How Characters Interact with Society Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

J.D. Salinger: How the Characters in His Books Interact With Society of the Time in Which They Were Written

The objective of this study is to examine the writings of J.D. Salinger. In addition, this study will examine how the characters of Salinger in his books interacted with society of the time in which they were written. J.D. Salinger's characters interacted with the society of that time through drawing the society into the stories and becoming a part of the daily lives of those who read Salinger's books.

One of the most popular works of J.D. Salinger is a 1951 novel entitled "The Catcher in the Rye." This book was an adult publication originally, that has since become a favorite of teenaged and adolescent readers. Salinger's characters became almost a well-known friend to readers of his books. For example, when the book entitled "Hapworth" was published by Salinger in 1924, Malcolm (2013) reports that this "very long and very strange story…was greeted with unhappy even embarrassed silence." (p.1)

Salinger did not miss a punch in his works whether he was making the readers love him, resent him, or even as was in the case of some of his works reported as being "seriously annoying." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1) In 1961, Salinger published 'Franny' and 'Zooey' and it is reported that "a flood of pent-up resentment was released." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1) Alfred Kazin, stated in an essay reported as "sardonically entitled 'J.D. Salinger: Everybody's Favorite' that Salinger would be "relegated to the margins of literature for doting on the 'horribly precocious' Glasses. I am sorry to have to use the word 'cute in respect to Salinger… but there is absolutely no other words that for me so accurately typifies the self-conscious charm and prankishness of his own writing and his extraordinary cherishing of his favorite Glass characters." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1)

Salinger's work 'Zooey' is a story about the two youngest of the Glass children, Franny and Zooey. This story takes place in a large New York apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Salinger's use of places in New York that are easy to recognize is stated in the work of Malcolm to "give the work a deceptive surface realism that obscures its fundamental fantastic character" and this is enabled by Salinger's "ear for colloquial speech." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1) Franny, a book that lays the way for Zooey illustrates the "alien outer world" in which the character struggles "against her antipathy to her boyfriend Lane Coutell." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1)

Malcolm states that the mother and daughter in Salinger's work "Bananafish" are representative of "the least admirable features of mid-century female bourgeois culture" and Lane is "an almost equally unprepossessing manifestation of Fifties male culture. He is smug and pretentious and condescending young man." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1) The characters in bananafish are utilized by Salinger to give his stories the feel of the Greek myths with a theme of returning from the underworld via the bananafish who "crawl into holes where they gorge themselves on bananas and get so enlarged that they cannot get out again and die." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1) In addition, the characters in Salinger's works are also connotative of Bible stories "in which dead children are resurrected." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1)

Salinger's characters smoke and according to Malcolm "the smoking in Salinger is well worth tracking. There is nothing idle or random about the cigarettes and cigars that appear in his stories or with the characters dealings with them." (2013, p.1) Malcolm states that in Salinger's "Raise High the Roof-Beam Carpenters" that a "brilliant effect" is achieved by Salinger "with the lighting of a cigar that has been held unlit by a small old deaf-mute man during the first ninety pages of the story." (2013, p.1) It is reported that in "Zooey" "another cigar is instrumental in the dawning of a recognition." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1) Maxwell Geismar wrote, "The locale of the New York section is obviously that of a comfortable middle-class urban Jewish society, where, however, all the leading figures have become beautifully Anglicized." (Malcolm, 2013, p.1)

Geddes writes that Salinger "instilled a rare sense of devotion in many readers." (2013, p.1) Salinger additionally is noted by Geddes to have "crated comfortable zones for youth alienation. Youth in turn felt like Salinger understood them, and they venerated him with cult like reverence." (2013, p.1) Salinger's characters are reported to offer sharp criticism to modern society and his works challenge readers to conduct an examination of their principle beliefs. Geddes states that the impression of Salinger's favorite characters "is that of arrested development." (2013, p.1) At the time, that Salinger wrote his works, the sarcasm he used, and the language he used was shocking to the younger society. Cynicism was new to the then young generation but now it is reported to be old, stale, and "hardly shocking now." (Geddes, 2013, p.1) The literary output of Salinger is stated to be "amazingly small considering his reputation -- basically four small books." (Geddes, 2013, p.1)

The characters in Salinger's works are reported to be social critics and when the individual reads about these characters they are made to feel that, they are "on the inside of a cherished family circle. Here we are safe and the phony outside world doesn't intrude. Here we are smarter, more sophisticated and more spiritual than that horrible outside world." (Geddes, 2013, p.1) Baume (2013) reports a review of nine stories of J.D. Salinger and states that these stories are characterized by "smart alecks and hoodlums of backgammon and humidors. Here are characters called Boo, Ramona, and Theodore, who dress in beaver coats, turtlenecks and gabardine suits, who do their hair up in pompadours and chain-smoke "cork-tipped Herbert Tareyton" cigarettes. Here is the landscape of glamorous New York in the mid-twentieth century, or more accurately, the humanscape - for Salinger is never one to waste words on description of place or setting in time." (Baume, 2013, p.1)

Baume writes that each story at its center "is set to the beat of its characters -- to unfussy accounts of the way in which they move through the world and interact with one another, to their confidential phone calls and wisecracking conversations to the cautious articulation of their understated feelings and nascent beliefs." (Baume, 2013, p.1) The characters of Salinger are stated to be chosen primarily "for their capacity to spark potent dialogue." (Baume, 2013, p.1) Salinger's adults are stated to be "characteristically broken by habit and suffering the ruthless cruelty of conventional social judgments and behavior…" (Baume, 2013, p.1)

Just as Salinger withdraws from society, his characters withdraw from the adult world. For example, Holden Caulfield is highly resentful of the adult world and refuses to enter into this world however; something is drawing him toward the adult world and its "booze, cigarettes, the idea of sex, and a kind of independence." (Baume, 2013, p.1) However, Holden resents the "compromises, loss of innocence, absence of integrity, and loss of authenticity in the grown-up world." (Baume, 2013, p.1)

Holden is a character that experiences a pull due to family and social expectations and like Salinger, "his socioeconomic background is at least upper-middle class. His family and culture expect him to be reasonably successful at a prestigious prep school and move on to the Ivy League. Holden can't see himself in that role, so he seeks escape, but his plans are spontaneous fantasies that cannot work." (Baume, 2013, p.1) His idea to run away with Sally Hayes and possibly marry her scares Sally who is more social conscious than Holden. Holden then makes a decision to run away to the West and live as a deaf mute, which would be great since he would not have to communicate with anyone.

Holden's imaginings are "...escapes from reality rather than ascensions toward a goal. The one exception is a beautiful but hopeless dream. When asked by Phoebe what he would like to be, Holden rejects standard choices such as a lawyer or a scientist. He says he would like to be "the catcher in the rye," standing by the edge of a cliff and keeping children, playing in an adjacent field of rye, from falling off." (Baume, 2013, p.1) The disenchantment felt by Holden is tempered with hope and while Holden views a great deal of ugliness in the world around him, he is also able to perceive beauty. Holden desires, just as did his creator, Salinger to keep things at the status quo, as he does not like change.

The readers of J.D. Salinger at the time he wrote his books did not feel neutral towards Salinger but instead were passionately drawn to his work, repelled by his work or annoyed by his work. Salinger withdrew from society and his characters have done the same. The characters in Salinger's stories are pretentious and are sarcastic using language that today is not surprising but at the time the books were written was found to be shocking in nature. Salinger was talented…

Sources Used in Documents:


Baume, S. (2013) Nine Stories by JD Salinger. Little Brown 1953. First Collection. The Short Review. Online Retrieved from:

Geddes, D. (2013) J.D. Salinger -- IN Memoriam. The Satirist. Retrieved from:

Henderson, G. (2012) Genuine in a World of Phonies: Dance in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Senior Seminar in Dance Fall 2012. Retrieved from:

Malcolm, J. (2013) Justice to J.D. Salingers. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from:

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