her and shakes her friend while asking: “I was a good girl, wasn’t I?”. The story ends with Eloise’s question about what happened to the good girl she used to be.
According to Mrs. Fiedler, the child represents in the literature of Mark Twain and Salinger an outside view on the world. For her, the existence of this point of view was made possible by the social creation of childhood, something that the author locates as a recent invention result of the decay of the society:
“The notion that a mere falling short of adulthood is a guarantee of insight and even innocence is a sophisticated view, a latter-day Pastoralism, which finds a Golden Age not in history but at the beginning of each lifetime. The invention of a special form of dress, books devoted to them and a special role for them in the literature belongs to a late stage, and perhaps decadent, of our culture”, says Fiedler.
For Salinger, the fact that the childhood was created by social mechanisms that reflect society’s decadence does not matter. The author seems to place children in a individual “golden phase” in which people used to have more sincere feelings.
In “The Catcher in the Rye”, the narrator explains the title of the book as the protagonist’s attempt to save people from getting old. In the same manner that he panics when he sees a curse written in her sister’s school wall and then he erases it as if that would prevent the children to get in touch with adulthood’s hostility, full of curses and profanities, Holden says that he would like to be a catcher in the rye. That means: someone who is supposed to save the kids from the abyss [representing, here, the loss of innocence].
“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like — ”
“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.
What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Anyway, the book’s title, just like Holden’s ideas, are based on a mistake: the poem – like real life – does not say “if a body catch a body comin’ through the rye”, but, instead, “if a body meet a body coming through the rye”. People do not save people, they just meet briefly.